A knight rides a flying ostrich. His lance is sharp and true. But he's outnumbered. A half-dozen men swoop after him astride their own devouring buzzards. The knight feints left, then spurs his ostrich to flap its wings and fly him to safety on a lean island of rock suspended in the air. A buzzard dives after him. At the last possible instant, the knight turns and thrusts his weapon through the buzzard's rider. His victims freeze, dissolving into cubes of computer data.
With Steve Sanders at the controls, this could go on for hours. He knows exactly where his enemies are programmed to go. He knows how to make the buzzards commit suicide. Over more than two decades, he has squeezed the secrets out of Joust.
"There's a way to get all these guys to kill themselves if you line it up right. I just can't seem to get it right now," he says. It's a mid-December morning. Sanders has left his law firm to demonstrate his video-game prowess for a Pitch reporter.
In the first minutes of play, most classic arcade games establish at least the hint of a plot. In Donkey Kong, an ape has stolen your woman. In Missile Command, the country is under attack, and you're the only one who can save the cities. Joust is more arcane. You never really understand what you're after or why you need to kill the knights. Sanders doesn't even know if the enemies have names.
"Watch this," he says. He pivots his left foot and spins away from the console, his back now to the screen and his hand still on the joystick. He jerks the stick toward himself. He smiles when he hears the death rattle of the knight he just impaled.
Sanders spins back. He wants to do another trick. He covers his eyes with one hand and stands motionless. Onscreen, a buzzard hops toward his man. He nudges the stick. This one dies, too.
"I memorized the number of hops it takes. You hear it 14 times," he explains. Sanders knows that Joust is a game of self-control: It throws out wave after wave of enemies, and your inclination is to play faster. Smart gamers slow down and make their enemies come to them on their own terms.
Apart from these moments, there's nothing particularly flamboyant about Steve Sanders. He's a 45-year-old civil lawyer. In his office near Kansas City International Airport, a trophy case holds the Guinness World Records 2007, listing him as a world record holder for Joust in doubles. (He has remained unbeaten since scoring 600,750 points with a fellow gamer named Donald Hayes in June 2006.) There is also the book he published when he was a teenager and a DVD of The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters — a documentary, in which he appears, about his best friend's battle to retain the world's highest Donkey Kong score. Other than that, there are few clues that he's the type of man to keep a $2,000 arcade-game simulator in his master bedroom. He and his wife have four children and have talked of adopting a fifth. He's clean-shaven and tall, with good posture and a thickness that he carries well. He smiles easily.
What's not obvious is that Steve Sanders is a pioneer.
Sanders' bid at a unique sort of national fame began in 1982, when he was 18. Arcades were at their frenzied peak of popularity. Sanders seemed to have a preternatural understanding of the twirling geometric shapes, lasers and poorly animated beasts that made up the games now referred to as classics: Donkey Kong, Centipede, Pac-Man and Joust, among others. Sanders was so good that he got a publishing deal with Bantam for The Video Masters Guide to Donkey Kong, which advised readers on the best way to maneuver the plumber Mario through barrels, fireballs and ladders to nowhere, until they rescued the princess. The book is now a collector's item; a used copy on Amazon is listed for $199 at the time of this writing.
"I asked Bantam if there was anyone who kept track of these scores, because I was convinced I had to be one of the best," he says. They sent him to Walter Day.
Day was, and remains, the gatekeeper of video-game scores. In 1982, he was in his early 30s. His interests could be kindly described as eclectic. He was born in Oakland, California, and from there established a series of careers around the country. He sold business cards. He pursued folk music and tried creative writing. He collected newspapers. He was working as an oil broker in Houston when he found what would become his life's work.
"There was a depression in the market at the time, so I was working a side job. I started working on a book of who's who in the petroleum industry," Day says. "I was working with a partner on it, and one night he says, 'I can't take this. I can't edit another page. I have to play Space Invaders.'"
Day had never heard of Space Invaders. He followed his partner to the nearest arcade. The spinning compass in his head had finally found true north.
"I played Gork and Berserk, and I enjoyed it so much. I loved playing video games," Day says. "I went on the road as a traveling salesman and I would stop and play video games. When I opened my arcade in 1981, that was just an excuse to play video games."
The arcade was Twin Galaxies in Ottumwa, Iowa. A town indistinct from hundreds of others dividing the farmland between Des Moines and Davenport, its population of fewer than 25,000 was about to experience a level of national attention that it would never again match.
