Last weekend New York Times Profile of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick had many important revelations about Kalanick and the company he runs, both of which have been dealing with heavy PR lately. But there was an occasional, almost throwaway line buried in the piece that made me stop:
“In other personal pursuits, he once had the second highest score in the world for the Nintendo Wii Tennis video game.”
The rule surprised me for a number of reasons, not least that the concept of a “high score” in “Wii Tennis” didn’t make much sense. Claiming the “second highest score in the world” in Wii Sports tennis is like claiming the second highest score in pong based on nothing but playing against the computer and your friends. Without some sort of sanctioned tournament or third-party logical ranking system, the claim simply won’t be parsed.
And yet the boast is strangely specific. Kalanick Didn’t Have the World’s Best ‘Wii Tennis’ Score According to The New York Times. He obtained the second best. If this was just a fabulistic boast, why limit yourself to number two? And if it wasn’t just puffy, who was number one?
In addition, the file does not cover his statement with a ‘he said’ or ‘he claimed’. Kalanick’s “Wii Tennis” high score is listed as fact, and one that piece author Mike Isaac said on Twitter was “triple sourced.” (Isaac did not respond to further requests for comment on his basis for the rule.)
I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time researching this one sentence over the past few days. Turns out we’re getting to the bottom of Kalanick’s Wii Sports skill requires you to delve into the vagaries of human memory, reverse engineered asymptotic leveling systems, and the semantic significance of the attainment of video games themselves.
What Sacca saw
although The New York Times gave it another burst of attention, Kalanick’s claim to the second-highest score for “Wii Tennis” isn’t new. The factoid appeared on Uber’s about page as far back as 2013, where, among other achievements, the site says that Kalanick “somehow… also managed to achieve the second-highest Wii Tennis score in the world.” world. Game, match, match.” The boast is mentioned in a Chicago Tribune also from last month.
In a 2014 Financial times interview Kalanick also claimed to be “number seven in the country in” Angry BirdsIn all of these profiles, the boast is believed to reflect a greater drive to win at pursuits that others take less seriously. until I get there,” Kalanick told the Financial times.
For more details on the “Wii Tennis” story, we have to rely on Chris Sacca, the (recently retired) Silicon Valley investor who became a household name through ABC’s shark cage. In a 2015 Medium post, Sacca uses an anecdote about “Wii Tennis” to highlight Kalanick’s extreme competitiveness.
As the story goes, Sacca’s father challenged Kalanick to “a friendly Wii tennis match” with friends and family at a holiday gathering. The elder Sacca held out against Kalanick… until the Uber CEO revealed that he was using his weaker hand. “with full Princess Bride panache,” as Sacca writes, Kalanick switched to his dominant hand and won every point going forward.
The most important detail in Sacca’s story comes next, when Kalanick tries to offer his defeated opponent “a touch of comfort”:
“I have a confession to make, Mr. Sacca. I’ve played quite a bit of Wii Tennis,’ [Kalanick said]. While talking, he navigated his controller through the settings pages on the Wii to a list of high scores. “In fact,” he continued, “on the worldwide Wii Tennis leaderboard, I am currently second in the world.”
Reading this comprehensive explanation just set more alarm bells ringing in my head. Wii Sports does not have a “global leaderboard,” as Sacca claims. There are no “settings pages” on the system or game that allow you to compare your performance with anyone else online. I’ve literally written a whole reference book about the Wii, where: Wii Sports I’ve filled a whole chapter so I’m pretty sure on this point.
Still, Sacca also seemed pretty confident in naming a “Wii Tennis global leaderboard.” It’s a story he’s repeated at a convention and on a podcast in recent years, mentioning “global leaderboards” both times.
I tried desperately to come up with an explanation that matched what Sacca was seeing. Were they perhaps playing on the Wii U re-release of? Wii Sports Clubwhich did have online multiplayer and regional leaderboards? Sacca said the story is set on “New Year’s Day 2010, I believe” well before Wii U was available, so that doesn’t help.
Maybe they were playing a different tennis game on the Wii? Titles like EA’s Grand Slam tennis and that of Sega Virtua Tennis 2009 seem to have online competition after all. This also feels unlikely; Wii Sports has been a pack-in game and primary system vendor for the Wii since its launch in 2006, to the point that “Wii Tennis” can safely be assumed as the tennis mode in that game (although the wording is frustrating for the sake of clarity, in this case).
Perhaps Kalanick had navigated to some sort of online scoring list via the Wii web browser? There are a few sites that keep high score lists for some Wii Sports training modes and the “skill level” of the game. However, Sacca specifically refers to it as a “settings page on the Wii” in multiple narrations, and scores in training mode don’t seem a likely focus for this kind of bragging rights (Twin Galaxies, the closest official scorekeepers the industry has, says it has no idea what Sacca is referring to, for what it’s worth).
Desperate for more details, I reached for Sacca to confirm and explain some details in his story, especially the details about a ‘leaderboard’. To my surprise, he did indeed respond. You can see our entire discussion in the Twitter thread linked above, but here’s the gist of his answer:
I assure you there was a world ranking back then. Just got in touch with other friends and family who were there. One of the reasons that we clearly remember is that we had a long discussion about whether #1 was actually a hack or not. We discussed at length whether hacking the top position would be a penetration of the software itself or a mechanical hack of the controller.
We also remember that he did not occupy #2 exclusively. He was connected with others. This again highlighted #1 as a potential hack. Sorry I don’t have anything else to offer while you’re looking for this.
It seems clear that Sacca (and his friends and family apparently) has a clear memory of seeing Kalanick ranked No. 2 on some sort of “world ranking” for “Wii Tennis.” Still, it’s just as clear that there has never been an in-game, online ranking in the original version of Wii Sports. What is happening?
Enter the “skill level”
While Wii Sports has no online leaderboards, it does have one in-game measure of the progress of each of its constituent sports. This “skill level” is an Elo-style performance measure that goes up and down depending on how well you do against the computer-controlled AI.
The skill level is the closest to an overarching “score” that it makes sense to refer to in Wii Sports, although I would argue that a “score” is false at worst and misleading at best. Anyway, I believe confusion over this skill level is probably at the heart of Kalanick and Sacca’s claims about “Wii Tennis”.
The most detailed and accurate breakdown of the Wii Sports The tennis skill level system I was able to find is here. The full explanation contains some pretty detailed math, so here’s a quick summary:
In Wii Sports, every Mii you use starts with a skill level of zero. Each time you defeat a computer opponent, that skill level increases based on your score in that match and the opponent’s (simulated) skill level.
Your next computer opponent’s skill level increases along with your skill level until you face the top-ranked computer opponents in the game, Elisa and Sarah, who have skill levels of 2000 and 1900, respectively.
Once you reach Elisa and Sarah, the speed of increasing the skill level quickly reaches a point of diminishing returns. With a skill level of 2300, you can earn up to five skill levels per game won. At level 2350, you earn up to two levels per victory. To go from skill level 2398 to 2399 it takes 14 perfect games in a row.
All things considered, it takes at least 160 wins against the computer AI to reach a skill score of 2399, and that’s only if you can play dozens of perfect 40-Love matches against the toughest computer opponents the game can throw at you. .