ITEM PHOTO BY SPENSER HASAK
Walter Day looks through past articles of The Item that were written about him.
By BRIDGET TURCOTTE
LYNN — When Walter Day played his first video game, Pong, in the early 1970s, he felt the concept was too alien and didn’t like it. So how did he end up with the title of founder of competitive gaming and as the inspiration of a Disney character?
It started with a move from his hometown of Lynn to Fairfield, Iowa, in search of a stronger connection to transcendental meditation. The deep sense of renewal and happiness is what Day said led him to his success.
Eight years after his overwhelming experience, a friend asked him to play Space Invaders at the Malibu Grand Prix arcade.
“That night I fell in love with video games,” Day said.
After Space Invaders came Pacman and the appreciation never died, he said. He opened an arcade of his own in Ottumwa, Iowa, called Twin Galaxies. Three months later, he read about a child in Chicago who played Defender for 15 straight hours on a single quarter. A man came up to Day and told him he could beat the record. That week, he kept his game going for 25 straight hours, said Day.
The game caught the attention of local media, who followed the game blow by blow. Day said it was the first time he noticed a regional interest in video game competitions on a scale comparable to sporting events.
Curious about the world record, Day reached out to seven game manufacturers and two gaming magazines. All reported that they didn’t keep track of video game records. He took it upon himself to hang a whiteboard and record top scores. While traveling across the country selling antique newspapers, he would stop in at the nearest arcades for a quick game of Pacman and take note of the arcade’s records.
Soon the 1967 graduate of Lynn English High School was getting calls from arcades near and far who wanted to record their high scores. Magazines caught wind and included charts with Day’s highest scorers. He called the operation the Twin Galaxies National Scoreboard. The operation was featured in the 1982 Year in Review edition of Life Magazine, he said.
Guinness World Records considers it to be the official supplier of verified world records for video game competitions.
“It was this new concept of man versus machine and everyone was interested,” he said. “When I traveled the nation, I noted that these people were local celebrities. This was the birth of what they call eSports now. We organized the arcades into a global eSports arena so that anyone could compete against anybody anywhere, while comparing their scores.”
In the early 2000s, Day appeared in about half a dozen documentaries about the birth of video games, including “Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade” and “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.”
But nothing tops being the inspiration for a Disney character, he said.
Day said the Mr. Stan Litwak character from the 2012 Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures computer-animated film “Wreck-it Ralph” is undoubtedly based on him. In the movie, Mr. Litwak is the owner of Litwak’s arcade, where the plot takes place. Litwak wears the same iconic, long-sleeved black and white striped shirt that Day wore in the ’90s full time and in each and every documentary where he’s appeared.
Day said Litwak even wears the same, uncommon brand and sports the same mustache and profile that he did in the ’90s.
“Three times now I’ve been told by people with artistic insight in Disney that it was intended to be me,” he said. “I’m a tribute character. Not many people can say they’re a Disney character.”
Bridget Turcotte can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @BridgetTurcotte.