Gaming's Top Ref Pays Big Bucks For Record-Breaking Scores
Robert Mruczek gave up a lot to become a video game referee.
He gave up the free time he used to spend playing games literally for days on end, like he did in 1984 when he ran "Star Wars" for a marathon 49 straight hours.
He gave up thousands of dollars after he began offering prize bounties for new video game world records -- and then had to dole out rewards as longstanding marks began to fall.
And, on a cold winter day at the apartment he shares with his parents in Brooklyn, New York, the 41-year-old glances up from the boxes of VHS tapes filled with extraordinary gaming feats that clutter his bedroom, and considers another measure of his sacrifice. "Dusting," he says.
There is indeed a good deal of dust in the headquarters/bedroom of the senior arcade referee of Twin Galaxies, the 25-year-old collective of gaming enthusiasts and referees that serves as the closest thing to an official video game record-keeping organization. This room, where Mruczek verifies video game records by scrutinizing the videotaped efforts of gamers from around the world, is cluttered with gaming systems, a TV with rabbit ears, binders of classic trading cards, assorted fantasy tchotchkes (including a statue of a white tiger) and six different editions of one of Mruczek's favorite books, the Rambo-spawning "First Blood."
There isn't much free space in Mruczek's quarters, but the setup works for him. Since 2001 he has been a Twin Galaxies official, holding the chief referee spot for nearly four years before the workload forced him to take a lower post in December. (By day he works in accounts payable at an advertising firm.) He's screened more than 1,200 tapes, checking for suspicious pauses, glitches and other telltale cheats before verifying accomplishments in games from "Frogger" to "Halo." He knows the tricks gamers might play -- even those that involve a controller and an electric toothbrush.
Don't get him wrong; he isn't going through all these tapes because he enjoys mind-numbing, 27-hour runs of "Asteroids" or a fastest-completion "speed run" of a game that still runs several hours. In fact, there are even some games he won't watch at all anymore, particularly "Q*bert." "That's why I have junior-level referees," he says.
What he does like, and what has driven him to become one of gaming and the Internet's most prominent scorekeepers, is witnessing history. "The world records are the most fun to watch, and I think the best enjoyment for me is seeing what has never been done before, right before my eyes," he says.
He pulls out a tape of Billy Mitchell, the legendary player of a perfect "Pac-Man" game (and current hot-sauce maker), cracking a million points in "Donkey Kong." When Mitchell sent in the tape last year, it was the first time Mruczek had ever seen such a feat -- and as far as he can tell, it's the first time anyone has done it.
He cues up the tape, which, having been output from a "Donkey Kong" arcade machine, plays sideways on his TV. Mitchell's good enough to have cleared one of the game's boards at just the right moment to make sure that the score is a flat-out 1 million. The six-digit counter rolls from 999,999 to all zeroes. Billy goes on to score 1,047,200 points, a new world record. Somewhere in there he has the game's hero jump from one girder to another in a move that floors the gaming referee. "Every now and then he does something that surprises me," Mruczek marvels. "And I thought I'd seen it all."
Saying that Mruczek knows gaming is like saying Stephen Hawking knows about time and space. He says the maximum score possible in "Pole Position" is common knowledge and, as far as he knows, no one has ever reached it. He knows how "Ms. Pac-Man" ends: at level 133, after which the player will see either one, two, three, four or eight glitch screens. "We've never seen five, six or seven," he says. "That would be big news for Ms. Pac-Man." He was once quizzed by a radio show, being asked to listen to someone playing a mystery video game. He didn't just correctly guess the game ("Space Invaders") or the version (Atari 2600). He says he counted the sounds of the explosions and guessed the score within 30 points.
In the 1970s, when Mruczek started going to arcades, there weren't even video games in them: He remembers a racing game made of a Matchbox-sized car, metal parts and pipe cleaners. He also remembers being a whiz at "Pong" at age 5, beating all comers at the Sears department store.
