Doug Leighty interview

By Scott Stilphen

Doug Leighty was the winner of Atari’s U.S. Centipede Contest, placing 1st in both the VCS/2600 division and in the overall playoff against the winner of the 5200 division.  He also placed 2nd in the World Centipede competition.  I had the chance to talk with him about his contest experiences, and how his kids have inherited his gaming skills.


Q: Do you recall when you first got into playing video games, and what particular game or platform (home or arcade) it was?

Doug Leighty: The first video game I ever played was a coin-op Pong machine.  It sat by itself in the middle of our mall.  The first home video game I ever played was a dedicated Pong-type game, which also had a bowling game and a two-lane car racing game.  Think black and white and blocky.  This all started for me in the mid-1970’s.

Q: What was the first video game contest you entered?

Doug Leighty: My first video game contest was the Astrosmash Shootoff.  My dad’s brother, John Leighty, had gotten an Atari VCS early on and then got the Intellivision when it was released.  When we found out about the contest, he said to me, “So I’ll buy this game if you’ll take me on the trip to Houston, if you win.”  I said okay and he bought the game and I made the finals and we went to Houston.  Pretty good deal all the way around.

Q: How many contests did you enter, and how many did you win or place high in?

Doug Leighty: I’ll talk about the smaller ones first.

I played in a local mall contest on Activision's Enduro when it was first released.  It was so new, the sponsor of the contest didn’t know the game went on after Day 1, until my score went into Day 2.  I won first place and got 10 Activision cartridges and an autographed Pittsburgh Steelers football.  My other uncle, Elliott Leighty, finished third and won 4 Activision cartridges.

In February of 1984, I played in a national Konami Track & Field arcade game tourney where the grand prize was a Jeep.  I didn’t win the Jeep, but I did have the top score at our arcade 4 weeks in a row.

At a different arcade, I played in a serious air hockey tourney, which I won.  I got a $25 Savings Bond for that one.  I had never seen an air hockey puck hit that hard before or since.

I played in a lot of “get your best score and take a picture” contests.  A couple of these were contests on the NES: Top Gun and Bill Elliott Racing.  I think there were significant cash prizes involved, but I don’t remember many of the details for those.

I played in another NES contest on a game called Treasure Master.  Players bought the game ahead of time to practice, but the contest started on a given date and time.  To enter the contest, players called a special phone number to get a code that opened the contest part of the game.  The first to finish the game got the big cash prize.  I didn’t win the big money, but I did win a second prize, which was a Super NES system.

I played in a qualifier for the 1990 Nintendo World Championship.  The games were Super Mario Bros., Rad Racer, and Tetris.  A special cartridge was used that had a time limit for each game.  Qualifying consisted of showing up at one of the convention centers where the competition was being held and registering to play.  Each player had one shot to get a minimum qualifying score.  Getting above the minimum score got the player a semi-finalist T-shirt, and a spot in the next round.  It seemed like we had a couple of hundred players in Philadelphia, where I made the final seven.  The finals were played on a big stage and it was handled like a game show.  They introduced each of the final seven players individually.  I was qualified in first place, which meant I got to sit in the biggest chair at center stage.  I was introduced and ran out onto the stage, waving to the cheering crowd (yes, it did feel weird).  What happened next is I had my worst Tetris game ever.  So, I didn’t win the trip to Orlando for the national finals.  But it was still an interesting experience.

In 2010, my son, Logan, and I teamed up for the Nintendo Wii Championships.  It involved 5 games.  We played at a mall in Philadelphia.  We finished fourth in the father/son division for our region.  The final game was Mario Kart and I clipped a Goomba on the last turn.  A quarter of an inch to the right on that last turn and we would have won the trip to LA for the national finals. Such is life.

But then there were the big successes of Centipede, Astrosmash, and Atlantis.

Q: You made 2 YouTube videos where you talked a bit about these.  Can you recap your experiences with these contests?

