• Ch. 04 - LIFE Magazine


    Chapter Four
    LIFE Magazine

    "It has become a 7 billion industry, and Ottumwa, IA, (population 27,381) a town 85 miles southeast of Des Moines, IA, is the unlikely video game capital of the world."
    LIFE Magazine, (January 1983)

    I stood in the cold morning, watching the players struggle to maintain their precarious balance. Posing on top of a video game in the middle of the street was no simple chore.

    "Wait a minute," said Drew Greenland, reporter for LIFE magazine, "is everyone here? Aren't there some people missing?" I wagged my finger in front of my face, counting heads.

    "Who's missing?" I shouted. The fifteen kids, fighting to keep their positions atop the games, craned their heads around, exchanging mumbles I couldn't pick up.

    "Kent and Matt are missing," someone yelled.

    "Can someone go get them?" I pleaded.

    "Forget them," cut in Greenland. "They're out. We have to do this shot right now, without them."

    "Where are they?" I asked a player standing next to me.

    "The players partied all night and Kent and Matt are still asleep on their hotel room floor."

    "This was unbelievable," I thought. Kent Farries (along with Darren Olson) had traveled all the way from Calgary, Alberta, only to miss an opportunity like this? Invited by LIFE magazine to be in a photo -- how could anyone manage to oversleep?

    Twin Galaxies had learned of these two Canadian superstars when newsmen started calling Twin Galaxies about their exploits. On one occasion, they played a game of doubles on Stargate for seventy hours. But their greatest notoriety was gained when they dominated games like Asteroids. Since they could play forever, other kids never had a chance to get any play time. Shrewdly, Olson and Farries would store up hundreds of men and then, with great audacity, line the kids up and sell them -- at three ships per quarter -- play time on the game. The arcade managers considered them Public Enemies #1 and #2 and put a stop to their new cottage industry, but not before Kent and Darren made a good profit.

    Yes, LIFE magazine was in Ottumwa. Even though a couple of the stars slept in late, it was still a major breakthrough for Twin Galaxies. The most significant repercussions of LIFE's visit had not yet dawned on me -- the players were meeting each other for the first time and forming a sort of zany brotherhood.

    After ten months of dealing with the players over the phone, the video game players had landed at Twin Galaxies. I didn't realize it at the time, but the players were wild pranksters who were now about to change my life and Twin Galaxies' existence.

    Until LIFE magazine brought these kids together, they knew very little about each other. From that moment onward, my life would be radically changed by their antics. I called them the "phone tribe."

    Once they discovered each other, they spent their parent's fortunes on long distance phone calls, talking about video games until dawn. Some players had secret boxes they used to place unbilled phone calls and, at night, would make conference calls with as many as fifteen players on the line at the same time. Then they would do their pranks, calling other unsuspecting players and razzing them.

    Beginning with the LIFE photo session, the phone tribe lit up Twin Galaxies' phone lines every night. This initial clique of seventeen kids would number close to one hundred players by 1985, mostly as members of the U.S. National Video Game Team. (More about that later.)

    But, back to the photo session. LIFE magazine was preparing its "year-in-review" edition for 1982 and had decided that video games would receive significant coverage. When the reporter, Drew Greenland, first contacted me, he had not yet figured out an angle for the story.

    I gave Greenland my usual pitch: a vision of all the top players coming together at Twin Galaxies -- the world's most famous video game arcade -- for a group picture. He didn't like it. By our third conversation, I was engaged in a psychic duel with him, trying to get him to buy into my vision. Then, he called and said, "My bosses are interested. Please describe your idea in detail."

    I promised I could get the best players in the world to come to Twin Galaxies for a photo session. LIFE went for it and the session was scheduled for November 8-9, 1982. I had achieved what was to be my biggest publicity coup: Ottumwa, IA, was their selection for the video game story of the year.

    Getting the players wasn't easy, however. I had to deal with the parents, who were skeptical. This roadblock was solved when LIFE allowed me to give out Drew Greenland's phone number so the parents could talk directly with him. They basically wanted reassurance that this photo session was a reality and not just fiction.

    To further smooth things over, I promised to pay for the hotel rooms for most of the players and a few parents. I even had to sign affidavits promising that I would be responsible for the kids' safety and well-being. Twin Galaxies' archives still has these notes today.

    Two nights before the players arrived, Bill Groetzinger -- an artist based in Fairfield, IA -- finished the colorful scoreboard wall which was to be the backdrop for many photos and promotions over the years. The scoreboard wall was intended to display computer monitors so visitors could see the highest scores in the nation.

