Friday, March 1, 2013

The Electronic Circus

In an earlier post, I talked about the disastrous 1981 Atari $50,000 World Championships. Today's post is about an event that may have been even a greater disaster - the Electronic Circus. In terms of total attendance, the even wasn't nearly as bad as the Atari fiasco. In terms of unrealized potential and unfilfilled dreams, however, it may have been worse.


Jim Riley and Walter Day - note the dates on the poster

            Fresh on the heels of the national television success, Bostonian Jim Riley announced the Electronic Circus. As Walter Day recalls it, Riley (then with a company called Meeting Planners) contacted him in February of 1983 (Wikipedia says it was March). After having seen the That's Incredible segment, he'd stayed up all night thinking of a new idea - a travelling "circus" of video games with Day as the ringmaster and top players as the performers. According to an article in Video Games magazine, the circus would feature live music, amusement rides, "a Disney-World-type section featuring a Captain Kidd show and more. The centerpiece would consist of three main events. The first would be the "World's Largest Video Arcade" with 500 games set on free play. Second would be the Video Circus with three rings. One ring would feature the band Video Experience "…who will perform against the high-tech ambience of the arcade… a second ring will feature the antics of favorite video games characters such as Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. And the third ring would present the Chimpanzee/Pac-Man Challenge, where chimps specially trained in the game will take on human opponents[1]".  The highlight would be the third event, the "Superstar Pro Tour" in which 30 video game superstars (3 per game) would take on all comers on ten different arcade video games. In March, during Iowa Governor Terry Branstad's visit to Ottumwa, Jim Riley held court in a backroom at Twin Galaxies, filling players' heads with visions of video game grandeur. Riley even promised the players a salary, making them perhaps the first professional video game players in history

Riley(?), Governor Branstad(?), and Day at Twin Galaxies


[Jim Riley] What we're doing is taking you, the superstars in the video games business, and turning you into professionals, so that you're now playing for cash…We have a show that will generally do about $1 .5 to $2.5 million in gate receipts each weekend, and from this will come the prize money that you'll be playing for. On an average, the number one-ranked player, provided he continues to retain his number one ranking, will earn about $3,000 a week. The second-ranked player will make about $2,000 and the third-ranked player will average about S 1,000. If you stay with the show for the entire 40 weeks of its initial run, you're talking about an annual income for the  number one-ranked player of about $120,000. And, if you add to that the endorsement monies which may result from manufacturers trying to promote their product, as well as other fees, it's not difficult to imagine the potential of earning a rather substantial income

This doesn't mean that every week you are competing or have to reach your scores. You only have to do that when you're challenged by somebody. If this happens, they can then issue a challenge and try to knock you out of one of those three top places. If they succeed, then you're out of the show and the other player gets the opportunity to replace you.[2].

This early scheudle for the ElectronicCircus appeared in

Video Games magazine


Players who set high scores before August 1st would get their achievement recorded in the next edition of the Guinness Book of World Records. Initial plans called for circus to kick off in Boston on June 3rd - 5th before heading on the road for a 40-week, 200-city tour. Riley also hoped that the event would begin to change the negative image that many had of arcades and video games. To that end, the players would have to agree to a strict set of guidelines covering everything from curfew to how to deal with groupies.

[Jim Riley] Hopefully, this show is going to change that and create a total family entertainment image. This is what we want to accomplish. So, when I say that our video game superstars are going to have to be a squeaky clean Brady Bunch I mean it. This is a business and you're going to have people watching you. You may not be as famous as people such as John McEnroe, because it may take us five years to get video gaming as popular as tennis. But we're going to work toward that.

Riley offered Twin Galaxies a 1/4 share of the show's revenue. For Day, it must have seemed like his dreams were finally about to come true. Video gaming was about to hit the big time. Reality had something else in store.