It started when a 15-year-old Illinois suburbanite claimed to have broken the world record on Defender with a score of 15,963,100. Day heard about it and contacted Defender's creators, Williams Electronics, because an Ottumwa boy had beaten him by around 9 million points. He was told that the company didn't keep track. No one did. So Day decided to start the Twin Galaxies scoreboard. Within six months, he was getting as many as 75 calls per day from people who thought that they were the world champions at something.
"The mayor of Ottumwa proclaimed us the video-game capital of the world. Then the governor of Iowa recognized us," Day says. "It was like Dodge City. You never knew which hot, young gunslingers were going to walk through the door to challenge each other."
Over the next four years, Day sponsored challenges and contests under the Twin Galaxies banner. Most got press attention. The Twin Galaxies First-Annual Iron Man Contest, in July 1985, may have been the most extreme. Contestants had to play their games without pause for as long as they could. Anyone who broke the 100-hour mark earned a $10,000 prize from the Sports Achievement Association. One player was eliminated after 39 hours when oil from his hands distressed the controls. Another sat in a recliner and played Q*bert for 50 hours before collapsing from exhaustion. The winner played Joust for more than 67 hours and, on the last day, resorted to blasting himself in the face with Freon to stay awake. No one made it 100 hours, so no one earned any money.
"I've never really thought about it much, but the truth is, Steve was our first superstar," Day says of Sanders. "He was the first person to find me. He was the first superstar because he was putting up high scores."
But no one knew that Sanders was lying.
On the day that Twin Galaxies broke into the national consciousness, Steve Sanders was exposed as a fraud.
Life magazine was finishing its year-in-review issue and wanted an article on the burgeoning video-game trend. Reporters found Day the same way players had: referred by electronics companies. Day promised he could get the top players in the country to converge in Ottumwa for Life's photographers. Twin Galaxies was less than a year old.
Day contacted every good player he knew. Sometimes, he had to explain to the players' parents why a 33-year-old arcade owner wanted to ship their children to the middle of nowhere for a weekend. When parents resisted, he put them in touch with Life. He wanted the publicity so badly that he paid for all the hotel rooms and picked up most of the players at the airport.
"They were young men with a dream in their pocket and stars in their eyes," Day says. "They really wanted to be professional video-game players. That's what we all hoped would happen."
Sanders drove up Interstate 35 to Iowa that day in late November 1982. He was excited for the recognition and the chance to meet some contemporaries — other guys who also had vanity plates that read VID-WIZ or D-KONG. But he was apprehensive. He had never reached many of the scores that they thought he had.
"The way it started was that my Donkey Kong high score was beaten, maybe by 450,000 points or something," Sanders says. "And rather than say, 'Oh, OK, congratulations' or try to get the score back, I'd just say I scored more than that. And that score, the one I invented, got into the Guinness Book of World Records. In retrospect, I think a lot of guys were lying."
The weekend was cold and blustery. On Saturday night, the group was photographed in the street outside the arcade, with players hunched over their machines as cheerleaders from Ottumwa High School shook pompoms. Another photo shoot with the arcade games in a cornfield proved too unwieldy. The final session was on Sunday morning.
In between photo shoots, the world's top gamers challenged one another. "We were good. I have no doubt we were among the best," Sanders says. "I do think there were other people out there, probably just as good, who just hadn't gone to the trouble to find Twin Galaxies."
Billy Mitchell was one of the players who had found Walter Day. A gangly teenager with a wispy mustache, Mitchell had contacted Twin Galaxies two months after Sanders. He would go on to hold records in multiple games, earn an award from Namco for playing a perfect game of Pac-Man, and be named Video Game Player of the Century at the 1999 Tokyo Game Show. Today, he's often posed in photos wearing a button-down shirt and a tie patterned after the U.S. flag, his fist forward with a thumbs-up. The mustache and shaggy hair of his youth have grown into a full beard and mullet.
"If you want to see the Michael Jordan of gaming, it's Billy," Sanders says.
When the two squared off in Donkey Kong, Sanders couldn't break 200,000 points a game. It was a suspiciously bad day for someone who had claimed to have broken two or three times that amount.
"After that, I knew they looked at me with some skepticism," he says. Sanders returned to Kansas City thinking about what he had done. He wrote a letter.
To some of you this letter will be rather shocking news....
He sent it to all the players he knew and to Walter Day.
