Olympics video game with just three buttons became an Eighties arcade phenomenon and earned three U.S. teenagers a trip to Tokyo Championships
In the summer of 1984, the best athletes from around the world gathered to prove their worth in a series of brutally demanding track and field events. Or more accurately, Track & Field events. That year, even as actual athletes competed in the Los Angeles Summer Olympics, hundreds of thousands lined up in arcades and convenience stores across America for the chance to represent their country in the most popular video game competition of all time: the International Konami Track & Field Challenge.
Track & Field was released in late 1983 amid the hoopla that was building around the upcoming Olympics. Japanese game publisher Konami sponsored the competition to bring attention to their game, and build up cross-branding sports synergy. In Japan, where the game was called Haipā Orinpikku (Hyper Olympics), it was an officially licensed tie-in to the real Olympics.
People could register to compete in arcades and Stop-N-Gos all over the US. Three contestants who advanced through regional and national competitions across the country would make it to the international finals in Japan. It had more than one million contestants competing in the U.S.A. alone, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. To this day, the event is the largest organized video game competition of all time.
What is it about Track & Field that inspired such fierce competitiveness? Maybe it's the fact that it was closer to a real athletic challenge than anything else you'd find in an arcade at the time. Most games simplify and abstract actions as much as they can – to make a character go to the right, you simply push a joystick to the right. But Track & Field required real exertion – in order to make your tiny pixelated athlete run, you had to vigorously press a pair of buttons.
The game wasn't just about pounding, though. "You rapidly mash two buttons to build up speed before you press a third button to jump, or throw the javelin," says NYU game design professor Bennett Foddy. "You need to enter a kind of timeless Zen state to press buttons really fast, and then suddenly break out of that mental state and enter a precise timing state to do the precision button press."
Foddy was so obsessed with the game that he created an homage to it called QWOP, in which the mere act of lifting and bending the legs of a runner is incredibly difficult. To Foddy's mind, the key feature of Konami's arcade classic is that it's so exhausting and frustrating. "It subverts the dominant video game trope of the power fantasy," he insists. "It's about coming to terms with your human limitations."
"You need to enter a kind of timeless Zen state to press buttons really fast, and then suddenly break out of that mental state and enter a precise timing state to do the precision button press."
But many players, like many real-world athletes, refused to accept those limitations. They developed illicit forms of performance enhancement, each more cunning and devious than the last. They would roll a ping pong ball around on the buttons to boost their mashing speed. Or they would loosen up the buttons with saliva. Or they would use a pencil to create a tiny seesaw between the buttons, effectively doubling their speed.
"I saw pencils, rulers, electric toothbrushes..." says Hector Rodriguez. "I myself used a comb." He was a 12 year-old living in Southern California when he first saw the game. He ran track in school, and was excited about the actual Olympics that would soon be occurring in his backyard. He fell in love with the video game.
Rodriguez soon abandoned the comb hack. Truly great players of Track & Field developed a technique that didn't require vigorous pounding, but a sort of strumming motion. "It's called 'the scratch' or 'the roll,'" says Rodriguez. "You literally roll your fingers across the buttons."
That was the technique favored by Gary West of Oklahoma City and Phil Britt of Riverside, California. In May of 1984, the two teenagers placed first and second in the American finals of the International Konami Track & Field Challenge, which was held in Houston. Mike Mallory of Dayton, Ohio took third place using a "vibration" technique. The three would represent America at the international championship.
Before heading off to Japan, Phil Britt told his hometown paper, the Riverside Press Enterprise, that he was robbed in Houston, and that he fully intended to take the gold at the finals. His mother Vivian credited his dexterity to his learning to play a musical instrument. "All those accordion lessons are really paying off," she said. Phil insisted that it was actually his grueling daily practice regimen at the arcade that made him so skilled.
At the International Konami Track & Field Challenge, Phil Britt's six-fingered rolling technique did indeed earn him a first place finish. The American team also beat the Japanese team on cumulative points. The victors received trophies, medals, and a Seiko watch.
The three Japanese competitors were miffed at the outcome, and lodged a protest about the unorthodox button pressing methods of the Americans. The protest was unsuccessful.
Hector Rodriguez was blissfully unaware of this world championship in the game he loved. He actually went to some events at the real L.A. Olympics – he saw sprinter Carl Lewis breeze through some prelim rounds. But he wasn't aware that his own Track & Field performance could have garnered him a trip to Japan and a Seiko watch. "I had the high scores at the local arcade, but I didn't know about major competitions or official record keeping until the Internet came along," he laments.
Rodriguez, who now coaches high school track and field, never gave up on Konami's Track & Field. He bought his own arcade cabinet and practiced for several hours a day. In 2008, he finally beat the world record high score of the game, a record that had stood since the Reagan era. (You can watch his epochal run, complete with his thrash metal inspiration music and his profane color commentary, above, on YouTube.)
His record still stands eight years later. No one can match his eccentric seven-finger roll technique – three fingers on his left hand, four on his right. "I start with the pointer finger," he says. "I go pointer, middle, ring, pinky. A lot of people tell me I do it backwards. I tell them, 'Hey – I'm the one who has the record.'"