After starting his career with international acclaim and the title of “Player of the Century,” Billy Mitchell once seemed like a gaming icon too sure to fail. Back in the ‘80s, Mitchell made a name for himself when he claimed the title of Donkey Kong world champion; however, Mitchell wouldn’t return to public consciousness until the 2007 documentary King of Kong revealed a darker side of the retro-gamer’s character. Following a public outcry, Mitchell was stripped of his world title in 2018. Here’s a look at one of the most notorious baddies in esports history.
As the old saying goes, ‘you either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.’ Well, at the start, Billy Mitchell was nothing if not a hero. It’s sometimes hard to remember that although the gaming and esports industry of today first took root in the early 2000s, the roots of pro gaming stretch back much farther, to the days when arcade games were king. It’s back in these early days of gaming, the ‘80s, that Billy Mitchell first started to make his name.
In 1982, at a photo shoot for Life Magazine, 17-year-old Bill Mitchell broke the world record for Donkey Kong, scoring 886,900 points. In 1999, 19 years after the game’s 1980 debut, Mitchell would be the first person to ever complete a perfect game in Pac-Man. According to a piece on Mitchell for ggnoob.com, this is something that only seven other people in the world have been able to do since, at least as of 2019. It’s no wonder that the same year Mitchell achieved his perfect score, Namco would dub him the ‘Video Game Player of the Century’ at the ‘99 Tokyo Game Show.
Over the years, Mitchell would proceed to build a resume of records and big scores on games such as Ms. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong Jr., BurgerTime, and Centipede. He was a rockstar of gaming, establishing a persona known for being overly confident and braggadocios. It would seem that, along with his skill, his attitude would make him notorious throughout the world of gaming.
At the time, gaming was a much more niche market. As the industry and marketplace of gaming and esports became increasingly mainstream, Mitchell drew new attention by way of a documentary that would ultimately subvert his narrative in ways that are still unfolding decades later. 2007’s King of Kong: a Fist Full of Quarters is a documentary following a man named Steve Wiebe, who threatened Mitchell’s record by achieving a Donkey Kong score of 1,006,600, the first score to reach over a million. After an investigation by Mitchell and Twin Galaxies—the official supplier of video game records to Guinness World Records—concluded that Wiebe’s game cabinet may have been tampered with, his score was disregarded, allowing Mitchell to submit a tape of himself scoring 1,047,200 points and securing the World Record for himself.
The movie ultimately does little aside from portray Mitchell as the defacto villain of the story. His cocky attitude and big-dog status undermined the everyman position Wiebe filled as the documentary narrative’s protagonist. However, if gaming was a niche in the ‘80s and ‘90s, by the time King of Kong hit the big screen, the gaming industry had started to change. With the advent of the internet and message boards, scrutiny and public opinion had intensified. Mitchell’s less-than-favorable portrayal in a documentary that went on to be successful beyond the bubble of the gaming world would ultimately lead people to take a second look at the tape he used to secure his record.
Apparently, a number of dubious circumstances surrounding the VHS tape Mitchell provided to Twin Galaxies led many to believe that he had actually cheated to achieve his record-setting score. In fact, enough doubt and uncertainty was raised with regards to whether or not Mitchell had garnered his score on an arcade cabinet version of Donkey Kong or an emulator that, in 2018, Twin Galaxies revoked his record, causing the Guinness World Records to revoke his titles as well.
For most, such a fall from grace would be a humbling experience. Not so for Mitchell. Despite being despised by many in the gaming community, Mitchell’s trademark self-assuredness has continued to serve him well. In a recent interview with Tom Regan for Tech Radar, Mitchell makes it clear that he’s fine with his ‘villain’ status, saying, “Ask anybody to name a character from Star Wars, they’re gonna say Darth Vader … The bad guys just have more fun.”
However, if Mitchell is okay being cast as the villain, one thing he is not okay with is being designated a cheater. In fact, he filed a lawsuit regarding a cartoon character based on him in Cartoon Network’s Regular Show because that character was depicted as a cheater. He also sued Twin Galaxies for libel. Ultimately, Guinness reinstated Mitchell’s record, though Twin Galaxies removed his scores from their leaderboards and banned him from submitting scores in the future.
While some believe in the veracity of Mitchell’s records, others send him plenty of vitriol, whole-heartedly writing him off as a cheater. However, regardless of whether or not Mitchell’s Donkey Kong records are valid, he is still an amazingly accomplished gamer with various other records under his belt. And, for as much documentary-worthy drama he’s brought to the world of gaming, there is one thing that Billy Mitchell believes in: the idea that the value of gaming lies in its players.
For as long as he’s been in the industry, Mitchell has been an advocate for the organization of esports. As Mitchell told Tech Radar, “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.” For Mitchell, the most important thing is that the players get the respect they deserve. As far as he’s concerned, “The players are the people who make games interesting. Video games? They’re just a business – nothing else – esports is what makes it a passion.”
If nothing else can be said about Billy Mitchell, one of the most mythic and polarizing figures in the history of esports and gaming, it must be acknowledged that the man has passion. Even if you don’t give him his record, his titles, or his own documentary, you’ve got to give him that.