    To document the LIFE photo session, Sorflaten and Associates --Êa film producer based in Fairfield, IA -- arrived in time to film the seventeen players as they demonstrated advanced game-playing tips. Then Drew Greenland arrived from New York bringing Enrico Ferrorelli, a world-famous photographer, with him.

    Greenland came with the idea that he would cart the video games into the cornfields so the photo would emphasize that the world's video game mecca was in the middle of a very non-tech, agrarian environment -- more famous for hogs and corn than for space-age entertainment.

    I was resistant because I wanted Twin Galaxies to get the attention and I was also worried about the games being damaged in the excursion. I was relieved when he returned from a foray into the cornfields with a dissatisfied look on his face. He had concluded that cornfields were not the way to go.

    The Players Arrive

    The players arrived on Friday night, November 7, 1982. I didn't realize it at the time, but they were going to require my full-time attention for the next three-and-a-half years. What struck me first about the players was that none of them smoked cigarettes, drank alcohol or took drugs. They didn't swear, either. They were all super brilliant, computer proficient, clean-cut kids. Oh yes, there was one downside, however. Most of them were bored, mischievous pranksters. Billy Mitchell, of Ft Lauderdale, FL, seemed to be the lead wiseguy of the entire group.

    The players selected for the LIFE photo session included: Ben Gold and Mike Lepkosky from Texas; Mark Robichek, Todd Walker, Eric Ginner and Doug Nelson from California; Billy Mitchell and Ned Troide from Florida; Leo Daniels, Joel West and Sam Blackburn from North Carolina; Darren Olson and Kent Farries from Calgary, Alberta; Jeff Brandt from Illinois; Matt Brass from Montana; and Steve Sanders from Missouri.

    My education started early Saturday morning when Joyce Litch, the Twin Galaxies manager, handed me the phone. "It's the Holiday Inn," she said in an upset voice.

    "Who are these guys?" an angry voice shouted in the phone.

    I held the phone away from ear until the voice grew quiet. "Who are you?" I countered with my own question.

    "They broke a bed," the voice said. "At least eight or nine kids got together in one room last night, jumping on one of the beds. They broke it. I want them out of here right now."

    I promised I would deal with the problem immediately. I went into the back room to talk to the players who were already assembled for the morning photo session.

    "Did you guys break a bed last night at the Holiday Inn?" I asked. Everyone laughed, but no one volunteered an explanation.

    Joyce came in again and said, "Now it's The Inntowner Motel on the phone and they sound even madder than the Holiday Inn."

    "Who are these guys?" the manager of the Inntowner shouted in the phone. "I've been in business for decades and no one has ever broken a bed before. I want these guys out right now."

    I was in a quandary. These two hotels were vital to the success of this event. What to do?

    Suddenly, I became inspired. I engineered a military maneuver that saw each group of rejected players traded off to the other hotel. Neither hotel suspected they were receiving the other hotel's unwanted rejects. The switch worked and I got through the weekend. Little did I suspect, though, that the players would also get me thrown out of many hotels in the course of the next three years.

    The Famous Photograph

    LIFE magazine attempted our first group photo on Saturday night. All the players gathered in front of the colorful scoreboard so we could see how a group shot would look indoors.

    The shot was quite beautiful and Greenland liked it. But, he felt it failed to convey the idea that these superstars were in Iowa, of all places.

    He conferred with Ferrorelli, his star photographer, and decided that the next morning they would pull six games out into the street traffic and photograph the group in the middle of Main Street. One problem arose, though. We needed one last game: Ms Pac-Man. We searched everywhere, even calling our competitors. Finally, a Ms Pac-Man machine was discovered down the street, less than fifty yards away, in a topless night club.

    The great events on Saturday night were the high score attempts. The place was full of people from all over the state, who had come to watch the stars in action. The most memorable event for me, personally, during the course of the night, was the discovery of "my game."

    I mean "My Game." I mean the one I had been searching for the last two years. The one I had vowed to conquer and become the best in the world on. It had been in front of me all along. It was Centipede.

    Darren Olson could play Centipede better than anyone in the world. He could whip the shooter around the screen faster than the eye could follow and place shots with pinpoint accuracy. When he played, all the other players would stop what they were doing and watch him.