Steve Sanders at the Electronic Circus

      Riley appointed Steve Sanders as captain of the "U.S. National Video Game Team" and tasked him with scouring the country searching for video game talent. Sanders was chosen not for his accomplishments, but because he fit the image Riley was looking for. Riley teamed up with friend Billy Mitchell to assemble a team of players but they quickly ran into a few problems. At one point,  Mitchell called a player who had reported an obviously phony high score of 11 million on Donkey Kong and offered him $6,000 a week to join the tour, noting that with endorsements, the figure might reach $50,000. The man told Mitchell he couldn't afford the pay cut. When Mitchell asked how much money it would take to convince him to play, the man made an excuse and quickly hung up.
     Alarming signs soon began to appear. Once the players had signed their contracts, Riley reneged on his agreement with Twin Galaxies. In June of 1983 Riley, along with Frank Benedetto and Steve Robb, formed Superstar Productions in Boston to produce the event, dubbed the Electronic Circus. Weeks before the event, the backers ran into management problems and brought in a team of business women called Women at Work to get things back on track.

Ad for the Electronic Circus, from the Boston Herald

     In the end the event date was pushed back and the scope was cut, but it still featured rock and gospel bands (according to Steve Sanders Air Supply among them), rides, talking robots, clowns, jugglers, knife throwers, and 515 new and classic video games set on free play arranged in 8 different themed areas (Outer Galaxies, Jungle Safari, Dragon Quest etc.). A slick (and expensive) television, radio and newspaper campaign was launched and Boston mayor  Kevin White kicked off an "Electronic Circus Week" promo. Instead of performing chimps there was Congo the Gorilla from Trading Places taking on, and beating, all comers in Congo Bongo (Congo was, of course, a guy in a monkey suit and the game was actually being controlled from offstage by master player Steve Harris). Center ring was reserved for the video game competition, in which the "Electronic Circus Superstars" (the name "United States National Video Game had been dropped), captained by Sanders would square off against teams of locals challengers assembled by arcade operators in each city for prizes and Guinness world records.

Part of the revised schedule for the Electronic Circus

taken from Chasing Ghosts

The superstar competition, however, had been pruned considerably. Instead of the 30 superstars originally planned,  Walter Day invited a team 8 top players (though some sources say there were more). One player who did not participate was That's Incredible champion Ben Gold. During the governor's visit to Ottumwa, Gold had been openly critical of the Electronic Circus. He was doubtful that the tour would last past three months and was concerned that the players would turn against one another in the heat of competition. Gold made his remarks within earshot of the a number of video game magazine writers. Jim Riley was furious. Here he was trying to promote his idea and raise money for the venture and some sixteen year old kid was mouthing off in front of the press. While Riley claimed he excluded Gold from the team because he didn't fit the image he wanted, the real reason was probably that Gold was too outspoken.

Riley had the players flown into Boston for the first stage of the event. When they arrived, he told them they would be making only $200 a week (after the players threatened to form a union, Riley gave in and paid them more and even agreed to pay Twin Galaxies $1,500 a week). The players would still launch a national tour after the opening week, but to 48 cities instead of 200. After what they'd witnessed so far, none of the players believed it would last that long.

The "superstars" endorsing the Wingo-O lottery

from the Boston Herald

Disappointed that they would not be making the thousands they'd been promised, the players nonetheless managed to enjoy themselves. They were thrown out of the Boston Colonnade hotel for chucking M-80s out the window. They managed to get stuck between floors of an elevator and had to wait as the doors were pried open by a giant spoon. One incident involved the game Joust. During lulls in the action the players would often head to a nearby coffee shop where the food was cheap. The coffee shop also had two video games, Joust and Centipede. At the time Steve Sanders was one of the best Joust players in the country. Sanders, however, had been ridden mercilessly by the players. By that point they all knew about his phony Donkey Kong scores and that his being named team captain had nothing to do with his video game accomplishments. If he could prove himself on Joust he would be vindicated, in his own eyes as well as those of his teammates. There were just two problems - Darren Olsen and Eric Ginner, the two best Joust players on the team. At the coffee shop, Sanders decided to take them on. First, he dispatched Olsen. Then he started playing Eric Ginner. That’s where Billy Mitchell stepped in. Sitting down beside Sanders as he played, Mitchell put his plan into action


[Billy Mitchell] You remember the movie A Few Good Men? if you recall Tom Cruise's job as an attorney was to get under Jack Nicholson's skin and get him to come apart and explode. Well Tom Cruise ain't got nothin' on me…[Steve was] the whipping post for us players. I have this truly unique thing I can do. I can talk to you and you can hear what I say but nobody else in the room can hear…He's playing Eric...and every time something goes wrong I say "What's the matter with you…Aw come on...jeez, you're really embarrassing yourself" I had him to the point where his eyes were shifting back and forth...his palms are all sweaty his tongue's kind of clammy…I've got him all worked up…We're closing in on 2 million points and Steve is catching up…and I've got him coming apart at the seams.

