The Kong Off Q & A

This post is for the outsiders—those of you who are not of this world, but will be visiting it this weekend.

If you want to understand the Kong Off 2, how you should enjoy it, what you should expect, and why it's happening, this should get you started.

How Does the Tournament Work?

The format for the Kong Off 2 is simple: Twelve invited players, each with his own machine, will play Donkey Kong for two days. Anyone else who wishes to play can pay a $30 entry fee and play in rotation on one of four "wildcard" machines.

At the end of the weekend, the best score for each player will be determined, and (sponsor-contributed) prize money will be awarded. Three spots pay: 1st gets $2,000, 2nd $500, and 3rd $250.

Invited players were determined based on meeting either of two qualifying requirements: a verified game with a final score of at least 1 million points, or a top 3 finish at the first Kong Off.

How Should I Spectate?

If you think that the prospect of watching a dozen guys hammering away at a row of Donkey Kong machines sounds boring, I won't tell you that you're wrong. That is, unless you know what to look for. Then it becomes somewhat less boring.

Do you know what the "Taunt Trick" is?
Get ready for two thrilling days of it!

Building a big Donkey Kong score is a lot like knitting a sweater. The gameplay is methodical, slow, tedious, and drudgingly repetitive.

Skilled Donkey Kong play also looks a whole lot easier than it is, the same way that great jazz piano improvisation looks effortless, until you sit down to replicate it.

At any given moment, a player will be doing one thing you can see while carefully doing and not-doing several things you can't see. Most of this game happens "beneath the surface." Every minute that a player manages to stay alive was earned through a dozen subtle lessons. The next minute, another dozen.

Having said all of this, the tournament itself is going to be an absolute blast, and the vibe will be unreal. I guarantee that this is going to be the hottest ticket in the entire city of Denver during the weekend of November 17th.

My advice is not to go to the Kong Off with the intention of closely watching Donkey Kong gameplay. Go to witness the scene, the personalities, and the drama of competition.

This is not a concert or a sporting event requiring your continuous focus, attention, and silence, and I might even advise against approaching it that way. Hang out, wander, and mingle.

Besides, unless you paid for a VIP wristband, admission is free!

Will We See a New World Record?

The world record is unlikely to be broken during the Kong Off.

In fact, the record is much likelier to be broken in the weeks before the Kong Off, when everyone is practicing in their own comfortable, familiar environments. [Update: I rest my case.]

Breaking the world record and winning the tournament are two very different propositions. The players will be trying to do the second thing, not the first thing.

Proper tournament strategy will call for putting together a game that balances risk with enough aggression to win the weekend. Strategy will continuously evolve based on what has transpired thus far, but it's almost inconceivable that any player would seriously jeopardize his chances of winning the tournament by playing at a risky, luck-reliant world record pace.

What About a Million Points?

One of the big surprises of the first Kong Off is that not one player managed to put up a million-point score.

Given how much the field has improved in the year and a half since, this is very unlikely to repeat itself, even under the pressure of live competition. Expect at least two million-point games, and probably more.

Will Anyone Reach the Kill Screen?

If there isn't at least one kill screen at this year's Kong Off, I will go to my local arcade and play Donkey Kong in a Japanese Lolita dress. You can take that to the bank.

Isn't the Best Player Sure to Win?

While this tournament is billed as a contest to determine "the best in the world," that's just a little fun publicity. In reality, Donkey Kong doesn't work that way.

This game involves a huge amount of short-term luck. Those big scores next to a player's name on the Twin Galaxies leaderboard represent only the best run out of many, many attempts. You bump into "no-win situations" all the time in Donkey Kong that end games through no fault of your own skill.

It's also true that nobody is always on their A-game. This varies among players, but sometimes you're simply not as good as you are at other times. A player like me, for example, is a complete mess half the time. Whereas Hank Chien or Billy Mitchell are deadly consistent. They can access their full potential more readily.

Donkey Kong, like many classic-style games, is extremely demanding on cognitive resources, and the brain needs to be basting in the right chemical cocktail.