    I was more than impressed -- I was absolutely envious. When Centipede was played correctly, it was a lightning fast storm of chaotic action, filled with ever-increasing obstacles and opponents. It was a treat to watch, too. Of all the games from the golden age, Centipede was the most fun to watch. Among the early classic games, Centipede, in my opinion, demanded the greatest eye-hand coordination and the fastest reflexes.

    Upon seeing Olson play Centipede, there was no question that this was the game I would master. I went into training immediately. I sought advice and playing tips from every player who walked near the Centipede machine. The other players must have viewed me as a nuisance once I really got hooked on Centipede.

    Meanwhile, Billy Mitchell conquered Donkey Kong, getting 849,000 on his first man. Then the surprise came. On level 22, the game produced a "kill screen,"a screen that is designed to end the game against the player's will or skill. This happens when the program has run out and there is no further code to give the game any further life. Billy was stopped in his tracks at 874,340 points.

    One of video game history's greatest moments was when Billy beat Donkey Kong. The sixteen other players there -- all the best in the world -- stopped what they were doing and watched his performance.

    To match Billy's performance, Jeff Brandt of Bloomington, IL, dusted Donkey Kong, Jr for a 787,400 point world record, before reaching a similar "kill screen" at level "F."

    Kent Farries, reached level "E" on his first man, and strategically sacrificed his men again and again, thereby keeping the play stuck on Level "E," instead of progressing to the "kill screen" on level "F." He managed to grab a world record on Donkey Kong, Jr for a short time with this tactic.

    Twin Galaxies never closed that night. The players made it a night of partying -- which meant high score attempts, pranks and arguing. I was pleasantly surprised when I found they didn't drink and none were violent. Over the following four years, not one instance of fist fighting occurred among the players.

    I can't remember exactly how it went, but they always ended up in heated arguments over religion. One player, in particular, was adept at using references in the Bible to point out which of the video game players were obviously hell-bound. The religious arguments went on for years.

    In the morning, we pulled five games out into the street: Tempest, Defender, Ms Pac-Man, Tutankham, Centipede and Donkey Kong. There was a momentary debate as to what should be the sixth and final game included in the outdoor shot.

    "Walter," Billy Mitchell shouted, "get Make Trax out here. You're a world champion, too."

    Well, I passed up the chance to pull Make Trax -- whose world record I held -- out into the streets and pose behind it. Though kids were shouting for me to do it, I stuck to the crazy notion that this event was for the kids' glory and I should stay out of it. If I had it to do all over again, I would be in the picture, perched atop Make Trax. Another game was still needed, however. The choice was up to me. Tutankham was my favorite game at this time, so I selected Tut as the sixth game.

    Each of the six record holders mounted the top of the game they had conquered. Leo Daniels of Wrightsville Beach, NC, posed above Tempest; Ned Troide of Clearwater, FL, topped Defender; Mike Lepkosky of Spring, TX, topped Ms Pac-Man; Mark Robichek of Mountain View, CA, topped Tutankham; Billy Mitchell of Hollywood, FL, mounted Centipede; and Steve Sanders of Clinton, MO, topped Donkey Kong.

    Then, the last ingredient arrived. Ottumwa High School's five cheerleaders sat in the front row, posing in front of the players and games. The famous street pose was snapped at 8:00 a.m. on Sunday, November 9, 1982.

    But, wait! The world's first collegiate video game team suddenly pulled up in three cars to join the party. A month earlier, on October 10, North Missouri State University, in Kirksville, MO, had a meeting in the student union to start the nation's first collegiate video game playing team. About eight people joined and made up team shirts.

    I introduced them to Drew Greenland who was now packing up the cameras. I urged the team to come to the LIFE magazine photo session on the morning of November 9. Unfortunately, they arrived slightly late and Drew Greenland felt he was already done and didn't want to photograph them. I pointed out their long journey in a whispered voice and he relented.

    They were directed to assemble in a group and experience the masterful touch of Enrico Ferrorelli. It was nice and everyone went home happy, but the photos were never published. (If any reader has photos of this college team, I would like to include them in the next edition of this book.)

    By the end of it all, Drew Greenland was pleased with the story. He promised that Twin Galaxies and Ottumwa would get full credit for the event. The picture became famous. In the years to come, I dealt with hundreds of arcades -- even in foreign countries -- who told me they had the LIFE photo hanging on their wall.

    Of course, now that the players had finally met and formed a brotherhood, the phone tribe called me every night, keeping my life colorful. And I had discovered Centipede -- the game that I would master.
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