"I think a lot of players were genuinely impressed that Steve had the sand to fess up to it and to apologize and to go on with his life," Day says. "I think if they weren't impressed, they had their own egos in the way, or they weren't mature enough to realize what an amazing thing he'd done, to own up to it. I've always admired Steve for what he did in the face of scorn. And no matter what he'd done, the truth is, he could still play better than just about anyone else."
Sanders could still make high scores. Six months later, he would get another shot at the big time.
The venue was the Bayside Expo Center in Boston.
A company called Electronic Circus had assembled a professional troupe of video-game stars as a traveling attraction. Day would be the ringmaster. He and 15 of Twin Galaxies' high scorers would visit 40 cities across North America. The public could attend and play the games, watch the champions and, if they felt bold enough, challenge them to competition. If the challenger won, he could replace the Twin Galaxies player on the tour.
The first show took place in Boston on July 15, 1983.
Billy Mitchell was 17. Electronic Circus expected him and the other kids to preserve their innocence. Their contract demanded a midnight curfew, forbade drugs and alcohol, and drew rigid guidelines on their conduct around the inevitable groupies.
"There was this guy, Jim Riley, who was running things. He said to us, 'I want you to be like the Brady Bunch,'" Mitchell remembers. Because Sanders was the oldest and billed as the team captain, he had the most interaction with Riley.
"Truth be known, we were wholesome guys," Mitchell says. "I don't remember a single one who smoked or drank."
It was the first time gamers had professional contracts. It was a disaster from the start.
The team was told that they would be booked into a five-star hotel. That lasted a few days, until the bill wasn't paid and they were locked out of their rooms, luggage still inside. They moved twice before settling on a low-rent inn.
Riley wanted them to look richer than they were. At dinners, he ordered steak and lobster for everyone. He rented a skybox for a Red Sox game.
"We were at this Red Sox game, and flying overhead was a plane flying a banner for the Circus," Mitchell remembers. "It wasn't necessary — he just liked presenting circumstances as he did."
More planes with banners might have helped. There was no TV advertising, and the players were tasked with promoting themselves. Some of it was easy, like going on a local radio station. Other times, Riley gave them megaphones and told them to walk along the beach barking about the show and handing out fliers.
Electronic Circus had reportedly budgeted $5 million to buy 500 machines representing 42 of the most popular arcade games. Air Supply was booked to perform. A man was hired to wear a gorilla suit.
On opening day, Sanders expected a huge crowd, but when he looked away from his own game, he noticed rows of unmanned machines.
"I don't know if it was tremendous mismanagement or what," Day says. "I don't know what happened."
The show stayed open for five days. As their chance to be rock stars floundered, the players took out their frustrations on Sanders.
"We couldn't pick on Riley, so we picked on Steve. 'Steve, what are you doing? When are we going to get something to eat?'" Mitchell says. "At one point, when he knew it was going to end, he spoke to his dad about taking over the Circus. As a kid, you have big ambitions, but that was absurd."
Fewer than 2,500 people attended the show at $9 a ticket. The players never made it to the next city.
The cost of their plane tickets home, along with other expenses, was deducted from their pay.
Sanders couldn't accept his fate. For two weeks, he hunkered in the attic above Twin Galaxies, home to a rotating cast of Day's players, trying to figure out his next move.
"I still remember waking up in this filthy room at 6 a.m. one morning," he says. "The carpets were all shaggy. There were cockroaches running around. It was like God spoke to me at that moment and said, 'What are you doing here? You're wasting your life. Go back to school and make something of yourself.' That was the end of me trying to be a professional gamer."
He stayed out of it for more than 20 years.
Most people felt the same way he did. Arcades closed all across the country, including Twin Galaxies on March 6, 1984, though Day continued to organize competitions under the name. Mitchell managed to survive, becoming the face of classic gaming. He also started the successful Rickey's World Famous Restaurants and line of hot sauces.
Chasing Ghosts premiered in December on Showtime. The documentary focuses on every player at the Life photo shoot and the adults they became.
"That one, I'm not happy about," Sanders says. "There's a scene they promised me wasn't going to be in the movie. They kept having me tell this story about trash talking back and forth with Billy and getting me to re-create it, and they got a shot of me saying a cuss word I said back then. I'm not happy about that. I don't cuss. That's just not me, and I don't want my kids thinking it is."
