When the documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters was released in 2007, it pulled back the curtain on a subculture that few knew existed: an insular community of gamers that lived to set video game world records.
The members of this community were holdovers and nostalgia seekers from the arcade golden age of the late ‘70s and ‘80s, when video games were still curiosities to the mainstream public. And the most notorious player from this era was Billy Mitchell, a hot sauce salesman with a bad mullet and a smug attitude (or so the documentary characterized him). He was also a world record holder—the first person to attain a perfect game on Pac-Man—and up until the mid ‘00s Mitchell was the (nearly unchallenged, save by one player named Tim Sczerby) Donkey Kong arcade champion, his best run totaling 939,900 points.
But then—as the beloved film documented—lovable hard luck case and high school math teacher Steve Wiebe broke the world record. It was an epic tale of nepotism, betrayal, and self-worth that pitted an arrogant, insulated king (Mitchell) against an overmatched, conspired-against underdog (Wiebe). There were even loyal subjects of Mitchell—Hands of the King like Brian Kuh—who apparently disliked Wiebe on principle, and according to the documentary, rooted for him to fail.
Like all great documentaries about niche subjects, The King of Kong touched on broader, more expansive topics beyond the immediate subject matter. One of the main themes was the power of the solitary individual. Wiebe’s pursuit of the world record was a lonely one. He practiced and played mostly alone in his garage; any public attempt for the world record was special and noteworthy. And in their limited interaction, Mitchell and Wiebe were cagey and guarded toward one another. They weren’t sharing strategies or swapping tricks; their single-minded competitiveness made them natural enemies.
In the post-King of Kong world of competitive retro gaming, however, the apparently cutthroat nature of the competition has slowly been replaced by something more vibrant and—surprisingly—friendly.
CHANGING OF THE GUARD
Harvard graduate and plastic surgeon Hank Chien had a completely different, more positive experience. Inspired by watching The King of Kong, Chien first started playing the game on his home computer before graduating to a real arcade machine at Brooklyn’s Barcade. It was through Barcade that he met up with a player named Ben “The Crusher” Falls, who got him even more involved with the online community. He bought a personal arcade machine and practiced on it at home for hours at a time.
Then, on Feb. 26, 2010, the moment of truth arrived: a snowstorm hit New York, giving the doctor all the time he needed to play Donkey Kong. He broke Wiebe’s arcade world record for the first time, with a score of 1,061,700.
“A lot of the reason why I stuck with Donkey Kong and broke the world record is because I met some great people during the process,” Chien told me. “There was teamwork; everyone was doing the best that they could, and everyone was helping each other.”
“I think that culture developed after the documentary,” said Chien. “It inspired a new generation of players who were more collaborative with each other.”
‘It inspired a new generation of players who were more collaborative with each other.’
Halfway through the year, Chien lost the record back to Mitchell, who then traded it back to Wiebe; Chien took it back again at the beginning of 2011, and he continued, through late 2012, to beat his own score and push the world record higher. He eventually topped out with a personal high score of 1,138,600 points.
Today, Chien still plays in the “Kong Offs,” the public competitions where the best players compete against each other to achieve the highest scores. He is not, however, currently training for a world record. All told, Chien held onto the arcade record for close to four years before losing it to a competitor named Robbie Lakeman in 2014.
Lakeman began his own Donkey Kong journey in 2012. He and several of his friends would go to Funspot Arcade in Laconia, N.H.—the same arcade where segments of The King of Kong were filmed—to play on Sundays. What started as an innocent bar bet became a journey that would eventually lead to Lakeman’s own world record.
It took a lot of dedication. When Lakeman first started angling for the record, he went to Funspot approximately two to three times a week for up to six hours at a time. On more extreme days, he could play for up to ten hours. Lakeman was taking online courses for his Master’s degree at the time, and he would sometimes bring his laptop with him to the play sessions.
He had to assert himself to get play time. The Donkey Kong arcade machine was very popular; everyone who saw The King of Kong wanted to play on the machine where the Mitchell-versus-Wiebe drama took place. Lakeman remembers one kid who actively rooted against him just so he could have a turn.
Even though the online community existed when Chien was in his prime, it was tiddlywinks compared to the organized depth of knowledge that exists today. Lakeman is an active member of an online Donkey Kong community called donkeykongforum.com, and he enjoys the friendly, group-oriented nature of the current crop of competitors. They motivate each other to increasingly higher levels of success; posters will start new threads about basic and advanced strategies, and people who know how to read the code of the game will post about their latest findings.
“We’re all friends,” Lakeman told me. “It’s such a small, niche community, so everybody knows who everybody else is, and there are new players coming in all the time. We all hang out when we have the chance. We have the ‘Kong Offs’ every year, and that’s our big party.”
WELCOME TO THE PARTY
In many ways, this is the antithesis to the insular community that Mitchell, Wiebe and their contemporaries portrayed in the film. Today there are lots of forums where you can log on and get involved. Members hoard no secrets—the pride comes not from being superior or knowing something that no one else does, but from contributing to the growing knowledge of the collective. It’s a decidedly Millennial trend—to reach the apex together and celebrate group victories, rather than vying with peers for exclusively personal glory.
