Video games are currently a billion dollar industry, but it’s easy to forget how ubiquitous they were in their infancy. Consider Pac-Man, the pellet- and ghost-chomping quarter-sucker that took the world by storm in the early 1980s, inspiring merchandise, cartoons, and even a song. Pac-Man was everywhere back in the day, entrancing young and old alike with its addictive gameplay and insistent “WAKA WAKA WAKA WAKA WAKA” soundtrack. Even today, the little yellow blob is synonymous with video gaming.
And then there were Pac-Man tournaments. Enter Craig Schanning, who, in 1982, competed in what was billed as the “world’s largest Pac-Man tournament” at the long-defunct Milwaukee County Stadium. He was 12 years old. In a 1982 PM Magazine video segment on Schanning and the tournament, the West Allis preteen is described as a “typical 12-year-old. He loves the Brewers, he won’t eat liver, and he’s absolutely nuts about Pac-Man.” Schanning is seen besting his older brother in a neighborhood tournament (a scene restaged by PM Magazine) before heading to the big show with eight other players and having his game splashed across County Stadium’s then-state-of-the-art 30-by-60-foot electronic screen. Schanning, the youngest competitor in the tournament, eventually lost in the semi-finals, but he did walk away with a sweet Pac-Man phone, a digital watch, and a $25 gift certificate for more video games.
These days Schanning is 46 years old, married, lives in downtown Milwaukee, and works for the Department of Transportation. And while video games are mostly a “geeky, nostalgic” thing for him, he still finds time for events like the Midwest Gaming Classic (coming to the Sheraton Milwaukee Brookfield Hotel April 8-10), and looks back on his Pac-Man days with fondness and humor. In advance of the 2016 MGC, Milwaukee Record tracked down Schanning and spoke with him about his early Pac-Man fame, his run-in with infamous video game pro Billy Mitchell, and his teenage side job surreptitiously reviewing Atari 2600 games for the Milwaukee Journal Green Sheet.
Milwaukee Record: It’s safe to say you were a video game fan at an early age. What are your first video game memories?
Craig Schanning: Back then there really wasn’t much. It was always great when our dad would play softball and take us to a bar and they’d have that one video game, maybe Pong. Though I don’t have many memories of that, because I think most bars were still pinball at the time. But I do remember roller skating, going to Skate U [Skate University, now Icredi-Roll], and instead of skating I’d just be playing Space Invaders. Then arcades started popping up, and places like ShowBiz Pizza. I remember discovering Donkey Kong there.
MR: And what about Pac-Man?
CS: My first memories of Pac-Man were at Flippers in the Point Loomis Mall. I don’t know why we went there a lot. I think it was just convenient for my dad. We also had a couple of friends that had Ataris, and then one Christmas we got an Atari. Going back to that [PM Magazine] video, people were like, “Oh my god, this 12-year-old kid, he’s got 80 games! That’s unheard of! That spoiled brat!” But the reason we had all those games was because I had a paper route, and my brother had a paper route. That’s $30 a week, which was the cost of a cartridge then, so every week we could buy two cartridges. It just started to add up. And then once the video game crash happened, you could go to Pick ‘n Save and buy a game for $5. Pac-Man pretty much killed everything.
MR: So how did you get involved in the “world’s largest Pac-Man tournament”?
CS: My dad would take us to various events. There was a company called Video Exchange. They were the big people in town. I remember going to a Space Invaders competition downtown at the Video Exchange that used to be on Wisconsin Avenue, where the federal building is now. Then Video Exchange had something at the Milwaukee Arena. I don’t want to say a “video game convention,” because it was nothing like the Midwest Gaming Classic is today. But they had a video game section with a Pac-Man tournament. They had a qualifying round, and I just played it and didn’t think anything of it.
Then we got a call that all of the Video Exchanges around town were having the semi-finals. We lived in West Allis, so we went to the one on Greenfield Avenue. It started with six or eight people, and it came down to me and my brother. So we knew one of us was going to make it to County Stadium. My brother was actually a better player. They started you on the key level, where the key is worth 5,000 points. In a five-minute competition with 5,000 points on the board, if you missed one key you were done. And somehow…I don’t think my brother missed a key, he might have died, but somehow I had enough time left over to get an extra key. Did I have extra time? Did they feel sorry for me and give me some extra time? [Laughs] But I was able to get that extra key.