He has received a half-dozen fan letters — and one telling him that he's worthless — from people who have seen The King of Kong. That film casts Mitchell as a mustache-twirling villain against nice-guy challenger Steve Wiebe in the battle over Donkey Kong's world record. Sanders is there as Mitchell's right-hand man, who comes to respect Wiebe's dedication and spirit. The movie was a hit with critics and earned as much money as documentaries typically earn.
"It created a whole new wave of rivalry between people. People go insane over it," Day says. As far as Sanders' role, he says, "That story will be remembered and written about as one of the most astounding tales of human nature, rivalry and strangeness."
Sanders is less philosophical.
"That's a very, very heavily edited movie. But I'm an attorney. I appreciate crafting a narrative, and they did it very well. It's just not truthful."
During the filming, though, he and Mitchell started talking about the old days.
"And Billy says, 'Why don't you go after the Joust score again?' And I thought, why not."
Sanders had never gone soft on the joystick. He had always played games, even if not for fortune and glory. He just needed to practice a little more. And he needed to go to Weirs Beach, New Hampshire, home of Funspot.
"Funspot is Mecca," he says. "If you're going to get a high score, you have to do it in public now. If Tiger Woods shoots a 62 in his backyard, nobody cares. If he does it at Augusta, then it counts. That's Funspot."
His competitive spirit was wakened. In 2006, he went to Funspot and, with one of his former protégés, took the Joust doubles high score. But the single-player score remained elusive. Sanders managed only 800,500 points that year, giving him third place behind Don Morlan (who had scored 1,002,500 points in July 1984) and Donald Hayes (who would put up 1,219,000 in September 2008).
Occasionally, Sanders talks about another attempt at breaking the record. He still plays on his home machine, though not as many hours as he would need to commit for a serious run.
One Wednesday afternoon in December, The Pitch brokered a phone call between Sanders and Mitchell, who lives in Florida.
"Steve, I am so tired of hearing woulda, shoulda, coulda," Mitchell tells his old friend. "I am sick of it. So I'm giving you an ultimatum: 365 days from today. You have 365 days from now, and I'll give you a choice. Just like I did with Rob on his records."
"Who's Rob and what records?" Sanders says. He's laughing.
"I bet Rob $1,000 he couldn't — OK, look. I'm giving you one year from today to get the high score on Joust. Now you have an incentive. It's either $1,000, or if you feel like a weasel, a pizza."
"I have to pay you $1,000 if I do it?"
"If you don't do it. Or a pizza."
"I don't have the — "
"Buh! Buh! Buh!" Mitchell mocks Sanders' voice. "But I might decide to just do it. Buh!"
"I just don't care enough."
"Oh, you just don't care enough. Not even for a pizza?"
"I don't — "
"Do you want to wager or don't you?"
"OK, fine. I'll bet you for a pizza."
The irony is that it's now possible to have a career as a professional video-game player.
Johnathan "Fatal1ty" Wendel is a perfect example. The 27-year-old Wendel, who is from south Kansas City, made his name playing first-person shooters (a genre that Day never approved of because of the blood-and-guts violence). Wendel plays these games so well that he has made more than $500,000 in tournament winnings. He has also started his own business, Fatal1ty Inc., selling his own brand of gaming equipment and clothes (Fear this Geek, January 12, 2006).
While Wendel appreciates what his predecessors attempted, he doubts that they would survive today's competition.
"You're playing against a computer, so you can learn the codes and what the program is set up to do. It's pretty easy to know what to do every single second," he says from his new apartment in Las Vegas. "It was really cool and competitive back then, but what I do today is competing, and against the best players in the world. You have to adapt and know what your opponent is thinking and evolve. I don't think competitive gaming really started until now. It's cool, though. I mean, it's cool to hear stories from back in the day."
Day, meanwhile, sees Sanders as an example of everything that used to be good in the world of gaming but no longer is.
"Back then, it was more of a brotherhood," he says. "Today, there's far more tension among those people. Also, bad habits have popped up. People are playing too many games, eating bad foods, not getting out in the sun. People are up till 4 a.m. playing games without their parents knowing and eating genetically modified foods. The lifestyle has degenerated. It's ballooned out of control. It's not just gaming; it's everything."
Sanders says he'll probably try for the singles record again, if he can find the time to make it to Funspot in the next year. But he doesn't worry about it anymore.
"With that whole community of people who follow games, they can think whatever they want. I don't care what any of them think about me."
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