This trend isn’t limited to Donkey Kong. The way we approach all strategy games as a society has changed. Take chess, for example: hundreds of books, collecting centuries of advanced strategies, are available to anyone who seeks them out. When you combine that with computers that can calculate millions of moves and scenarios, it removes some of the psychology present in purely spontaneous play. American grandmaster Bobby Fischer, for example, was well known to have hated the predictability of the opening moves of any game of chess. And when IBM’s Deep Blue defeated grandmaster Garry Kasparov in the late ‘90s, it represented a limit to human ingenuity.
Even sports like basketball are largely influenced by statistical calculation; traditionalists bemoan the use of “offensive efficiency” that has turned the NBA into a shooter’s league that emphasizes the 3-point shot over old school fundamentals. The traditional, post-up center is becoming a thing of the past thanks to straight up math.
In the race for the Donkey Kong world record, neither Mitchell nor Wiebe is in the top ten any longer, and at least for the foreseeable future, it’s unlikely that either will be again. That’s no slur upon either one’s skill or ability—it’s a simple fact, because neither has been a full beneficiary of the online community’s collaborative knowledge-gathering. Have they remained up to date, every day, on the latest findings of the dedicated programmers who scour the game’s motherboard to find every minor exploitable detail in the code? Have they spent time poring over the latest findings from statisticians who are attempting to find the game’s theoretical ceiling? And most importantly, has either player put in the man hours necessary for a record breaking score?
“[By not being part of the online community], you’re putting yourself at a huge disadvantage,” Lakeman said. “Not only is there a lot of knowledge that you’re missing out on, but you’re also missing out on the opportunity to observe people. A lot of us stream our gameplay on Twitch, and you can always learn by watching other people play. It’s a faster learning curve if you get more involved.”
“They’ve kind of moved on,” Lakeman continued. “I don’t think Steve [Wiebe] has an interest in going for the record. He might want to get a new high score for himself. But I don’t think either of them really have a desire to go and raise the bar. They’re satisfied with what they’ve accomplished.”
Steve Wiebe freely admits that his record setting days are in the past. Donkey Kong, by his estimation, is a younger man’s game.
“I’ve been doing this [competitive Donkey Kong] for 25 years,” Wiebe told me. “People forget that. In 20 years, if [current world record holder] Wes Copeland is still playing ten hours in his garage, there’s probably something wrong with his life. This is the time to do it, when you’re young and fresh, and the game is new to you. Your priorities in life change.”
“It’s a lot of hard work and long hours,” he continued. “[Breaking the world record] is a commitment, and you can’t just casually go after it. If I was going for a world record, I would be playing every day. You have to increase your chances by the volume of play.”
Wiebe still competes at the annual Kong Offs, but he failed to qualify for the brackets on his last attempt. He hopes to do better at the next one; he’s not currently playing the game regularly, but he said he’ll start preparing a few weeks beforehand. Wiebe does not rule out a future world record attempt, but only after the current hubbub dies down and the record isn’t constantly switching hands like it is now.
“Maybe I’ll go after it when I’m 75 years old,” he said with a laugh.
And the notorious Billy Mitchell, once the greatest arcade video game player in the world, has also found other projects to occupy his time. At one time he thought that once his kids got older he would have more time to pursue gaming. But instead the opposite happened: Mitchell is busier than ever. He still has his Rickey’s World Famous restaurant and hot sauce business, but he also spends a lot of time with his family, attending every one of his high school son’s football games—something he takes great pride in.
“I wouldn’t miss my son’s football game for my father’s funeral,” Mitchell told me. “And if that makes me bad, then I’m a rotten bastard. I wouldn’t miss it for nothing. I worked with my son all these years, and I cherish every moment. He’s seventeen years old…how much more time do I have before he flies out of the nest?”
Perhaps one day, Mitchell mused, when the kids are out of the house, he might find his way back to the arcade. But his competitive Donkey Kong days, at least for now, are behind him. Mitchell still competes in and hosts the annual Kong Offs, but that’s the extent of his involvement in the community today. Lakeman and Copeland—the two current contenders—play on a different level than everyone else, according to Mitchell.
'The greatest challenge [Wes and Robbie] have is how their lives are going to change, and what they can dedicate to the hobby of competitive gaming’
“The time and attention that they’re putting into the game right now, without a doubt, is far greater and more dedicated than what I’m doing,” Mitchell said. “The situation with Robbie Lakeman and Wes Copeland—and their scores—is so far out of hand, I’m floating the idea…that we just cancel the Kong Off, and have those two guys just win by default. It’ll save us a lot of work and a lot of trouble. Other people are simply not paying the price that they are paying.”
“The greatest challenge [Wes and Robbie] have is how their lives are going to change, and what they can dedicate to the hobby of competitive gaming,” Mitchell added.
As for the documentary that started it all, Mitchell claims to have never watched the film, allowing him to remain emotionally detached. He also tries to stay off social media, which he believes is too negative, by and large. Distancing, according to Mitchell, allows him to remain emotionally healthy; he has a tight circle of close friends and very few casual ones.
And though Mitchell now has a wry sense of humor about The King of Kong, that wasn’t always the case. No one ever sees himself as the villain in his own story, but the documentary unabashedly portrayed Mitchell as one. That’s the unique power of a film that is classified as nonfiction; it has a lasting ring of truth to it, regardless of what’s actually true. Clearly, the filmmakers and Mitchell disagree on the facts, and Mitchell was hurt by the public’s resulting perception of him.
“It was a learning curve, and at first, I was totally dismayed, because if [the filmmakers] wanted to create something that was historical, then why didn’t they?” Mitchell said. “Why did they change things? But as time went on, I understood.”
“When you say to yourself, ‘It wasn’t a documentary, it was a film,’” Mitchell continued, “then you can put all that negativity aside and say, ‘This is an entertaining film,’ and you’re OK with it. You sort of learn how to roll with it, and I certainly have.”
THE OUTER LIMITS
There is a theoretical highest score in Donkey Kong that would only be reachable through perfect, inhuman play. Arcade gamer and record referee Robert Mruczek placed that ceiling at approximately 1.3 million points in 2008. Wes Copeland, the current top contender next to Lakeman, attained a score of 1,190,000 points this past January. Like Lakeman and Chien before him, Copeland started playing Donkey Kong as a solo pursuit; an arcade opened up near where he lived in Arkansas. And when he discovered the larger online community, he also found it to be welcoming.
“I don’t think I would be where I am on the leaderboard without the community,” Copeland told me. “Robbie [Lakeman] and I are rivals, but there’s nothing that I would keep to myself and say, ‘Oh, I hope he doesn’t find this out.’ We’re not really worried about stuff like that. Whereas back in the 80’s, there was this culture of secrecy that really played into the animosity and rivalry that was Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe.”
Copeland is respectful and reverent of the players that came before him.
“Robbie and I—everyone in the top 10—climbed the steps of this [world record] mountain, but Billy and Steve chiseled the steps into that mountain,” Copeland said. “I absolutely believe that if Billy and Steve were aware of the strategies, tactics, and techniques that we know today, they would still be in the top 10 today. Each new generation of players perfects what came before it. Billy and Steve were innovators. We just refined their innovations.”
As players get closer and closer to the theoretical ceiling, there’s less and less of a margin for improvement. There may be no more groundbreaking strategies to uncover—gamers like Lakeman and Copeland are squeezing blood out of a turnip, wringing every last possible point out of every level until they can progress no further.
“Every [elite] player knows how to get the world record,” Chien mused. “It’s just a matter of execution.”
It’s ironic—a novice uses a lot of luck, and very little skill, to get as far as he can in a game like Donkey Kong. An expert player uses an abundant amount of skill to obtain a elite score in the 1 million point range. But once a player reaches that elite level and is trying to break the world record, it comes full circle, once again, to luck; Donkey Kong is not 100% predictable, even to the most dedicated and expert players. One can roughly calculate the behavior of the barrels that Donkey Kong throws, but there is randomness programmed into the game, which affects the final score; no game is exactly the same as the previous or the next.
Copeland has a play style that is defined by careful, deliberate actions. He leans on what he knows, and what he can predict, pattern-wise, with a fair degree of certainty. Lakeman, on the other hand, is more “aggressive”—more apt to take a risk for the possibility of scoring more points. Copeland achieved the world record in January of this year, 2016, but it was only a matter of time and probability before a more reckless player like Lakeman pushed the record even higher.
It happened on April 11, 2016. In the wee hours of the morning, Lakeman posted a new arcade world record score: 1,190,200 points, only 200 points higher than Copeland’s previous, record breaking game above. Lakeman attributed the narrow victory to his “go for broke” style.
“I died twice very early in the [world record] game, which gave me a reason to play more aggressively than usual,” Lakeman said. “If the game ended early, I could always start over; that’s how I look at the game now when I play.”
“It’s better for me to be aggressive early on so I can ease off towards the end and still have enough points,” he continued. “It all came down to smashing one extra barrel on the [final] screen. If I didn’t smash it, I would have lost to Wes by 100 points instead.”
Copeland, to his credit, seemed resolved to retake the arcade record once again. When reached for comment, he engaged in some friendly, good-old-fashioned saber-rattling.
“I will [practice and play] like no force ever seen on the face of this earth,” he told me. “It was a lot harder for him to get [the record] than it will be for me to take it back.”
He wasn’t kidding. On April 19, 2016, just a little after midnight ET, Copeland retook the world record, again, with a score of 1,195,100. And it may well switch hands again before this story is published.
The race to be the undisputed King of Kong continues.
Wing-Man Wong has written about video games and popular culture since 2013, and has been published in multiple online and print publications. Follow him on Twitter to learn more.