There could be no doubt that he was serious about games when, in 1984, he pulled off that historic "Star Wars" marathon. After years of avid gaming, in 2001 he signed up with Walter Day, the head of Twin Galaxies, to be a referee. For the most part he judged tapes that were sent to him, although occasionally he'd travel to a competition at an arcade or to satisfy a random request. "The farthest I traveled was Philadelphia," he says. "A mother basically put me on a train and paid for my fare to go watch her son play 'Dance Dance Revolution.' "
As a referee, Mruczek got in contact with top gamers from around the world. And while much of his expertise was in the oldest schools of gaming, he found a welcome audience among more modern gamers. "It speaks volumes that what he knew fundamentally about competitive gaming transcended to a generation like mine," says Mike Damiani, a 23-year-old gamer from Texas who does speed runs of "Zelda" games.
In 1999, super-gamer Billy Mitchell decided to further the field of high-scoring with a high-stakes proposal: He offered cash prizes for gamers who could achieve new records on a key group of games. He also put $100,000 on the line for anyone who could pass a seemingly unsurpassable threshold in "Pac-Man" -- though that offer was more of an attempt to quiet unproven braggarts than to really pay anything out.
Mruczek latched onto the idea and began offering his own rewards, initially just for one of his all-time favorites, the 2000 Dreamcast game "Crazy Taxi." In 2004 he kicked what he started calling his bounties into full gear, offering more than three dozen prizes for new records. He was stunned as old records suddenly started falling.
"The first one was claimed within 24 hours and the second within 24 after that," he says. "After 20 years no one had been able to pull something off. [And then] all of a sudden a couple of dollars and, lo and behold, you have a new world record, and a benchmark was established."
In 2005 he and a few other Twin Galaxies referees posted challenges for more than 150 games, with over $20,000 in potential winnings. They offered $150 for the fastest completion (without dying) of "Halo 2" on the hardest difficulty mode; $300 for a new "Pole Position" world record; and $1,000 for reaching the "Frogger" score claimed by George Costanza in an episode of "Seinfeld."
Mruczek says 90 percent of the bounties came from him and will be his to pay out. More than 50 gamers from around the world competed, and by year's end more than $8,000 worth of feats were accomplished.
The biggest win came from Dwayne Richard, a 37-year-old gamer from Grand Prairie in Alberta, Canada. He scored a new world record on the arcade game "Joust 2" and will be paid $2,500 for his efforts. He hadn't tried Mruczek's other bounties, but this one was different. "It was so much money," Richard says. Mruczek, who thought the game was one of the 10 hardest ever to hit the arcades, asked players to not only surpass the previous best achievement of reaching the game's 26th level, but to reach the 100th. He hadn't expected the record to fall.
But Richard -- who Mruczek considers one of the world's great players -- says he once observed a quirk in the game's enemy attack patterns and thought he could exploit it. Certain enemies could be killed with ease if the player just got to the right place late in the game and stood his ground. So Richard bought a "Joust 2" machine for $1,000 and got to work. "It was a full-time job for me," he says. "I played six or seven hours every day." After a little more than a week he crushed the record: He hit level 130.
"I can't think of a finer performance I've ever seen on a title so hard," Mruczek says. And now Richard has his sights on an even grander prize: a $12,000 bounty set this year for a game called "Crystal Castles." The record has held for two decades -- Richard hopes to change that.
These are the Olympic-level feats that make game-reffing satisfying for Robert Mruczek. He raves about the accomplishments of Richard and Mike Damiani. He champions the skills of Todd Rogers, a Florida Atari 2600 maven who has more than 30 world-record marathon sessions under his belt -- each marathon exceeded 24 hours.
By the end of 2005 Mruczek was thrilled with all he had seen, but also realized that even he could be overwhelmed. Playing games endlessly hadn't gotten to him -- but refereeing had. Financial complications have kept him from paying all the bounties just yet (Richard hasn't gotten his full $2,500). And Mruczek still has a backlog of tapes to review. A big cardboard box in his room is filled with tapes he still has to watch, dozens of hours of "Asteroids" and even "Q*bert" lying in wait.
So the bounties will take a break until he can fulfill his current obligations. The next wave of challenges won't be issued until late this year or early 2007, he says. He's no longer working as the chief referee, just as a specialist on certain gaming platforms (although his old position is yet to be filled).
Still, reffing is in his blood, and it doesn't look like he'll be stopping any time soon. "There are a lot of games I'd like to see people submit scores for and there are a lot of noteworthy performances that have yet to be done," he says. "I'd like to be one of the team that actually watches them when they happen."