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Winning More Than the Game: Steve Sanders on ‘The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters’

Steve Sanders discusses “The King of Kong." (photo courtesy of Terry Hines & Associates)
by Dan Lybarger

As bizarre as it might sound, a new documentary about a rivalry between two Donkey Kong champions has been a source of controversy.

Seth Gordon’s feature debut, The King of Kong is a surprisingly compelling depiction of the battle between two grown men named Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe for supremacy of the classic video game.

The film has earned glowing notices (a 98 percent “Fresh” rating on and some concern for how it appears to unflatteringly depict Mitchell, who until the competition had held the record in Donkey Kong since 1982.

Because of the preponderance of records he has won and his lean, determined appearance, the mullet-wearing Mitchell comes off villainously because he doesn’t actually face off against the amiable science teacher Wiebe during the film.

Do a quick Google search, and you’ll discover some radically different takes on the film from gaming experts. MTV Movie News has some particularly thorough takes on the documentary here and here.

I had the opportunity to sort out some of the dispute by talking with one of the documentary’s key participants after a screening on August 30, 2007 in Leawood, Kans. Steve Sanders has been an admirer of both Mitchell and Wiebe and has been close friends with Mitchell for two decades, since Mitchell, now a restaurateur, defeated him in a tournament during the 1980s.

Still a formidable player in his own right, Sanders now works as an attorney in Kansas City, belying the stereotype that most gamers are single-minded slackers. He also may have inspired the film’s title because The Kansas City Star ran a headline with that phrase describing Sanders’ own skill at the game.

During the brief interview, Sanders explained where the film misses key information (like the fact that as of this writing, Mitchell has regained the Donkey Kong title) and why he’s still a fan of both the film and the games that inspired it.

Dan Lybarger: You are currently a world record holder in Joust. Is that correct?

Steve Sanders: Sort of yes, sort of no. Currently, on the individual play, when it’s just me against the machine, I’m third in the world. I should say I regained my stature at that contest that’s filmed in the movie where Steve Wiebe is in Florida trying to break the (Donkey Kong) record, and Bill’s not there to play him.

I’m playing Joust in the background, and I got third in the world. The guy who I was competing against is now the world record holder, he and I played a doubles game. Joust is one of the few games you can play doubles. He and I played doubles together, and we are the doubles world record holder. I have part of a world record holder on Joust.

DL: How far in the process of making the film did you get involved?

SS: Let’s see. They filmed the Funspot (a legendary arcade in Weirs Beach, New Hampshire) contest in June of 2005. And the first time they came to interview me would have been February or so in 2005. I think they had started taping some time around 2004, so maybe six months into it, and it was a total of a year and a half of filming.

DL: One of the things that’s striking to me is that you wind up being in the middle of the feud that’s the centerpiece of the movie, which I’m sure was not a very comfortable place.

SS: In terms of being between Steve and Billy, there’s a lot of tension for me because Steve is such an obviously nice guy, for me it’s just impossible not to like him or respect him.

At the same time, I’ve known Billy for 25 years. I consider him one of my very best friends. So it does put me between a rock and a hard place.

DL: One of the things that you pointed out in the Q&A is that in real life, unlike the film, Billy has interacted with Steve.

SS: As a matter of fact, before anyone found out about the connection between Steve Wiebe and Roy Shildt (a.k.a. “Mr. Awesome,” a longtime rival of Mitchell’s), back at the 2004 Classic Gaming Expo, both Steve and Billy were there together doing this kind of press stuff together on camera together, arms around each other, going “Hi, world!”

And then Billy finds out that Steve have something in common, and they’re working together to take down Billy’s score. And that’s when Billy said I want to have nothing to do with anybody who’s in line with Roy Shildt.

DL: As I’m watching the film, I feel an ambivalence about Twin Galaxies. You have to have somebody to verify these records. Anybody and their uncle could manipulate a tape or a machine. But as a lawyer, you’d know about potentials for conflict of interest.

SS: Mike Thompson, (Steve Wiebe’s) friend, brings out that this thing that Billy’s one of the referees. That’s technically true that Billy is a referee. However, he’s not a referee for Donkey Kong scores.

Other referees do that. Billy’s had no involvement in scrutinizing Steve Wiebe’s scores ever.

So I can see how an outsider like Mike Thompson might think, “Gosh. There’s a conflict of interest.” What we lawyers do when there’s a conflict of interest is is “I’m backing out of this case.” And that’s what Billy has done. He’s not been Steve’s referee ever.

DL: Twenty years after some of these games have been popular there’s still a fierce competition over the records.

SS: That’s what’s kind of amazing to me also is that people still care about these games.

I don’t know how many care. But the fact that anyone cares is interesting. I will say when Billy got that perfect score in Pac-Man in 1999. The amount of publicity he got was just incredible. News outlets from all over the world were calling him, sending reporters, doing interviews.

So it’s not just the few Twin Galaxies gamers who are interested. For whatever reason, the world is still interested in Pac-Man and Mario. The first Mario game was Donkey Kong, the most popular video game character. My kids play Mario World VIII or whatever that game is called on the (Nintendo) Wii. I forget the world. So there is still great interest in these classic characters.

DL: The King of Kong is the first time I’ve ever watched someone else playing a video game, and I was absorbed in how it went.

SS: Right. The producer and the director of this movie, Ed Cunningham and Seth Gordon, are brilliant, brilliant filmmakers. Obviously, if you just put a camera on a video game and make a movie, nobody’s going to want to watch that. But they have made a movie that is so compelling and so dramatic.

And it’s not just with the editing. It’s the music and the way they’ve put together this thing that makes people just literally stand up and cheer. This is the first time I’ve seen this movie when it didn’t get a standing ovation (author’s note: nobody was standing at the end of this screening, but applause was certainly loud). People love this movie.

DL: To give Mr. Mitchell some credit, when I watched the documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys, they talked about a skater who had become really famous when he was young, and he just screwed up his life later on. And yet, you look at Billy, except for the way he comes across in the film, he has his own business; he’s got a family; he’s got a successful marriage. When you and I were growing up, people’d say to us, “Why are you playing these video games,” but this movie proves you can have a good life.”

SS: That’s right. That’s a message that I hope people will take out of this. It’s possible for kids like me to spend way too much time on an arcade game at age 18, dropping out of college, but still grew up to make something out of themselves.

Billy has done that; Steve Wiebe has done that. He was playing Kong when he was 18 years old. I was doing it. So it is possible to waste some of your life as a youth and grow up.

DL: So how does your family feel about seeing you on the screen?

SS: It’s been a great ride. My kids love it. There’s one second where my oldest boy is in the movie, and he just loves it. He’s in the movies! And so he brought his best friend tonight so that his best friend could see his movie premiere.

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originally posted: 09/04/07 10:12:44
last updated: 09/04/07 10:24:27
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