Steve Wiebe, a teacher and family man who just happens to be great at Donkey Kong, practices all the time in his garage and eventually breaks the world record. Billy Mitchell is the wonder kid of classic gaming, and the record holder that Wiebe has been challenging. He was featured in Life magazine in the 1980s for being one of the top players in the world. As the story unfolds, we see that he is arrogant, pompous, and deviously wicked. Mitchell and a group of nerdy cohorts dismiss Wiebe’s record score and steal part of his gaming system in order to test it for bugs. Due to a connection with Mitchell’s arch nemesis, they suspect him of cheating, although he is clearly innocent. Wiebe travels to Florida to play at Fun Spot, a famous gamer hangout, to attempt to beat Mitchell’s record in person. He does so, but Mitchell quickly steals his thunder by submitting a tape from home with an even-higher score and further competition ensues.
The narrative of The King of Kong hinges upon the likeability and despicability of two characters. We admire Wiebe for being a great father and husband, and we love to root for the underdog. We empathize with his long list of shortcomings and close-calls. Talented and bright, we hope that Wiebe can achieve the level of greatness that he always aspired to. Mitchell, on the other hand, rubs the audience up the wrong way from the start. He makes many claims to his greatness but, when faced with a challenge, he lurks in the shadows. He is so blatantly rude to Wiebe in an irritatingly passive-aggressive way. Everything from his mullet down to his hot-sauce business is infuriating. Once in a while, a true-life villain will come along in a documentary who is far more despicable than anything imagined on a screenwriter’s laptop, and director Seth Gordon has found that here in Billy Mitchell.
Throughout the film, comparisons are made between videogames and sports. Wiebe and Mitchell cultivate a rivalry more fierce and spiteful than the Redsox and the Yankees. The music helps convey the tension between the two, even if they are not in the same room. Montages of gaming are accompanied by powerful classic music or Wiebe’s own drum and piano playing. The King of King may explore a narrow subject, but it is filled with emotion. There is no persuasive argument, no distortion of the facts, or presence of the hand of the film-maker. Although this world of gaming is very strange, the personal problems, failures, and victories of the main characters are not, and they are related here in an unconventional but very amusing way.