You may not remember his name, but if you’ve seen the 2007 video game documentary, ‘King of Kong’ you will be hard pressed to forget his face. Donning a distinctive stars and stripes-plastered suit and sporting a stare reminiscent of snarling Die Hard villain – Hans Gruber – it’s no exaggeration to say that Billy Mitchell is esports’ first antihero.
So, who is, Billy Mitchell, then?
Crowned player of the century by Pacman creator Masaya Nakumara after acheiving a perfect score, Mitchell has long been recognized as one of the greatest retro gamers in the world. For years he was an arcade hero, an aspirational example of how to use gaming prowess to mould yourself into a rockstar. Then almost as quickly as Billy’s gaming fame arrived, it turned to infamy.
The birth of a villain
After dethroning the Donkey Kong world champ during a Life Magazine photo shoot in 1982, for decades, it looked like Billy would hold the title of Donkey Kong world champion, too. Then to the gaming world’s shock, in 2004 an unknown challenger managed to steal Mitchell’s crown. Setting a world record from his garage, Redmond’s Steve Wiebe achieved a score that was previously thought impossible on Nintendo’s classic, kicking off a controversial slew of back and forth score battles between the ‘player of the century’ and this unassuming family man.
All of this was depicted as a ‘David vs Goliath’ showdown in 2007 documentary ‘King Of Kong’, with the film hinting at Mitchell hacking game boards in order to keep his title and even doctoring his score submission videos. Overnight, the once aspirational Billy Mitchell became competitive gaming’s enemy number one. Igniting a match under the gaming community, following years of public outcry, 2018 saw Mitchell unceremoniously stripped of his Guinness World Record for highest Donkey Kong score.
Sitting down with Mitchell (via video chat), I expected one of the most hated men on the internet to appear battered and exhausted. Instead, he looks elated. The reason? After a year-long battle, Billy’s Donkey Kong Guinness World Record has been fully reinstated. Swapping his iconic Stars and stripes-adorned tie for a full-blown American flag-plastered suit, retro gaming’s King of controversy is all too happy to discuss his fame.
Arcade gaming’s all-American anti-hero
“It’s wild. On one end, I get flowers, gifts and marriage proposals,” Mitchell states with a cold smile, before gesturing toward the other end of the spectrum. “Over here, hate mail and death threats.”
Even over Google Hangouts, Mitchell’s commanding presence feels palpable. Wide-eyed and brimming with an almost-otherworldly level of confidence, this chat window is Mitchell’s podium – and I’m lucky to get the occasional question in.
“You have to remember though, that documentaries are still films,” Mitchell continues. “In ‘King Of Kong’, they edited all the bad stuff…” he pauses, with a smirk. “You know, to make me look human.”
Mitchell’s a talker, so I waste no time in asking about Guinness World Record‘s controversial 2018 record retraction (and equally divisive reinstatement).
“You know, I’ve got to give you credit. The other guy who interviewed me asked a whole load of questions, then at the end asked the controversial question. You’re like BANG! Right off the bat. But that’s OK, Tom, I can take it,” he pauses, before widening his cheeks into a Cheshire grin. “But I can dish it out too…”
“You have to realize that I had a storybook relationship with [Guinness] for, you know, 36 years” Mitchell pauses, staring at me. “How old are you? 29?! T-h-i-r-t-y s-i-x years – You’ll understand that number when you finish High School…”
Sensing I’m about to offer a rebuttal, Mitchell’s persona slips, and he returns to the topic at hand.
“I won’t lie to you, I thought Guinness would move faster. They’re certainly thorough – beyond a level and degree that I imagined they would be. When you see something in a movie, everything happens in an hour. Oh, boy, talk about delayed gratification – nothing happens fast in real life! But every time I speak to someone [at Guinness] you realize the amount of work that they put in during that time period, and you gain a level of respect and satisfaction.”
Don’t believe everything you watch
Looking online, however, it doesn’t seem the general public shares that level of respect for Mitchell. Thanks to the narrative peddled in the award-winning documentary, hundreds of thousands of people believe Mitchell cheated his way to the top of the scoreboard – robbing ‘good guy’ Weibe of his legitimate title of World Champion.
“When I’m asked if somebody cheated, I say ‘[The King of Kong production crew] were making a movie, and they did a really good job’. It’s entertainment. Do you REALLY think I answered the phone at home going ‘world record headquarters’? Well let me give you a hint – I don’t have a home phone now, and I didn’t have one in 2004!”
Much to my surprise, when he’s not playfully toying with me, Mitchell is far from the cartoony villain depicted in ‘King of Kong’. Is he bold, brash and incredibly arrogant? Yes. But underneath the swagger, this retro champion (and famed hot sauce salesman) is a charismatic, passionate gamer. Despite his on screen persona, for most of our hour-long conversation, the ‘player of the century’ comes across as a grateful gaming champion who genuinely wants to help a new era of players achieve the same notoriety.
