Billy Mitchell Was A Pretty Magnificent Fraud
"The worst thing that could happen would be to give somebody the credibility of a score that doesn't deserve it." - Billy Mitchell, classic video game icon and confirmed scoundrel
Billy Mitchell, an aging Florida man with breathtaking hair, is among the pioneers of competitive video gaming. Since rising to (relative) fame in the early 1980's, Billy has achieved high scores on the classic arcade games Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Centipede, Donkey Kong Jr., Ms. Pac-Man, and several others you've likely never heard of. He wears American flag neckties and refers to himself in the third person. He is also a magnificent fraud for whom I have great respect.
Mitchell established himself as a villain for the ages in in the 2007 documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, a David-and-Goliath story pitting regular-guy schoolteacher Steve Wiebe against the legendary Mitchell in the race to set a new Donkey Kong high score. In the movie, Wiebe is as likable as Mitchell is underhanded — the titan of gaming is reluctant to surrender the crown without a fight.
(If you haven't seen it, here is my King of Kong review: It is the best documentary. Certainly there are more important documentaries — about war and famine and corruption and murder and outer space and climate change — but none are better. King of Kong should be in the Library of Congress. Rent it here.)
Billy may soon be in for another fight after this stunning announcement from Twin Galaxies, keepers of vaunted arcade game records:
Based on the complete body of evidence presented in this official dispute thread, Twin Galaxies administrative staff has unanimously decided to remove all of Billy Mitchell’s’ scores as well as ban him from participating in our competitive leaderboards.
For years, Billy Mitchell expertly navigated controversy and emerged unscathed from multiple accusations of cheating. It's as if he thrived on the suspicion, preferring to set new high scores in private in short-sighted attempts to bolster his own lore. Throughout it all, the old guard of classic video gaming stood by his side, including the protectors of historical accuracy, Twin Galaxies. And just like that, Billy has been chopped down to size. His reputation is shattered, his accomplishments are erased. They banned the Michael Jordan of arcade games.
But man, what a ride! To stay on top for that long, to keep the ruse going for decades — even if it requires backstabbing, grandstanding, and outright deception — is remarkable. Gracefully stepping aside when the new generation breaks your old records, that's the easy way out. Serving as a washed-up ambassador is for the birds. Billy refused to be "Champion Emeritus", even if he barely practiced the games he once dominated.
The lengths to which Billy stretched to maintain his status as a god-like figure in the gaming community are staggering. A video summarizing the evidence is below, but in short, it includes doctored footage, non-standard equipment, bizarre acting, collusion with shady characters, consistent falsehoods, and intimidation tactics straight out of the mafia playbook. Years-long, coordinated efforts to regain top scores and set new records. You gotta be a real maniac to go through all that effort to stay relevant in the world of really old arcade games.
And Billy Mitchell most definitely is a maniac. Here's just a sampling of his fabulous megalomania:
"When people ask how they can follow in my footsteps, I say forget it. Don't bother. It will only cause you grief."
This is the kind of confidence that might cause you to think twice about siring offspring. How cruel to saddle children with the lofty expectations of arcade gaming royalty. (Billy has a bunch of kids.)
"If I have all this good fortune, if everything's rolling my way, if all these balls have bounced in my favor ... there's some poor bastard out there who's getting the screws put to him." [laughs]
Billy doesn't always have a firm grasp on logic, but has a way about him that kind of tricks his audience into believing his statements are ironclad. Here, he demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of how the universe works. No matter, it's a crowd-pleaser!
Says Billy (accurately) of his perfect Pac-Man score:
"It was like Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. No matter how many people accomplish the feat, it will always be Armstrong who will be remembered for doing it first."
There is a nonzero chance Billy Mitchell believes he should have a dedicated exhibit at the Smithsonian in his honor.
More about his perfect Pac-Man score:
"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."
Execution. Timing. Focus. He's like a living Gatorade commercial.
Billy also claims to have never watched King of Kong:
"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 lie detector test determined that was a lie. The souls of Billy Mitchell's children are now ours.
But this might be the biggest whopper of them all:
"I've been told I look like Antonio Banderas."
If you're interested in the technical aspects of the alleged cheating and/or the politics of the scandal, this 15-minute video will fly by: