Mike Southerland interview

By Scott Stilphen

In the fall of 1983, Atari (via it’s Atari Club magazine- Atari Age) created a contest to determine who was the ‘ultimate videogame master.’ It involved 3 games - Gravitar, Quadrun, and Battlezone – with the top 2 scorers from each game to meet at a playoff at the 1984 Summer Olympics in L.A. Mike Southerland was one of the 6 lucky finalists, and he graciously agreed to discuss his experiences!  

Q: First, why did you decide to auction off your Quadrun game and patch?

Mike Southerland: There were a couple of factors involved in the decision to sell them.  First of all, I am making a concentrated effort to get out of debt.  The Bible says in Proverbs 22:7 that the borrower is a slave to the lender, so I am working furiously to rid myself of the control of external "masters" in my life.  I’m also selling my Mustang and minivan for the same reasons.

Secondly, I am now a happily married father of 4.  I rarely had time to pull out my old Atari to play with it anymore.  I knew I would be able to get a nice sum out of my collection, so I decided to part with it knowing that this would contribute to freeing my family from the bondage of debt.

Q: In your auction, you list your high score as 812,670, which is amazing!  Was this your final score (at the Olympics) or the score that you submitted for the contest entry? 

Mike Southerland: 812,670 was the score that I submitted for the contest entry.  It took me about 5 hours to accomplish this.  I was actually disappointed when I lost the last ball and had not accomplished the highest possible score 999,990.  I even considered not even taking a picture of the screen.  But, thankfully, I decided to go ahead and take the picture and send it in.  My reasoning for this was that I was also a finalist for the Gravitar competition.  I scored the highest possible score on it and had to be involved in a playoff.  So, when I did not get the highest possible score, I felt sure that several others probably did, and I would not even be in the playoffs for Quadrun.  However, I received a phone call from Atari that told me that I had won first place outright with that score.  When I played at the Olympics, I was timed.  I played each cartridge for 10 minutes, and they totaled the scores of all the cartridges.  So, obviously I scored nowhere near the same number of points that I had on my winning entry. 

Q: So you were also a Gravitar finalist!  I'm guessing the score stopped at something like 999,990 (and didn't roll over to 0, like most games).

Mike Southerland: Yes.  I maxxed out the score on Gravitar, then I intentionally rammed my space ship into the side of the planet repeatedly until I had used them all up so that I wouldn't roll it over back to zero.  Here's the way it worked.  I did this the first time, took a picture of my screen and mailed it to Atari.  Apparently, several hundred more people did the same thing across the country.  So, they sent me a letter, along with a Pac-man sticker (Atari had just released their cheesy version of Atari 2600 Pac-man).  They asked me to repeat my feat, place the sticker on my TV, and take another picture to prove I could do it again.  So, I did it again, and sent in the picture.  I think this thinned the crowd out just a little bit, but there were still a lot of finalists (48).

So, they sent a man to my house to watch me play for 10 minutes.  He made me stop, and recorded my score.  Then he had me start over and play for 5 minutes and recorded my score in case there was a need for a tiebreaker.  The next time I heard from Atari was when they called to tell me the news about winning the trip to the Olympics.  Interestingly enough, they told me the news about Gravitar first.  I was a bit let down to find out I had won fifth place, because I had my heart set on going to the Olympics.  I remember being on the phone and my mom was looking at me and holding her arms out to the side (like wings on an airplane) as if to ask me, "Did you win the trip?"  I had to shake my head, "No."  But then, he went on to tell me that I had won first place in the Quadrun competition, so I got really excited again.  As I believe I had mentioned previously, my prize for fifth place in Gravitar was an Atari 800XL computer.  By the way, I've still got my Gravitar patch, though it probably doesn't have the same value as the Quadrun one did.  I thought Gravitar was a relatively easy game, although I enjoyed it more than Quadrun.  On Gravitar, you could earn extra spaceships.  With Quadrun, once all your balls were lost, the game was over with no chance of earning more. 

Q: How did your family and friends react to your winning the trip to the Olympics?

Mike Southerland: My dad was thrilled.  He was the one I chose to go with me.  My trip was an all expense paid trip for two to the 1984 L.A. Olympics.  As long as we stayed with Atari, they took care of everything.  At their expense, we stayed in the Marina Del Ray hotel, ate out in nice restaurants, and attended Olympic events - we got to see USA vs. Italy in soccer (USA lost), and China vs. Yugoslavia women's basketball (those were the tallest Chinese women I'd ever seen!).  They also offered to take us to a full day of equestrian events, but my dad and I politely declined, and spent the day at Universal Studios and Hollywood (Mann's Chinese theater, walk of fame, etc.).  This was the best vacation I can ever remember.  It was my first time to fly commercially.  The rest of my family was happy for me.  My brother may have been a little jealous, but I was the oldest of 4 kids, so my youngest brother and sister were pretty young anyway.  As far as my friends' reaction, it was summertime, so my next-door-neighbor/best friend was about the only guy I saw frequently.  He thought it was pretty cool.  I also had just made up with my girlfriend right before I left for the trip (who later became my wife).

During the time between when I found out I had won the trip, and the date of the trip, my dad assumed the role of my "coach" and would constantly remind me to go practice my games.  I'd be watching TV, and rather than asking me, "Have you done your homework?" he'd say, "Shouldn't you be practicing your Atari?"  Of course, this was the summertime and I didn't have homework, but I just think it was funny thinking back, especially when most parents tend to nag their kids to stop playing!