Joust only displays five of the free men you have in reserve. As Sanders lost man after man, Mitchell somehow convinced him that he was on the verge of running out of men. No one else heard a word of what he was saying. Suddenly Mitchell exclaimed  "That's right, I forgot, you get 50 points every time you die. No wonder Sanders is catching up."  Sanders couldn't take it anymore. He exploded, rose from his chair, and dropped the f-bomb on Mitchell[4],  who turned to the room and asked "What's this guy's problem?" Later, when they got ready to leave, Sanders began killing of his men. He had 52 left.
            Another incident involved the game Donkey Kong. At the time, Todd Walker was probably the best player on the team besides Mitchell and Sanders (he had scored 315,000). By far the hardest board on the game is the elevator board. Players normally have to make their way slowly to the top of the board dodging fireballs and bouncing springs. Once they get to the top level, the final move run up the ladder requires precision timing. The player has to keep a close eye out for the right type of spring. The way most players reach the ladder is to run to left going underneath the ladder and the spring then to run quickly back to the right and up the ladder. If things go just right, however, the player can run directly up the ladder. If things really go right, the player can even make a "super duper jump" to the top level and then run right up the ladder. If things really, really, really go right - like once-in-a-lifetime right - the player can sprint directly from the start of the level to the end in no more time than it would take if there were no enemies at all. At the circus, Mitchell was plying the game. Just as he started the elevator level , Walker walked up and started watching. Lo and behold the stars were aligned just right and Mitchell was able to sprint to the finish record time. Walker was amazed. "Damn!" he exclaimed, wide-eyed. "Do you always do it like that?" "No" Mitchell deadpanned, "sometimes I go the fast way instead." Walker shook his head and walked away.  
     The event itself was anything but fun. Held at the Bayside Expo Center, the circus was scheduled to remain in Boston from July 15th-24th before taking to the road. It didn't even last a week. Superstar Productions  expected 10,000 people per day to attend but nowhere near that many showed up. Riley even pressed the players into after-hours service cruising local beaches Boston with a megaphone in a last-ditch effort to drum up business. Walter Day realized how bad things were when he walked into a magic show and heard the magician repeatedly asking for two volunteers from the audience as he stared at Day intently. When he looked around, Day realized that he was one of only two people to attend the show. The press arrived on days four and five but it was too little too late. At the end of the fifth day, Billy Mitchell was on the verge of a new Ms. Pac-Man record when one of the organizers told him he had to go as the event was closing. After he refused, the woman told him that the event was closing for good - they had run out of money and were shutting everything down and cancelling the rest of the tour (the players had been promised that no matter how poorly the tour did in Boston, they would at least continue on to their next stop in Cleveland). After just five days in Boston, the Electronic Circus was no more. When they players returned to their hotel they found that they'd been locked out of their rooms. Their possessions, on the other hand, were still locked in and the hotel refused to release them until the bill had been paid (eventually, it was).

 A spokesman blamed the failure on "financial disputes with an electrical workers union and the management of the Bayside Expo Center[3]" but the real problem was the poor attendance. The organizers estimated that only about 2,000 per day actually attended the event but some Expo Center officials said that the real figure was probably only a fourth of that. Walter Day claims that less than 5,000 people in total paid the $9 to attend the event.  

 There were a number of suggested reasons for the low attendance: high admission cost (the event cost $9 a day - equivalent to about $21 in 2012 dollars), poor location, and a record breaking heat wave. Day said that the event was "under organized, under advertised, and under financed." Then again, the poor attendance could have just been another sign of the looming video game crash. In the end Superstar Productions lost $2 million (including $1 million paid to Bally Northeast distributing for the games, which were purchased outright) and declared bankruptcy. In terms of attendance, the event may not have been as big a bust as the Atari Centipede fiasco but in terms of promise unfulfilled, it was probably worse.

[1] Video Games, June, 1983
[2] Video Games, July, 1983
[3] Electronic Circus Folds Its Tent, Play Meter, September 15, 1983
[4] This moment, without the story that preceded it, is recounted in Chasing Ghosts.

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