A relatively unimportant line in a recent New York Times profile of Travis Kalanick, noted super-douche and embattled CEO of Uber, has been raising the eyebrows of video game fans. Repeating a nifty anecdote that has been published by numerous journalists and even Uber itself, Times reporter Mike Isaac writes that Kalanick “once held the world’s second-highest score for the Nintendo Wii Tennis video game.” This is bullshit on a couple of levels: First off, there’s no such game as “Nintendo Wii Tennis.” Odds are, this is referring to the famous tennis mode of Wii Sports, the mega-popular game that came packed in with the Nintendo Wii console. Second, that game had no online connectivity of any kind, which means it’s impossible that it would be tracking someone’s “score” and ranking it against the rest of the world. With all those contradictions in mind, one has to ask, where did this ridiculous claim come from, and is there any chance that there’s some truth to it at all?
To figure that out, Ars Technica’s Kyle Orland exhaustively explored the history and possible reality of Kalanick’s “Wii Tennis” story. He reached out to Chris Sacca, the now-retired venture capitalist who has repeatedly used this anecdote as a way of illustrating Kalanick’s competitive drive, both in his own writing and as a source in various reports, including an appearance in season one of Gimlet Media’s StartUp podcast. Sacca responded to Orland on Twitter and stood by his story, insisting that Kalanick crushed him in a game of “Wii Tennis,” only to later navigate to some sort of mythical leaderboard and reveal his “second in the world” status. “Among the reasons we remember it clearly is that we had a long discussion about whether #1 was actually a hack or not,” Sacca said. “We talked at length about whether hacking the top spot would be a penetration of the software itself or a mechanical hack of the controller.”
Okay but, as Orland writes, there is and never was an online leaderboard of any kind, so what the hell were Sacca and these other witnesses looking at? Orland speculates it was the “skill level” screen, which displays a player’s rating based on their performance against the game’s computer-controlled opponents. He goes into tremendous detail about how those ratings are calculated and why it’s distinctly possible that Kalanick could have reached level 2399, theoretically the second-highest rating in the game, and never made it to level 2400, something that might not even be achievable, according to Orland.
If that is indeed the case, then saying Kalanick “held the world’s second-highest score for the Nintendo Wii Tennis video game” is grossly misleading, but at least it’s an understandable mistake. It’s possible that he did make it to level 2399, but that just means he spent dozens, if not hundreds, of hours toiling away against AI-controlled sparring partners in Wii Sports tennis—just like the immeasurable, but probably massive, amount of other players who’ve reached that ranking. The only real question now is whether Kalanick was purposefully playing up a relatively mundane achievement or if this is all just a misunderstanding fueled by Wii Sports’ weird scoring system and the ravages of human memory. Judging by the guy’s reputation, it’s probably a little bit of both.