I like being involved in weird and unusual things. Sometimes I get involved in weird and unusual things by saying “sure” when I get invited to such things. Last week my friend Dean invited me to attend the inaugural Track and Field World Championships at a local private arcade. Dean told me a few well known competitors would be flying in from California for the event. He also told me that local video wizard Drew Stone would be documenting the tournament, and wanted to know if I would provide audio commentary for the proceedings and interview the competitors.
I said “sure,” which is how I ended up attending the 2084 Arcade in Beggs, Oklahoma with a wireless microphone system threaded through my shirt while watching some of the best Track and Field competitors in the world battle it out on the vintage game.
Track and Field is a classic arcade game, released by Konami in 1983. The game’s unique controls and social competition aspect (allowing up to four players to compete against one another) were enough to make it a good game, but the hype surrounding the 1984 Olympics (which took place in Los Angeles, California) certainly didn’t hurt the game’s popularity.
Each competitor in Track and Field must use three buttons to play the game. There are two RUN buttons that must be hit repetitively to propel your feet in the running events, and a third JUMP/THROW button that does just that. Not only does the game require quick reflexes and pixel-point accuracy, but also maniacally fast fingers (with tough forearms to match). While many classic arcade games only require good hand/eye coordination, Track and Field adds those RUN buttons to the mix. Literally, the faster you can mash those buttons, the faster your little man goes.
And Hector “FLY” Rodriguez is the fastest of the fast, although technically speaking he “flicks” the buttons instead of mashing them, as do most of the world’s top players. In 2008 Hector scored 95,350 on the game, breaking the former world record of 95,040 which was held by Kelly Kobashigawa for 23 years.
But Hector was not the only competitor in town. Jack Gale, also from California, arrived with his eye on the trophy. Gale is no stranger to winning — he is currently first in the world in games like Enduro Racer, Mad Crasher, and Vs. Hogan’s Alley, and holds (and has previously held) many others. Gale’s world record on Zoo Keeper stood for nearly twenty years.
Jack Gale and Hector Rodriguez discuss strategy outside the arcade as Mason looks on.
King of Kong did a disservice to the arcade community by prominently displaying the negative side of rivalry instead of the friendly competitive spirit I’ve witnessed at every single arcade competition I’ve attended. I’ve met several of the people featured in King of Kong (including Billy Mitchell) who have been nothing but polite and genuinely kind, not only to me but their other competitors. Anyone expecting anything less from a gaming competition (hosted in Oklahoma, no less) should be surprised. Rob Walker, one of the contestants and the owner of the 2084 arcade, cooked enough burgers and dogs to feed an army. My only complaint of the day was that so many people brought so many pops and drinks to share that there was no room in the ice chests for us to add our twelve pack. The vast majority of people I’ve met in this circle are generous and kind; in Oklahoma, doubly so.
(When some of the competitors noticed Mason taking an interest in the game, they began giving him tips and encouraging him to enter. While we all knew Mason’s chances of winning a tournament that included the world record holder were extremely slim, it was very nice for them to include him, a gesture that truly shows the real generosity and kindness of most arcade enthusiasts.)
With our bellies full of burgers and hot dogs, it was time for practice to begin. On any other day, everyone’s focus would have been on Walker’s immaculate collection of games… but not on this Saturday. On this Saturday, machines like Journey, Robotron, Joust, and Bubbles sat untouched as the contestants warmed up their chops on the three practice machines that had been moved into the center of the arcade.
As the sun went down, the competition lit up as nine hopeful competitors entered the qualifying round. Each qualifying round was played on the same machine. The machine had two cameras mounted on it, one rebroadcasting the screen to a large flat screen television mounted behind the player and another one recording each player’s face. Additional action was recorded by two or three additional cameras. All of this wizardry was concocted and coordinated by local television media Drew Stone.
After the prelims, the field was narrowed to five finalists: world record holder Hector Rodriguez, Jack Gale, event co-organizors Dean (owner of Arcade Sales and Rentals) and Rob, and Rob’s son Brad. Less than 10,000 points separated the top five scores.
Although Mason did not advance to the finals, he had another job to perform. Mason randomly picked each finalist’s name from a plate to determine the final order.
Although the competition was always friendly, it was also intense as each player flicked, tapped, and occasionally bashed the buttons as furiously as possible in order to propel their runners toward the finish line. Each competitor pulled out every trick they knew in order to obtain as many bonuses as possible. With gamers this evenly matched, a winning score could come down to earning a single 1,000 point bonus.
By the end of the night we were all hot, sweaty, tired, and having a blast. Dean and I, with our wireless microphones attached to our lapels, gave commentary on each player’s performance as they pushed their scores higher and higher. And while every competitor did awesome, at the end only one person could be the ultimate winner.
At the end of the night, pictures of the competitors were taken surrounding the Track and Field machines. The machine used in the competition along with a few additional Track and Field marquees were autographed. Trophies, leftover from the original Classic Video Game Tournaments in the 1980s, were obtained and distributed to the winners.
Oh, and speaking of winners, at the end of the night the points were tallied and the winner…
…will be revealed when the video is released. Sorry, I’ve been sworn to secrecy!
Thanks to all the competitors and spectators who attended the event, and special thanks to Dean and Rob for organizing the event in Rob’s wonderful private arcade, and Hector and Jack for coming all the way from California to attend the event. Talks are already underway in regards to a bigger event next year. Mason is hoping they do; he spent the morning practicing…
PS: If you want to hear me talk about the Commodore 64 version of Track and Field, I covered it a few months ago on my C64 game podcast, Sprite Castle.