1983 United States Atari Centipede Championship, San Francisco CA

Doug Leighty: The U.S. Atari Championships in 1983 were held using the Centipede games for the Atari 2600 and the Atari 5200.  Five players in each division qualified for the finals.  I got to the finals in the 2600 division.  Part one of getting to the finals was getting the maximum score of 999,999 and then getting a picture of the TV screen.  Since this was before the age of digital cameras, this was almost as challenging as rolling the score on the game.  I used a Polaroid camera, so I could be sure I had the picture I needed.  Other finalists told me they used cameras that had to have the film developed at the store.  I had a formula that I used to end the game with the exact 999,999 score, based on the number of partially shot mushrooms on the screen.  Ending on the exact score gave me as much time as I needed to take the picture.  Some of the other finalists told me they took their picture while the game was still being played, which required multiple attempts.  Part two of getting to the finals was the tiebreaker.  Atari hired judges to go to the players homes and document a ten minute tiebreaker game.  The highest scorers from that tiebreaker won a trip to California for the finals.

Once I qualified for the finals, I realized I had a slight problem.  The U.S. Championship was going to be decided by the 2600 winner and 5200 winner playing each other on both machines.  I had never played the 5200 version.  About a week before the finals, I was able to borrow the system and the game from a friend who had bought both for his son.  That was the scariest part of the competition: the narrowly averted disaster of playing for the U.S. Championship on a game and system that I had never used before.

I took my 2600 with me as carry-on luggage on the flight to California (click HERE for a copy of the itinerary).  When the finalists had one of the first meetings in California with the Atari people, the players were asked who brought their Atari system with them.  About half the hands went up.  I couldn’t help but think that the other half of the players experienced a collective “Uh oh”, as they realized those hands in the air belonged to people who were practicing in their hotel room.

The finals were held at the San Francisco Insect Zoo.  There was a stage with 5 TVs on the right for the 2600 players and 5 TVs on the left for the 5200 players.  Players were allowed on the stage to warm up before the time the competition was to start. Zoo visitors stopped to watch, so we had a pretty good crowd by the time we started.

One of the 2600 finalists asked around and found out what everyone’s tiebreaker scores were.  My tiebreaker score was 137,561.  When I told him my score, he said I qualified second.  Then he pointed out the guy who was the first place qualifier.  That seemingly insignificant tidbit turned out to be important.  I went on the stage to warm up before the competition. While I was warming up, that number one qualifier stepped up to the TV next to mine and started playing.  I reached down and restarted my game.  I don’t know if he was just killing time during the warm-up, but I focused like I was already playing the finals.  I heard my “extra guy” music go off just before his.  By the time we got to the second “extra guy” music, it was clear I was pulling away.  By the third extra guy, I knew he was not catching me.  He put his stick down and walked away.  At that point I knew I could win and he knew he could lose.  I loved the psychology of it all.

When we played for the 2600 championship, it was a 10-minute timed game.  I played really well and pulled away from the field.  I was struck by the fact that the other players started dropping out once they were sure they couldn’t win, even before time expired.  At the end of the 10 minutes, I was the only one still playing.  One of the other players said I had it wrapped up and told me I could stop.  I didn’t stop.  I had set a goal of 150,000 and I kept playing to the end, finishing with approximately 151,000.

The 5200 winner was determined next.  Then it was just us two playing for the U.S. Atari Championship, five minutes on each game, with the winner getting a trip to Germany to represent the United States in the Atari World Championships.  We played the 2600 first and I built an 11,000 point lead.  Then we played the 5200, where he had the advantage.  Neither of us made the time limit.  When the final scores were reached, his 5200 score was not enough to erase my lead.  I did the quick math and knew my cumulative score was good enough.  And I knew I was going to Germany.

In addition to the Germany trip.  I won a 5200 system, a Millipede arcade game, and the trip to San Francisco.

1983 Atari World Championship, Munich Germany

The 1983 Atari World Championships were held at a hotel in Munich, Germany.  There was an over-18 division, which I played in, and an 18-and-under division.  The game was still Centipede, but it was the European PAL version which played a little slower than the North American NTSC version that I was used to.  It helped that Atari actually put a game and system in each player’s room, so we could practice.  During the competition, I had a cheering section of three: my wife and an American couple that just happened to be staying at the hotel.  I never really found my groove, because the speed of the game always seemed slightly off.  I still managed to finish second, behind the guy from England who won.  The final score was determined by combining two timed 10-minute games.  The gold medal score in my division was 322,044.  My silver medal score was 290,986.  The bronze metal score was 272,195.  I always said that the winner had the home continent advantage.  But I was happy to finish in the medals.