In any case, two days of play doesn't offer anywhere close to enough time for the luck factor, or differences in consistency, to even themselves out, especially among twelve players so (relatively) close in skill.

Regardless of who is better than whom long-term, some players are going to run well, and others will run poorly.

However, this randomness is a good thing. It will make the tournament more unpredictable, and more exciting.

Will This Be a Festival of Nerds?

Donkey Kong clearly has
at least one badass.

I don't want to disappoint anybody, but if you're planning to stop by the Kong Off 2 to "giggle at the dorks," you're probably going to be disappointed.

The current Donkey Kong top twelve is actually a fairly diverse bunch, and doesn't line up very well with the "pasty, awkward, basement-dweller" stereotype one might associate with world champion video gamers.

The lineup features contestants ranging in age from 21 to 47 and includes (to name a few) a bodybuilder, a millionaire entrepeneur, a realtor, a chess master, an ex-baseball pitcher, a doctor, an Air Force veteran, and a NASA engineer. Most of them have significant others and/or families, and full, successful lives outside of the hobby.

Admittedly, there are no women involved in the tournament (though they're definitely out there, and hopefully we'll have one or two on the wildcard machines). So you've got us when it comes to that particular pattern. And just about everybody playing has some "nerd" in them. Big deal. So do you. There will also be plenty of very weird dudes roaming about the 1up that weekend. If you're looking for the stereotype, you'll find it. Knock yourself out.

How Can I Take This Seriously?

When you suspend your social conditioning for a moment, you see that all of the sports and games we compete at are pretty silly-looking. We're just used to them.

The man running down the field with the pig skin, the two players moving the little black and white pieces around on the board, the old ladies crossing off numbers on their cards and screaming "BINGO!"

None of this is any less ridiculous than the guys moving sticks and hitting buttons to make the little man on the screen jump over the barrels.

Donkey Kong players have an additional layer of resistance to get through, in that it's a video game, which comes with ingrained associations about the nature, intent, and value of playing video games.

But think about this: in the year 2000, most people looked at poker as something you played with your friends and family around the kitchen table, would have thought organized competitive poker to be a bizarre concept, and they'd laugh in your face if you'd suggested the idea of watching it on television.

It's now only twelve years later, and millions follow broadcasts of the World Series of Poker, enjoying the game and its stars no less than they do the World Series of baseball.

I'm sure even baseball, played in the form of organized competition, seemed funny to society when it was first coming about almost two centuries ago. Starcraft being a national sport in South Korea is weird to us, but not to South Koreans. Bowling, pool, you name it, they all began in the same place.

All games and sports go through that awkward phase, until they're eventually legitmized by cultural consensus.

Competitive video gaming might be closer than we think. This is very rapidly reaching that magical tipping point where it's "a thing because it's a thing" and society stops questioning it. With Donkey Kong in particular, there are enough people playing now, and enough ink and celluloid has been devoted to it, that the societal smirk is becoming a straighter face.

But... This Game is 30 Years Old!

"These poor, sad losers need to move on. They're stuck in the eighties!"

It's one of several prepackaged smug remarks that often came up when condescending, insufferable film critics each took a turn to throw in their two cents about The King of Kong. Because, of course, a horde of interchangeable movie reviewers do so much more for society than video gamers. Why, each one might have the influence to singlehandedly move the Tomatometer up or down by as much as two percent!

(See? We can be ignorant and unfair about you too.)

Whoah... stuck in the 1940's much??

Scrabble was released 64 years ago. Chess is hundreds of years old.

We still play those games because they're great at what they do. In the case of classic arcade games, we can't "move on" to modern games because what's modern is fundamentally different.

Today's video games don't offer the open-ended challenge of testing one's own personal limits the way the old games did.

To a large extent (and I know there are exceptions), modern games are designed to be casually played through, not mastered. The boundaries are known, controlled, and laid out for you.

Classic arcade games are designed to beat you (in no more than 15 minutes), mastery is a route that you have to choose, and you often discover the boundaries for yourself.