“The players are the people who make games interesting.” states Mitchell, “Video games? They’re just a business – nothing else – esports is what makes it a passion. Arcade games were fun, but it was the arcades that made the era – esports sits in that same position. I think more and more, a greater emphasis towards organization, towards player advocacy and participation in the direction of the sport is what’s going to propel it.”
Meet Mitchell’s (not so) adoring fans
If there’s any player who’s made competitive gaming ‘interesting’ it’s certainly Billy Mitchell. Despite King of Kong airing 13 years ago, gaming’s very own Hans Gruber reveals that he’s still bombarded with constant fan mail to this day.
“I used to do a radio show with a friend,” Mitchell reveals with a cool smile. “The last five minutes of the show was the most popular part ‘hate mail with Billy Mitchell’. I’d read some of my many hate mail and his ratings would double.”
While there’s no doubt that Mitchell basks in both the fame and the infamy he’s earned throughout his storied career, it can’t always be easy being the target of constant vitriol.
“There’s some people who I’ve never met, never conversed with…. and they absolutely hate me with a passion. That’s hard for me to understand,” he admits. “But it also tells me that if, if that’s true with that little segment of the population, I guess what I do, I do really good.”
For Mitchell, though, he reveals that being a villain is a role he’s all too happy to play. In fact, given the choice, he’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.
From antagonist to esports advocate
“I don’t mean to insult anyone here, but, I would much rather have played the persona that I played, than play the other persona.” Mitchell replies, in something that definitely sounds like an insult.
“Steve Wiebe? He has blond hair and blue eyes, he cannot play a bad guy,” Billy continues. “In [2007 Pacman documentary] ‘Chasing Ghosts’ I play a good guy and it just didn’t get the same firepower. Why? Ask anybody to name a character from Star Wars, they’re gonna say Darth Vader” Mitchell smiles, “The bad guys just have more fun.”
Still, for someone who’s seen by certain gamers as a ‘traitor’ to esports, Mitchell sure spends a lot of time advocating for it. As one of the earliest rockstars of esports, Mitchell reveals that he says it as his mission to keep advocating until competitive gaming gets the respect that it deserves.
“For many years, I advocated that in esports, the organization of it was so important. In bowling there’s leagues, there’s players. It’s broadcast. All of it happens because it’s organized. And the players who participate in it are respected. I always thought that that was going to be what would catapult video games in a direction that is as organized as any form of football or baseball or basketball. And more and more as the years go on, it has become more organized into the big esports you see now.”
Despite stubbornly sticking to the retro games that made him a champion, Mitchell reveals he has the utmost respect for modern esports… while unironically comparing himself to the ‘Wright Brothers’ along the way.
“[esports is] absolutely something that I respect and I embrace, because it’s the evolution of what it was in the beginning. If by chance you ever had the Wright brothers here, and you said, ’Gee, what do you think of rockets?’ I mean, that’s obviously out of their league. But they would embrace it because they were a part of what helped form that.”
The evolution of esports
“Never could I imagine that esports would have come to where it is today,” reflects Mitchell, “I mean, that you would sit here and play esports on your couch, in your jammies, against somebody on the other side of the world, who’s an executive in their office on their lunch break? I mean, that’s just absurd. In the ‘80s, that wouldn’t have even made a sci-fi movie.”
With Alan Rickman famously getting abuse in the street after his role as Die Hard’s Hans Gruber, I ask whether competitive gaming’s most controversial figure shares the same fate:
“I never, ever have a negative reaction face to face…” Mitchell replies. “You know, on social media when you get that guy who’s 40 years old in his basement who lives with his mother? Who the last time he showered was around the time I did the perfect Pac-Man score? Yeah, those guys are just tough guys behind the keyboard. And there’s nothing you can do to reach them. So, I just have fun with it.”
Despite the (very) vocal minority giving him constant grief online, Mitchell reveals that most of his fan interactions are overwhelmingly positive, be it when he meets the public at conventions or even just when he’s popping out to grab some groceries.
“There’s never a day that I go out in public and people don’t recognize me or say hello or whatever. Never. It’s been years and I appreciate it. I always promised myself I would never un-appreciate it.”
“I still get death threats, marriage proposals – all of them,” Mitchell shrugs, “But with all the people and events that I’ve done in an effort to help push and advocate for competitive gaming and such… If being a bad guy in the movies, if having fun in that characterization helps to further that goal. Well, then, I’m happy to do it.”
Billy Mitchell will be taking part in a Pacman competition on retro streaming platform, Antstream for the game’s 40th anniversary. You can find more info, here.