My prizes for the competition included an Atari Centipede silver medal, a 7-day all-expenses-paid trip to the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, and an Atari 800XL computer.

1982 Intellivision Astrosmash Shootoff, Houston TX

News blurb from Electronic Games, May 1982 issue (pg. 10-11).

Article from Electronic Fun with Computers & Games, December 1982 issue (pg. 42-43).

The grand prize for this one was $25,000, so it was a pretty big deal.

Qualifying for this competition, as it turned out, also required rolling the score.  I played for four days, making liberal use of the Intellivision pause feature to eat and sleep.  I remember that first week in August of 1982 very well.  I got married on August 7, 1982.  I kept getting phone calls from this girl asking me if I was going to be done in time for the wedding.  I guess she knew what she was getting into, because she’s stayed with me ever since (yes, I did make it to the church on time).

The finals were held in a hotel across from the Astrodome.  Mattel accommodated more than 70 finalists.  The finals were held at the hotel in a room with about 25 Intellivision/TV setups.  It was always interesting to me how the little things affect a competition like this.  I was used to playing with my controller laying flat on a table in front of me, but there was no extra table space in front of the TV’s.  There was just a chair and an expectation that everyone was going hold their controller in the air while they played.  I wasn’t entirely comfortable, but I did finish in the top 16.  I won a couple of Intellivision cartridges for the effort.

One night at the hotel, an impromptu 16-player Intellivision baseball tourney broke out.  Even now, I remember that night as if it just happened yesterday.  The final game came down to me and a guy who was obviously the best baseball player there.  I was behind 1 – 0 in the seventh inning and hadn’t even had a base runner.  I got my first base runner on a weak hit with one out in the top of the 7th.  With two outs, he threw an inside fastball that I got around on and the ball hugged the third base line until it was out of the park.  Everyone was stunned, including him and me.  It was the only signs of life I showed the whole game, but I won the final game 2 – 1 and with it, the tourney.  My most unforgettable moment in Houston turned out to be one that was not an official part of the Astrosmash Shootoff and hardly anyone else ever knew anything about it.

1982 Imagic Defend Atlantis Contest

This contest was for a $10,000 prize.

This gets to be a familiar story: I rolled the game, got my picture, sent it to Imagic, and qualified for the tiebreaker round.  The Atlantis II cart was the tiebreaker game for Atlantis.  It was mailed to my house with a deadline of two days to have a tiebreaker score postmarked and submitted.  Atlantis II was designed to make sure nobody was going to roll the score.  It seems that the score I submitted was somewhere around 800 points.

The contest came to an ambiguous end.  I got a letter in the mail that said the finals were cancelled, but then there was a magazine article (Ed: Blip, April 1983 issue) about the results of the finals.

I had my Atlantis II cart for 27 years and had pretty much forgotten about it.  Then I accidentally found out this was a very valuable, very rare cart.  Also, I still had the T-shirt that was awarded during the contest.  I auctioned off the cart and t-shirt together, which went very well.  So, I didn’t win the competition, but my Atlantis experience still ended with a very positive result.

Q: Did you have a chance to meet any video game company VIPs or celebrities at any of the contests?

Doug Leighty: You know, I thought I would, eventually, but it never happened.  The closest I got to that was the ’84 Olympics, where Dick Van Dyke sat about ten rows ahead of us at the Track and Field venue.  But I don’t know if he ever played Atari.

Q: Have you ever marathoned a game (seeing how long you can keep playing a single game)?

Doug Leighty: In college, I usually played Galaga all the way through Level 255.  When the next level would come up as Level 0, I would turn the machine off and on so it wouldn’t eat the next guy’s quarter.  I could play coin-op Asteroids as long as wanted to on a quarter, but I would usually stop after three or four hours.  I never did the ‘days at a time’ thing (Astrosmash may have been the exception).

Q: Did you ever enter any magazine contests, such as those offered by Atari Age?

Doug Leighty: No, I wasn’t involved with any magazine contests.  I guess the closest I got to that was having my million point River Raid score published in the national Activisions newsletter (Volume #7).

