It’s been a decade since the documentary The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters portrayed the feud between Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell as they vied for the title of worldwide Donkey Kong champion. The film enraptured audiences whether they loved games or not: the story was as universal and compelling as David and Goliath, and the characters just as starkly defined. Placid, meek Steve Wiebe was a likeable everyman, while Billy Mitchell preened and loomed, flaunting raw confidence and an unforgettable hairstyle. I caught up with Mitchell in a wide-ranging conversation about competitive gaming, his distinctive look, and the nature of truth.
TONY CARNEVALE: I wanted to get your thoughts on competitive gaming, because, in a way, the games you’ve excelled at in your career are the “original esports.”
BILLY MITCHELL: There ain’t no “in a way.” You’re 100% right.
Great! So, it’s been 10 years since The King of Kong. I’ve seen you say that you never watch anything you’re in. I’m just curious if you’ve still never watched The King of Kong.
I have not watched King of Kong, I have not watched Chasing Ghosts. I mostly don’t watch anything that I’m in. I mostly don’t read anything [about myself] either. On a very regular basis, people that I know flip their lid because somebody says something negative. And they say I gotta see it. Click. Delete. Why do I have to see it? Why? I know it, I lived it, I was there, and without the creativity of Hollywood. It was far greater to live it and enjoy it.
When [King of Kong] first came out, I got some emails that were so vile, I wouldn’t read ‘em to anybody. As time went on, they’ve certainly come full circle and I get very little of that now. Most everything’s extremely positive.
I’ll tell you another thing. Not to make you feel special. I don’t do interviews. Sorry. I’m here with you now because, I don’t know, you called at the right time, and you were courteous, and I like Kotaku. They talk bad about me all the time. I get a lot of mileage out of them.
If I got harassing emails about a documentary I was in, I’d be too curious not to watch the documentary.
I’ve actually had people insinuating that I’m lying. On the souls of my children, I haven’t watched it. I had one guy, you might call him a very influential guy, a guy very extremely connected to the movie — extremely connected — question it. I said, well, we could always make arrangements for a polygraph. And I said, if I take a polygraph, maybe he’d wanna take a polygraph, too. And believe me, he doesn’t want to get anywhere near a polygraph. The movie has tremendous accuracy. And it also has tremendous creativity. That’s what makes it a good movie. If you’ve ever watched anything that had 100% accuracy, you’d be watching the National Geographic. That would stink.
I’ll pick on you here, ‘cause you’re the only one on the phone. Do you really think I answer the phone at home, “World record headquarters?” Do you really think that?
I’ll give you a hint — I don’t even have a home phone! That wasn’t a real phone!
So you were playing around, I guess, is what you’re saying?
Let me do another one here. Standing in the kitchen of the restaurant. “Billy Mitchell always has a plan.” Do you recall that?
Okay. So, they asked me questions, and they go, “If something were to happen, you’d probably have a plan for it.” I said, “Of course.” “Okay, well, of course what?” “Well, we’ll see what happens, we’ll see what plans I have.” “Oh no no no, do it again.” Okay, we’ll go again. “Well, I guess we’re gonna have to make a plan here.” “No, no, no. Go again.” I guess I did it about ten times. Bang, and I hit the one on the mark they wanted. That’s creativity.
That seems pretty manipulative of the filmmakers.
But I think that’s how films are made and I think that’s how you create great films. Is it true that I always have a plan? You betcha. That is completely true, what the movie says. But if you don’t say it with the right emotion then you don’t capture people’s attention.
It sounds to me like what you’re saying is that while aspects of the movie may not be 100% literally what they appear to be, that the movie has an emotional truth to it.
Correct. Do you really think that blond-haired, blue-eyed Steve Wiebe could play a bad guy? He’s a nice, mellow kinda guy, and that’s the way he is, and I think if you tried to ask him to do something that he doesn’t have in his personality, then it would have just looked foolish.
I’ve actually never, ever, ever, not once, ever had a negative encounter face to face. EV-ER. And I’ve had people say they’re gonna show up at a convention because they wanted to punch me. But then when they get there, after a little conversation, I guess they sort of catch themselves a little bit. I said to a guy, “Do you really think Charles Bronson makes a movie that they show in a theater, and when he’s all done he goes on the street and starts shooting people? Is that what you really think happens?” If you think about it, that’s the comparison.
But Charles Bronson is an actor playing a fictional role, whereas ostensibly King of Kong was a documentary.
Well, what does that mean, “documentary?”
I think people think that means it’s reality.
Okay, whose vision of reality? The director’s.
That’s a very good point.
