I am not a huge sports fan. So when March Madness rolls around, I usually find myself twiddling my thumbs during the first half of any game. Despite my general ignorance of basketball, the last five minutes in a good game are, I believe, almost universally dazzling, as are the performances of the athletes involved. There are few things more impressive to me than the physical and mental performances of humans under stress. These times of duress are when legends are born and the validity of athletic endeavors upheld. When I witness this kind of athletic bravado I cannot help but be uplifted by it. During these moments I feel embraced by a collective experience of awesomeness.
So why are these moments so few and far between in the world of videogames? And why are they something people laugh at with amusement when they do occur? Initially I blamed Billy Mitchell . Forget that Mitchell may have been unfairly vilified in The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters and forget that the film also portrayed that entire community as little more than overgrown 10 year old savants. The issue here, I thought to myself, is that Billy Mitchell is a mullet-adorned parody of a gamer whose feats of gaming prowess are ultimately overshadowed by his American flag ties and fondness for hot sauce. One of our preeminent gaming legends is exactly what the media expects – a sideshow attraction.
Initially I believed that virtuosity existed, free of ridiculous personalities, and that these feats were long overdue to be heralded for the accomplishments that they were. By now I’m almost a broken record about it, but surely Daigo Umehara and Justin Wong’s Street Fighter III match is as impressive as a perfect Pac-Man game, and perhaps more exciting. After all, you can actually watch the feat in one minute as opposed to the hours it takes to watch a perfect game of Pac-Man occur. Takahashi Meijin’s 16-shot-per-second finger tap and the two-player, one-person game of Ikaruga are no longer Japanese hearsay; we can view them in a handful of minutes and be blown away, just like watching Michael Jordan’s left-handed three-pointer buzzer shot.
Maybe these references are too obscure. Perhaps Billy Mitchell has endured because the game he plays is a classic. After all, everyone knows Pac-Man. But even then, I’m a bit stymied as I recall an article I read in a July 2008 Harper’s entitled The Perfect Game, by Joshuah Bearman, about Abdner Ashman the forgotten master of Ms. Pac-Man. As it turns out, Ms. Pac-Man is a game of extraordinary complexity, with no patterns to memorize, unlike Pac-Man. Ms. Pac-Man is, as the article says, a game that exists in a state of ” non-Newtonian ambiguity.” So it only makes sense that Ashman is a man that “can play with either hand, and recall entire games in his head, and yet he takes no notes, compiles no data and has never once thought about the game’s code.” Now, I can guarantee that aside from the fame of being mentioned in Harper’s, Abdner Ashman is all but unknown by the larger gaming populace, much less as one of the great videogame players of all time.
After reading that article, it became clear to me that with videogames the achievement alone isn’t enough to warrant our full attention. A grand personality is needed to bolster the accomplishment. In that sense, videogaming on a public stage is like figure skating. The feat is so esoteric that without a personality to relate to people just wouldn’t care. It isn’t enough that Abdner Ashman is a videogaming yogi, content with only the perfection of his own skills. Now, the fact that he’s a Jamaican immigrant who found his Ms. Pac-Man cabinet on the side of the road – maybe that’s something the press can work with.
The videogame establishment has tried to create their own heroes more recently with the promotion of Jonathan ‘Fatal1ty’ Wendel as a kind of Billy Mitchell for a new generation. I recently saw a profile of him on TV: This clean-cut, blonde-haired guy who apparently loves to go running when he’s not fragging people in Painkiller. He is uncontroversial, in shape and the perfect spokesperson to address the parents of a new generation of videogame fans. And he’s completely boring.
I run into a similar problem when I watch Daigo Umehara’s performances on the internet. There’s no doubt in my mind that he understands games on the same level as Billy Mitchell or as any pro athlete understands their game of choice. But internet clips don’t allow us access to crucially important details like the fact that Daigo plays on a joystick that he’s probably built from scratch, so demanding are his needs for precision. They also deprive us of a larger context, like what the guy even looks like for starters. Personality is absolutely necessary. If not for Billy Mitchell, and his ridiculous role in The King of Kong, I doubt any of us would have cared about soft-spoken Steve Weibe and his Donkey Kong fixation.
Am I saying that tacky and shameless self-promotion is the answer? Not necessarily. But we do need people like Billy Mitchell. Say what you will about hot sauce and American flag ties, but they make for a potent combination. You can bet that when I hear the name Billy Mitchell his bearded, mulleted visage is the first thing I see. For gamers he is, by now, inseparable from the mention of Pac-Man. He also represents the best of the videogame subculture. He is totally devoted to his cause, a consummate showman and relates to games on a level most of us can only begin to grasp. One-minute clips on YouTube are just that. They lack the larger context and history that Billy Mitchell’s very presence suggests. His mullet, tight black jeans and American flag tie aren’t just a lifestyle choice – they are an invocation of an entire historical era in gaming.
Tom Endo didn’t really understand how to play Pac-Man until he was 20.