Q: Have you ever come across any strange bugs or glitches that perhaps nobody else has seen or heard about?

Doug Leighty: I don’t think I have any that aren’t already known.  The most important one was the Astrosmash rapid fire, which wasn’t widely known in 1982.  I’m sure that the majority of the Houston finalists had it figured out.  It worked by turning on the auto-fire, then holding in the manual fire button on the side, then tapping the top of the control disc.  This resulted in maybe 30% or 40% more bullets on the screen at one time than any other firing method.

Q: Did you keep upgrading with each new platform, or transition over to computer games?

Doug Leighty: My upgrade path went from Atari 2600 to Atari 5200 to Intellivision to NES & Sega Master System to Sega Genesis to a Nintendo track (SNES, N64, Gamecube, Wii).  I’ve never really gotten into games designed specifically for the PC.  If I’m playing a game on my computer, right now, it’s probably Scrabble.

Q: Do you play games for any of the latest systems, or just mostly classic games?

Doug Leighty: I still play a lot of Atari 2600, but I also enjoy some of the simpler sports games for the Gamecube and Wii.

Q: What are your thoughts on how games have evolved in the past 30 years?

Doug Leighty: I think, as technology has allowed for bigger bangs and brighter colors and more levels, it’s gotten easier to create a game that is both spectacular and not much fun.  I’ll use the Madden football series as an example of what I mean (and reveal my biases).  I played my first Madden game in 1992.  It was new and different and fun.  Today’s game is iteration 22?  23?  Does it matter?  For me, it’s so much work to get good at it, I don’t want to make the emotional investment to figure it out (run, spin, turbo, stiff arm, dive, how do I spin, again?).  I think the genius of the Wii is that when you swing your hand, something fun happens.  No manual is required.

Having said that, I do think it’s good that game development moves in a lot of different directions.  As a player, you get to settle into whatever you’re most comfortable with and that’s where your fun is.

Q: What are your thoughts on the professional gaming scene?

Doug Leighty: I would describe it as 1983 gaming on Red Bull.  It looks very familiar.  When I was training for the Centipede championships, I practiced three hours a day for two months.  At the time, this seemed like an outrageous amount of time and energy.  Today, that wouldn’t even make the first cut.  To be a top player, now, requires commitment like an Olympic athlete, playing full-time, training with coaches, etc.  It’s not anything that a 51 year-old dad with a job and 3 kids would even attempt.

Q: What type of work do you do for a living, and was your career choice influenced by your video gaming experiences?

Doug Leighty: I work in IT as an Applications Developer on large computer systems.  My video gaming history follows me around at work, but in all of my career, I’ve never had a project that ended with a newly-programmed game as a result.

Q: What are some of your favorite games, for any platform?

Doug Leighty: There are so many.  Here are some (in no particular order):

Tony Hawk 3 – Gamecube – Great game for winning head-to-head against my kids, at least until they grew up.  Then it became an awesome way to lose to the people I love.

Tetris – Multiple systems, but the NES version is probably the one I like best.

Dragster (Activision) – Atari 2600 - I went for years without playing this.  After I made my YouTube video, I got back into it.  I hadn’t realized how much I missed it.

1080 Snowboarding – Gamecube – I like all of it, especially the half pipe.

Wii Sports Resort – Nintendo – Especially the table tennis.

Pilot Wings – N64 – Especially the hang gliding.

Galaga – Coin-op - There were rumors that I minored in Galaga in college.

Q: I imagine your proudest gaming experience or achievement was the Centipede contests, but I'm guessing being in a contest with your son is equally important :)

Doug Leighty: That would be absolutely correct.  All of my kids inherited the gaming gene.  I took my oldest son, Devon, to a mall contest when he was young.  I think the game was Eternal Champions on the Sega Genesis.  That was probably in 1993.  He didn’t win, but I saw the same competitive fire in him that I had.  Competing in the Wii Championships with my youngest son, Logan, was great, because we spent so much time training together on the five competition games.  My daughter, Shay, with her husband, Aaron, also went with us to compete at the Wii Championships, placing very well in their own division.

Being Dad is clearly more important than being Centipede Champion, but I get to do both, which makes for a pretty good life.

Doug's YouTube videos:


Return to main menu