Steve Wiebe: Donkey Kong Master, Rock Star

January 18, 2011
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On Saturday, hundreds of people packed into a Chicago record store to watch a guy play a video game.  That alone would probably be worthy of an Antenna post, but the fact that the man was Steve Wiebe and the game was Donkey Kong turns it into a surprisingly heated cultural event.

Late last year, indie record store Logan Hardware added an enormous back room full of classic arcade cabinets.  To celebrate their grand reopening, they invited Wiebe, hero of Seth Gordon’s 2007 documentary King of Kong, to teach a “DK 101” seminar and attempt to beat his Donkey Kong world record.

King of Kong chronicles the intense battle for the world DK title, with Wiebe, an unassuming junior high teacher from Washington, as a sympathetic protagonist.  His adversary, “Video Game Player of the Century” Billy Mitchell, is a smug Florida hot sauce salesman who had held the record since 1982.  At the end of the film, Wiebe’s record stands—but the battle for Kong kinghood has continued to rage off-screen.  Mitchell retook the title in 2007, lost it to plastic surgeon Hank Chien in early 2010, and beat Chein’s score last July.  However, Wiebe regained the title on September 20 with a score of 1,064,500—a record that stood when the Logan Hardware event was announced.

The stakes for Wiebe’s Chicago game were raised exponentially, though, when Chien’s DK score of 1,068,000 was verified as the new record on January 10.  Now, less than a week later, everyman hero Wiebe wasn’t playing to beat himself—but to reclaim his title.

According to an email from Logan Hardware, 150 people RSVPed to watch Wiebe’s first record attempt on Saturday.  It was clear, though, as the line snaked out the door, that significantly more showed up.  Most were under 30 and apparently unfamiliar with the basic gameplay of Donkey Kong.  I did a lot of explaining what Wiebe was doing—how many lives were left, how many levels there were before the infamous “kill screen” (the rarely seen end of the game, where the on-screen graphics morph into code), how scoring worked, even the fact that the conveyer belt board was supposed to be a pie factory.  While a few people wore semi-ironic retro-gaming t-shirts, they were like the guy who wears the band’s t-shirt to the show: trying too hard. Most, rather, were twenty-something hipsters enthusiastically watching an event they barely comprehended.

Wiebe was impossible to see through the crowd; most spectators watched the game projected on large screens in the back room and arcade.  Whenever he finished a board, got himself out of a tight spot, or executed a tricky maneuver (triple barrel jump!), the audience cheered.  The crowd favorite was Wiebe’s score-building strategy of “taunting” Donkey Kong on the rivet board by repeatedly jumping next to the ape while running down the clock: DK showboating.  When Mario started jumping, there was invariably a sustained cheer, like Wiebe was a punt returner running 90 yards for a touchdown, or a guitarist performing a particularly intense solo.

In the end, he didn’t beat the record.  After more than two hours of play, Wiebe died on level 19 (two levels/10 boards before one could reasonably tweet “Potential Donkey Kong kill screen coming up!”), with 872,600 points—not a record game, but an impressive run.

Even though we didn’t see a new record, though, it was worth watching, if only as a way to think about video games as spectator sports.  Despite Wiebe’s status as a “gaming star,” the crowd’s support, and the high stakes, and our growing homicidal rage at the too-drunk-to-stand frat boys chugging smuggled cans of PBR, the actual experience was relatively boring.  Classic arcade games were designed for short play; the average DK game lasts less than two minutes, not two hours.  Even though there are four different “boards” (barrels, rivets, elevator, and pie factory) and increasing levels of difficulty, it’s a repetitive game, even when played by one of the best.  If it wasn’t for the presence of Wiebe and the world record stakes, the room would likely have cleared within twenty minutes.

In South Korea, Starcraft is essentially the national sport; in the US, though, spectator gaming is a niche event, taking place at conventions like GDC or on the struggling G4 network.  But a retro gamer with renown beyond the gaming world can clearly draw a crowd.  That it consisted of hipsters who seemed to be there non-ironically is striking.  However, people weren’t there for the Donkey Kong per se; they were there to see Steve Wiebe’s potential record game, to continue the King of Kong narrative, to see a real-life protagonist’s triumph.

It’s hard to say what it would take to make competitive gaming more relevant in the United States.  More mass-appeal players like Wiebe?  More heated competition?  Pretty much everyone under the age of 40 in the United States has grown up playing video games and, likely, watching others play, but both have yet to take hold as non-domestic pastimes.  However, if Steve Wiebe, Folk Hero, can draw a crowd bigger than many indie bands, gaming as a public event may very well lie in our collective future.


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2 Responses to “ Steve Wiebe: Donkey Kong Master, Rock Star ”

  1. Nina Huntemann on January 18, 2011 at 3:25 PM

    Thanks for this account Amber. Wish I could have been there!

    I think one critical reason for the lack of popularity of spectator gaming, at least in the US compared to South Korea, has to do with the traditions of private vs. public gaming spaces. LAN cafes for gaming continue to be far more prevalent in South Korea and thus, watching other people play is a much more embedded gaming practice. All the LAN cafes I’ve every visited in the US have closed after, at most, a year. This has to do with many issues including the saturation of home PCs and consoles vs. a model of shared computing resources common in S. Korea, the Philippines and China; and population density and access to urban centers.

    The domestication of gaming from the arcade to the living room in the US, which took place from the late 80s to early 90s, is a fascinating place from which to trace current gaming practices here vs. Asia. Also, another popular form of public play, mobile gaming, has lagged behind in the US compared to other countries. This past December, EA reported that half of its revenue from mobile gaming comes from Asia.

  2. Derek Kompare on January 21, 2011 at 12:19 PM

    Great eyewitness account, Amber!

    The moment for public video game spectatorship was really, really short-lived here: circa 1982-84. I remember crowding around hot players coming up on high scores in arcades at the time, as well as the sorts of contests that are mentioned in The King of Kong.

    The only cultural reference I can come up with that showcased this sort of thing is the 1983 teen sex comedy Joysticks (which, I sheepishly admit, I saw in the theater on its initial release…!), that featured a big Satan’s Hollow duel (great game, BTW) which was projected on a giant screen similar to how Wiebe’s game was in Chicago.

    Much was lost when the focus of the industry shifted decisively to private consumption (via console and PC) from the mid-80s on. Arcades (like record stores and similar spaces) were spaces of community and individual performance that barely exist anymore (in the US, at least).