A person isn't supposed to be able to keep a Donkey Kong game going for over two hours. It takes a special sort of effort and learning to get to the point. There's no pleasing, lushly-animated ending waiting for you (that the designers carefully tested the game to ensure that you would see). There is nothing but a meaningless, random death because you played the game until it broke.

You can't cry that the classic gaming fandom is just nostalgia, or a collective mid-life crisis either: several Kong Off competitors hadn't even been born when the game was released.

Donkey Kong isn't going away, and it isn't "old" anymore. Now it's timeless.

Aren't Billy and Steve the Best?

It was critical to the storyline of The King of Kong to fashion the perception that Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe were light years beyond everybody else at Donkey Kong, and had a rare and special capacity to push the game to its limits.

At the time, Billy and Steve were indeed significantly ahead of the field. So it may have seemed that way. But even the filmmakers exaggerated the gap (to the point of doctoring the leaderboard for the on-screen graphics).

Even though almost none of the competitors at the Kong Off 2 had the faintest glimmer in their eye of playing competitive Donkey Kong when the film was released, most of them are now indeed playing either at, close to, or even beyond the skill level of their two more famous rivals.

Image: Karl Polverino

It is becoming clearer and clearer, as the top of the leaderboard gets increasingly crowded, that you don't actually need to have magical supergenes to kill-screen Donkey Kong, or even to get a million points. Not just anyone can do it, but the raw material isn't particularly rare.

The last year and a half leading up to the Kong Off 2, with its million-point qualifying requirement, has demonstrated that all you really need to do is incentivize being a good player, and suddenly all the existing players will get better, and a bunch of new ones will start coming out of the woodwork.

Having said that, it needs to be understood that Billy and Steve built their skills during a time when they didn't have nearly as many advantages as today's players, and excellence called upon more work and ingenuity than it does now.

I've written a post on this subject, outlining in more detail what sets Billy and Steve apart.

Why Do You Compete at This?

Well, it's definitely not for the money and girls.

We compete at classic arcade games for the sake of competing.

Pushing each other to get better is a lot of fun. It's also a great way to make friends. There are definitely those in the community who take it too far, or who play for the wrong reasons, but most of us have our heads on straight.

And a funny thing happens when you start applying yourself to one of these games with genuine diligence and discipline.

You discover that, in the process of working on the game, you're really working on yourself. You encounter a deep and mysterious something along the way, and find that the game itself is just a means of helping to bring you in contact with it.

And when you stand up and walk away from the game, you take it into the world with you.

This isn't some kind of abstract philosophizing either. Game-ability often translates quite directly to life-ability. I can point to specific cognitive, psychological, and even physical areas that playing this game has tested and amplified. It carves grooves in the brain. Good ones.

Developing ability at something as ostensibly silly as Donkey Kong both reflects and enhances your abilities at more practical life challenges, as well as the confidence with which you approach them.

Billy Mitchell credits his success as a businessperson to the time he spent competing at video games. Hank Chien often notes that surgeons who play video games make better surgeons. Tetris has been found to, literally, make you smarter.

Games are life, in a simplified, disambiguated microcosm. That's why human beings play them.

The gorilla, the barrels, the man with the hammer, the cute fireballs, it's dumb. It's silly. Of course it is. The specifics of the game aren't the point of the game, any more than the size, shape, and color of the weights at the gym are the point of the weights.

Their point is to apply a force on the body, thereby demanding resistance in return. If you use the weights for their potential to make you stronger, they will.

We push at the game, it pushes back, so we push some more. All the while, we grow stronger, and look to the next guy up on the leaderboard for inspiration. The game is just a mountain (or in this case a construction site) to be climbed.

I'm going to let the "get a life!" camp in on a little secret: you are at least as funny to us as we are to you. You, after all, are the ones who don't understand what we're actually doing here. We're working on life, through the game. And you're welcome to join us any time.


Back to the Kong Off 2 main page


Phil Tudose said...

another great article! very well written as usual. i love the taunting gif lol

Karnage said...

Even though this event is long passed,I still really enjoyed reading this!Thank you.

Post a Comment