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World's first professional video gamer honored at Iowa museum

Todd Rogers with Playboy Playmate Barbi Benton at the Atari Booth of the 1983 Consumer Electronics Show. At the time, Rogers was 19 and making a living by representing Atari. 

Courtesy of Todd Rogers

Todd Rogers with Playboy Playmate Barbi Benton at the Atari Booth of the 1983 Consumer Electronics Show. At the time, Rogers was 19 and making a living by representing Atari. 

BROOKSVILLE — Todd Rogers saw his chance.

"This video game will make you famous," the Dragster brochure boasted. "If you beat our high score of 5.54 seconds."

Rogers had always wanted to be more than that kid from Chicago with the 4.6 grade-point average and the pet tarantulas.

So for months, he and his Atari joystick were inseparable, working toward that single goal. On Dec. 1, 1980, his 16th birthday, he got it: 5.51 seconds.

"Activision called, wanting to know how I could beat a computer designed to play a perfect game," Rogers said. "When I told them, they hired me."

What's known in video game circles as the "Impossible Record" still stands.

It kicked off a professional gaming career that's spanned 30 years, thousands of dollars and now includes a spot in the inaugural class of inductees at the new International Video Game Hall of Fame in Ottumwa, Iowa.

Rogers, now 45, will take his place in the Hall of Fame Saturday alongside some video game icons: Ralph Baer, the "Father of Video Games"; Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Mario and Donkey Kong; and the game Pac-Man.

"Todd is more than a person," said Walter Day, a Hall of Fame board member. "He's a force of nature."

Rogers once earned $1,000 a day playing video games at electronics conventions. Now he lives in Brooksville with his aging mother. When he isn't traveling to conventions and tournaments, he collects stamps, raises tarantulas and dabbles in wrestling.

He's already in Ottumwa for the annual four-day video game tournament. It's called "The Big Bang," Day said, because that's where it all began.

"Ottumwa is the cultural crossroads of the video game world," Day said. "With the Hall of Fame, Ottumwa is changing its destiny."

During the "Golden Age of Video Games" in the 1980s, Twin Galaxies, the arcade Day owned in Ottumwa, became the first to track high scores.

But after home video consoles took off, a period Rogers calls "The Dark Age," gamers stopped flocking to Twin Galaxies and the arcade closed.

The organization still tracks video game high scores globally. Rogers holds more than 2,000.

He has appeared in movies about video games and rubbed shoulders with Playboy playmates and big-name gamers throughout the '80s. Companies shuttled him to $200,000 launch parties from his hometown of Chicago.

But that all dried up when The Dark Age struck in 1986. Rogers lasted until 1990, when he moved to Brooksville with his parents and a young son.

He took jobs as a repo man, bounty hunter and construction worker. He worked 18-hour days to support his family. His wife died shortly after the couple separated.

He didn't know how to go back to the gaming world.

"Man, I thought those days were over," Rogers said. "Until I bought my first computer, and I was like, 'Oh my God, I'm all over the Internet!' "

He only saw his name once on the Twin Galaxies Web site, though. So Rogers sent Day a 5-pound package with 300 press clippings.

Two years later, he was in Ottumwa, where he met Day. Since then, he's broken a world record every year.

One of his more famous records came in 2002. Rogers played Journey Escape for 85 hours and 46 minutes without losing, eating while he played and urinating only once into a fast food cup.

"If I'm going to break a record, I want to break it all the way," Rogers said. "So someone else has to do something really big if they're going to break it."

Rogers won't disclose how much he earns, but it's "comfortable." He sells tarantulas, pulls in money from gaming and co-owns a wrestling company.

He's unabashedly frank about his skill. He's constantly seeking ways to make video games easier than breathing. On Thursday, before heading to the Big Bang 2010, he put Crazy Taxi on mute and played a few rounds— blindfolded, with one hand.

"I'm like, 'Oh my God, I had no idea how good I'd be,' " Rogers said. "The answer: I'm pretty darn good."

These days, he has a gamer girlfriend who's also from the bay area, Morningdove Mahoney. She's in Ottumwa with him and holds records of her own on Frostbite Freddy, based on the classic arcade game Pengo.

"I guess I could take those records from her" Rogers said. "But what's the glory is that?"

Laura J. Nelson can be reached at (352) 848-1432.

World's first professional video gamer honored at Iowa museum 08/05/10 [Last modified: Friday, August 6, 2010 3:44pm]
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