That’s the first time you’ve said the word “documentary.” Most people say “movie.” Most people say “It’s a great movie.” I agree. If you’re looking for 100% accuracy, it could be picked apart and mutilated. If you’re looking for historical accuracy, it’s pretty much true. But if you wanted to sit there and pull it apart, you could do that with every film that’s made. Every single one.
Do you think the skills required to excel at video games have changed over the years, as games have changed?
Oh, tremendously. Two things I always get asked. “What new games do you play?” None. “What games do you have at home?” None. True. Not one. But people say, “Why not?” And I tell ‘em how if I maintained the same commitment to competitive gaming that I had in those early years, I wouldn’t have a life, I wouldn’t have children, I wouldn’t have a business. So my obsessive nature, to try to win, to try to do my best, simply had to take a different focus in life.
I see my son play, and he uses nine fingers on his controller. I go, nine fingers, I wonder if I can do that. I’m a joystick/button kinda guy. That’s the first reason [I don’t play new games]. The second reason is, I’m not going to play any game my son can whip me at, and he can whip me at every single one of ‘em.
You can play a perfect game of Pac-Man. Can you tell me about the precision involved? Do you have to do literally the same moves to beat each board?
I asked a friend once to calculate how many corners you need to take to get a perfect score. He said about 29,000 corners. When you execute a pattern, you execute every corner down to 1/60 of a second. If you’re off by 1/60 of a second, you come off-pattern. That means likely death. So, in essence, what does it take to do a perfect score? You took 20-some-odd-thousand perfect corners down to 1/60 of a second. That’s incredible, now that I think about it. That’s execution. That’s timing. That’s focus.
How did you get so good at video games?
I obviously have a level of competitive obsession. If the very best 1% do this, how do I do it better than the top 1%? Everything always went beyond other people, and it became a competition with my own self. And when I actually am working or playing or executing or planning or competing with myself, that, without a doubt, is when I’m at my absolute best.
How do you feel about being perceived by so many people as a villain?
It’s a hell of a lot more fun than being the good guy. ‘Cause I’ve played both. You could ask the average person about their favorite character in Star Wars. Most people are gonna say Darth Vader. Who the heck’s gonna say Princess Leia?
You’re much happier being Darth Vader than Princess Leia.
Well, it’s a lot more fun.
It’s interesting how much of this conversation is about the nature of truth and what is true and what is fiction, and the nature of documentary film and narrative film. It’s an interesting philosophical subject. That’s not really a question, I’m just observing that.
Well, to be honest, I could really tell you some stuff, but I don’t want the interview to go that way.
What kind of stuff are you —
You want me to tell you something with you committing to me that you’re not going to print it, is that a deal?
[We go off the record.]
[Back on the record.]
Are you in touch with Steve Wiebe?
I see Steve at the Kong Off once a year, although last Kong Off, I didn’t see him. We say hi, I don’t express a bit of bad blood or ill will towards him or anybody. And I don’t ever get that impression from him either. I don’t know if I’ll see him again, because he didn’t go to the last Kong Off. I don’t know if his life has made a turn in a different direction. I hope the best for everybody.
What about the filmmakers of The King of Kong? Are you on good terms with them?
The only one I knew was Ed Cunningham, the producer. I’ve spoken to him a handful of times. There’s been times when he’s asked favors and I’ve granted them. I’d say there’s good news and other news there. But you know me, I concentrate on the good news. Very different from what you might think from the film. You’d think I’m a guy who lives on the bad news. But I’ve never met anybody who lives on negative news who wasn’t miserable and rotten. That’s just not the life I wanna live.
The sponsor for Compete is Gillette, and some people there were very curious for me to ask how you arrived at your iconic look.
It’s funny they wanted you to ask me that. Is that ‘cause they’re too afraid to ask me that themselves? I have a lot of fun because when I’m on a panel and somebody asks me that question, we’ll look at each other and we’ll giggle, because the hair questions? They always come from the guys who are follicly challenged.
But I actually didn’t grow my hair any longer than usual until about 1995, and I don’t really have a reason why. In ‘95 I decided to look for a little bit of change. And it started growing and making a different look. People started to talk and fuss a little bit. I’m pretty good at pushing the envelope, so I continued to do that. Then it got to the point where people wouldn’t know me if it wasn’t for that.
If I got a haircut, I would have to show ID. I don’t have to show ID right now. Once I walked up to TSA and handed the guy the ticket and before I put the bag down to get my ID, he said, “How you doin’, Billy?” And he stamped my ticket without the ID. I guess you could say, God bless our TSA. They’re really protecting us, aren’t they? Just dress up as Billy Mitchell and you can get through security.
Tony Carnevale is a senior writer for Studio@Gizmodo.