Legends of the Periphery: Video Game Tsar, Billy L. Mitchell

From time to time even some of the greatest and most prolific heroes in all of sports fall through the cracks of obscurity and are lost to the world at large. Legends of the Periphery celebrates the best of the best among the forgotten, the bizarre, the esoteric and the obscure.

What makes a legend? Often times a look inside the history books shows an ensemble of individuals who are remembered by the fact that they exude a characteristic that is decidedly “larger than life.” There is a certain spectacle and a certain gravitas to the nature of a legend; one must have a flair for dramatics, even a masochistic taste for controversy in order to pursue such greatness. It is not a moniker that comes by way of an easy life and, as such, many who bare the title sport a grizzly, battle-worn interior. Such is that of one Billy L. Mitchell, world famous video gamer.

Born July 16, 1965, Mitchell came into the world of gaming as a teenager first toying with pinball machines before becoming enamored with the advent of such cabinet games as Pac-man and Donkey Kong. As a youth, Mitchell became obsessed with arcade gaming, often sacrificing much of his time and sleep outside of school in an effort to become the very best at any given arcade game.

In 1981 when Mitchell was still honing his craft, ex-oil executive Walter Day opened an arcade in Ottumwa, Iowa, named Twin Galaxies. Day was driven by the idea of competitive gaming and worked to establish rules and guidelines players must follow in order to attempt a record or high score. This same passion would soon push Day to start the first ever official video game high score database. The great expansion of Twin Galaxies culminated in 1982 when Day teamed with Life Magazine to gather the world’s greatest video game players for one single photo shoot. This was the place Billy Mitchell would begin his legend.

At the time, the 17 year-old prodigy from Massachusetts was only known in certain circles, brought to Iowa by Twin Galaxies as the representative Centipede world record holder. What the rest of the world, including Twin Galaxies, didn’t know, however, was that Mitchell was also the Donkey Kong world record holder — a much tougher, much more distinguished title. Determined to make a name for himself, Mitchell challenged Steve Sanders, the recognized Donkey Kong champion, to a head-to-head battle live in front of Day, Life Magazine and a crowd of the world-class gaming elite.

Mitchell not only beat Sanders but he also broke the all-time Donkey Kong record, compiling a score of 874,300, stopping only once the game itself ended. Until that point no one had ever actually “beaten” the game of Donkey Kong and for more than 20 years after the Life Magazine photo shoot, no one had even come close to beating Mitchell’s record. From that day on Mitchell was a rock star of the arcade world. Twin Galaxies was able to use Mitchell as competitive gaming’s poster boy and his reputation grew exponentially because of it.

Outside his life in gaming, Mitchell inherited the family business when in the mid-1980s his parents made him the manager and owner of the “Rickey’s World Famous Restaurant” and “Rickey’s World Famous Hot Sauces” chain. For years, the world champion gamer made a good living selling both his image and his hot sauce.

Never one to simply ride into the sunset, Mitchell made a triumphant return to the video game scene in 1999 when he became the first person to play a perfect game of Pac-man. With only one quarter, Mitchell achieved a score of 3,333,360, the most possible within the confines of the game itself. Having laid claim to approximately five major world records by the time of his Pac-man achievement, Mitchell was awarded the title “Video Game Player of the Century” at that year’s Tokyo Game Show.

But apart from the fame and the status, Billy Mitchell also has a dark side. Like many competitive gamers, the world saw the worst come out of Mitchell in 2005 when up-and-comer Steve Wiebe began posing a serious threat to his most coveted Donkey Kong title. Having rarely ever had to defend his crown jewel, Mitchell pulled out all stops in a Rick Flair-esque show of unsportsmanlike conduct ensuring Wiebe’s name would not trump his own as the king of Kong. By 2007, everything short of an eye poke and a low blow was needed from Mitchell to retain his title and secure a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. It is his attitude toward competition that makes Mitchell such a legendary figure as well as a dark, twisted soul.

Mitchell currently lives in Hollywood, Fla. with his wife and two children, running the day-to-day business of the hot sauce empire. In a 2006 MTV interview Mitchell, named one of the top 10 most influential gamers of all time, hinted about a secret desire to achieve a record that would top even his greatest accomplishments to date.

“What it is I actually plan on doing,” said Mitchell, “I haven’t shared with anybody. But what [ . . . ] I’m going to do will be the final chapter in the world of competitive video game playing for me.”

Until the time that his final feat of video game greatness is revealed the world will look on with suspense. Let’s just hope whatever Mitchell’s final record turns out to be that nobody else tries to break it.