A Fistful of Quarters

donkey_kong.jpgFor those of you who think that competitive video gaming began with Halo tournaments…. Wait, did any of you actually know about the world of competitive video gaming? Well if you did, then you most likely know that it began long before Madden tournaments back to the prehistoric days of the earliest arcade games like Missile Command, Centipede, and perhaps the most popular arcade/video game of all time, Donkey Kong. The documentary, King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters captures the always fierce, sometimes underhanded world of competitive video gaming through the lives of numerous middle-age teenagers, specifically Billy Mitchell, the self-proclaimed God of competitive video gaming, and Steve Wiebe, an eternally down-on-his-luck guy next door in search of much more than his name at the top of a high scores list.

As a child of the ’80s and a huge video game fan, I wanted to see this film in theaters but I just never got around to it. Thankfully I didn’t have to wait too long as it was released on DVD last week. This is simply an engrossing film that is impossible not to love. My wife sat down and within a couple of minutes was immediately caught up in the story. Beyond the film itself, the DVD is packed with tons of extra features like bonus footage, film festival Q & A’s, extended interviews with the subjects, a story update, information about arcade gaming, and a great selection of artwork from www.iam8bit.com.

Director Seth Gordon trades off any documentary history of competitive gaming to focus on the competition between Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe. One of the earliest and most successful competitive gamers, Mitchell held numerous arcade records from Pac-Man to Donkey Kong, the game that finally forced him into retirement. Living a rock-star life, at least in the video game world, Mitchell continued to make appearances at conferences but focused much of his attention on his hot-sauce business. Early in the film he describes his life as one in which the dice always rolled his way. As a result, he reasoned, some poor guy must be out there “having the screws put to him.”

Enter Steve Wiebe. In just a few shots, Gordon presents Wiebe as a middle-age man once full of such promise in everything he did. However, for weird, seemingly cosmic reasons, the ball never quite bounced Wiebe’s way. He had above average skill as a pitcher which unfortunately fell apart in a championship game. Later in life, as he and his wife signed the papers on a new house, he found out that he had been laid off from his job at Boeing. To give his life some sort of meaning or purpose in that depressing time, he returned to an old college hobby, Donkey Kong. Rather than simply playing for fun, he set out to top the world record held by Mitchell.

Through his quest to the top of the high score list, we do learn something about the history of competitive gaming, quite simply that it is full of some of the most interesting characters you could ever hope to encounter. There is Walter Day, the founder of Twin Galaxies, the on-line, official video game scoreboard, Brian Kuh, the foremost Mitchell groupie, and Roy “Mr. Awesome” Shildt, competitive video gaming’s bad boy and bane of Mitchell’s existence, and his “Don’t get chumpatized” motto. The cliques and relationships are pathetic and silly enough to rival a gaggle of junior high girls.

You quickly wonder just what the hell Wiebe is doing entering into this parallel universe, especially when he is happily married and raising two young children. While the film has absolutely nothing of overt religious value, except perhaps the cultish nature of Mitchell’s groupies, Wiebe’s pursuit of this title and his foray into this world do smack of the spiritual. Wiebe is up against much more than the difficult motherboard of Donkey Kong. He has to compete against the likes of Kuh and Robert Mruczek, men who constantly doubt his “skills” at every turn and are skeptical of his entry into their virtual society.

Yet Wiebe is also out to prove something to his family and friends, but most importantly to himself. Having once been the object of so much hope and desire on the part of his family, he wears his disappointment, and perhaps theirs too, on his sleeve. Though we might question the validity of pursuing a video game title rather than, say, volunteering at a homeless shelter, we quickly find our selves rooting for him to succeed, even though he eventually moves on to become a high school chemistry teacher.

Wiebe certainly seems content in his family life, and though teaching chemistry is a backup plan, he tolerates it. I wonder if he would have even been totally happy as a professional baseball player or a high level engineer at Boeing, neither of which would have granted him the unique fame that he has garnered by hovering around the top of the Donkey Kong highest scorer list.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (79 mins) is rated PG-13 and is available on DVD.