Q: Did you ever max out the score in Quadrun (since the contest)? 

Mike Southerland: I didn't try to max out Quadrun after winning the contest, because I didn't enjoy playing it all that much - I think I got burned out on it playing so much in practice for the contest.  I think the main thing that makes it hard is not being able to earn additional balls.  So, once you've messed up three times, you’re out with no grace.  It also takes way too long to get to the highest possible score with an extremely high frustration level if you've just spent 2 or 3 hours and you happen to lose all your balls (it took me about 5 to get the 812,670).

Of the 3 games, I enjoyed Gravitar the best.  I won my Gravitar contest by solely concentrating on blowing up the reactor cores over and over, so it was easy for me to learn to do this by repetition.  The variations included gravity, invisible walls, etc., but the concept was the same.  The winner of the Gravitar competition told me that to score points in the fastest amount of time (like in the timed competition), it was necessary to go to a few of the planets and blow up some bunkers.  I wasn't very fast at that, and that's where I tended to lose ships.  With the reactor cores, I could fly in, shoot the core, and leave.  It was a pattern, and I had it down pat.  But, I guess the best I could hope for doing that was 5th place overall.  It was also nice that you could earn extra ships in Gravitar, so I never worried about running out of ships like in Quadrun.

Q: Do you remember if the Battlezone finalists maxxed out their scores (and had a playoff as well)?

Mike Southerland: I really don't think I ever found this out.  I never entered the Battlezone competition since I had already won in the other two.  Atari sent me a free Battlezone cartridge to practice with, which I considered a great prize itself.

Q: Did you win the playoff at the Olympics?

Mike Southerland: The playoff at the Olympics consisted of the top two scorers from each cartridge in the competition.  There were 6 of us altogether.  I came in 2nd place in the playoffs, finishing behind the 1st-place winner of the Gravitar contest.

Afterwards I realized why the odds were stacked against me in that competition.  In order to be “fair” to all the players, Atari decided to weight the scores in the 10-minute competition in L.A. based on what the winning high scores were in each game, since we were going to be playing all 3 cartridges and each player obviously had a proficiency in the cartridge they won with.  So, since my winning Quadrun score was 812,670, it was the highest winning score of all 3 cartridges.  Therefore, the multiplier in the calculation of determining the winners in was at 1.0 for it.  However, Gravitar provided the lowest scoring winner for the individual cartridge contest, so it was weighted at 6.2.  Battlezone was weighted somewhere around 3.0.  What this meant was you took whatever score you made on Quadrun and multiplied by 1.0 (which was just the actual score), add to that the score you made on Gravitar multiplied by 6.2, and add to that the score you made on Battlezone multiplied by 3.0.  The final tally was your point total.  It was only later that it occurred to me there would be fierce competition coming from the Gravitar winner.  His winning Gravitar score was very similar to the way he won his trip to the Olympics, and my Quadrun timed score was drastically different that my all-time high score.  The Atari officials failed to consider that the winning Gravitar score was accomplished in a 10 minute time period, and the Quadrun score was accomplished in about 5 hours.  Given this handicap, I think I still performed reasonably well in placing 2nd overall.  Incidentally, I scored higher in Quadrun in the time period than the rest of my peers.  The Gravitar winner scored higher in his cartridge, and I think the Battlezone guy score the highest in his.  The competition was really won with the multipliers.

Q: What a ridiculous system!  I can't believe they would resort to something like that.  I was in an Atari contest once, which involved Missile Command, Space Invaders, and Asteroids.  With that one, they simply totaled your 3 scores, and whoever had the highest total was the winner.  IMHO, it would have been much more fair to keep each game as a separate contest, or choose a 4th game (something unavailable to everyone else, or a modified version of an existing game).

Mike Southerland: The separate contests would have been great for me.  I would have happily competed in a Quadrun-only competition, and I'm sure I would have won.  The 4th game concept sounds really difficult.  It takes me a bit to get used to a new game before I get any good at it.  But, on the issue of "fair", I knew that I would be competing on all 3 cartridges ahead of time; so to me, it was completely fair to do this.  What I tend to think of as a little unfair is the weighting system.  That was not disclosed previous to the contest.  But that's okay; I won a really nice trip and have a lot of good memories.  I hold no grudges toward Atari, and the Gravitar winner was definitely a better Gravitar player than I was.

Q: Do you recall anything about the other people that you played against?  

Mike Southerland: I don't remember if there were any women, but most of us were boys or men.  I was a high school freshman at the time.  The grand prize winner was probably 2 years older than me (I was 15 at the time), and his nationality appeared to be Japanese.

Q: Do you have anything from the contest – photos of the event, any paperwork (such as a certificate with your name and score)?

Mike Southerland: I have newspaper articles, and some official letters (from Atari) that congratulate me on winning the trip to the Olympics.  I also have some ticket stubs from the Olympic events I got to see.  Most of my official Atari communication is from before attending the playoff.  I may have a paper tucked away somewhere that lists the actual scores I earned at the playoff, but I'm not sure where it is right now.  I also still have my Canon Snappy '84 camera that was part of the package.  I have pictures that I took on the trip, but at the event, I was busy playing, and I don't remember anyone else taking pictures.

Q: Were there any prizes awarded for each placing?

Mike Southerland: No, only the first place winner in the finals won anything extra.  The winner received a Canon A1 35mm camera, $1000 cash, and a coin operated arcade game.


Check out Mike's website at: www.mikesoutherland.com


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