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"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.