MR: Did you practice a lot before the big event?
CS: Not really. You’ll notice in the video that the tournament was on the Atari 400, the computer, which was way more expensive [than the Atari 2600]. I couldn’t afford that. I was the only one that I know of in that competition that didn’t have the Atari 400, which really put me at a disadvantage because I couldn’t really practice. I knew it was pointless. The maze was different, the graphics were different. The most I would do was, if I found a Pac-Man in the arcade, I would play it, because at least the maze would be the same. All the success I had in that tournament was just from the skill I had of the basic game. I never really went in expecting to win.
MR: I’m surprised. I was imagining you as a young Billy Mitchell, memorizing every pattern and level.
CS: Billy Mitchell can do whatever he wants. He’s just that good. Speaking of Billy Mitchell, when I wore the same shirt I wore in the competition to an event for last year’s 35th Pac-Man anniversary, he was there. He’s just a real down to earth guy. He’s part of the scene, but not really. He’s just good.
MR: So how good were you at 12?
CS: There weren’t any competitions like there are now. I was pretty good. I could hold my own. In school I was always known as the video game geek. Any time there was a little competition, I would do well. But there weren’t enough competitions to really practice or try to beat anyone. You’d see my [initials] on most of the video game machines that I would play, but that would only apply locally, and only for that day.
I remember the Green Sheet in the Milwaukee Journal had a video game reviewer. I wrote to him a couple of times, telling him what I could do, and then he started sending me video games so I could play and record them and he could review them, because he wasn’t good enough to get through them. It was cool for me because I didn’t have to buy these games. I’d play them, win them, and then give them right back to him.
MR: What are your memories of the actual event?
CS: I remember getting there and they had the [PM Magazine] crew following me around in the stadium. A lot of the kids were cool. The one who was expected to win was the Asian guy in the video. He was the oldest player [28 years old]. He was really cool. He talked to everybody. The person I beat in the first round, he was really cool. But the person who actually ended up winning was the least sociable one. I mean, it was some guy I crossed paths with for an hour, so I don’t want to say too much. He was the one that all the other contestants…I don’t want to say it was jealousy, but no one really talked to him that much. It didn’t seem…I want to say he had some arrogance to him. This guy seemed a little standoffish, and not in a computer geek, “I’m shy” way. I think we were all disappointed that he ended up winning.
MR: What was the setup? The game was screened on the County Stadium scoreboard, but you were down on the field playing on a little monitor, right?
CS: Right. The only time I’d look at the big screen…there might have been some lag, and it was black and white up there. But after every board I would stand up and look at…if you remember the County Stadium scoreboard, they had a little clock underneath the Brewers logo, and that’s where they had the five-minute countdown. So you had to be somewhat aware of that. Like I said for my brother, if it’s coming close to the end of your five minutes and there’s a key, you have to make sure you get that key. So you’d be paying attention to that just to have some awareness.
MR: You made it to the semi-finals, though. What happened in the second round?
CS: I can’t remember for certain. I know I lost a life, which wouldn’t mean the end of you as long as you didn’t lose your life with a key on the screen. If you did that then you lost that 5,000 points. Once you lose once, you know you can’t do it again and you start pressing. Since I didn’t have the system, I wasn’t going off of a pattern. I think people who had the system had a well-set pattern, but I was just playing freestyle. I knew the basics, of course, but after that I just had to wing it.
MR: According to the video, you ended up winning a Pac-Man phone, a digital watch, and a $25 gift certificate…
CS: I still have the phone! I still sort of works. I don’t use it, and the headset sort of broke, but it looks good as a Pac-Man nostalgia piece.
MR: The video also mentions that “as the youngest of eight finalists, Craig still has many good years of munching ahead of him,” and that you’d be back the next year. Was there a next year?
CS: There wasn’t. I’m trying to think if that was because the chain of places went out of business…it was right around the video game crash, ’83 or ’84. As a gamer at the time, I didn’t really notice the crash, because for me it was a good thing, buying all these $5 cartridges. But I think Video Exchange closed, and the video game market just sort of went “blah.” But for me it was awesome. At that time I only had the Atari 2600, but in the next couple of years when all these systems started going bankrupt I’d be getting an Atari 5200 for half price, Vectrex, Intellivision II, and ColecoVision, which was pretty much my wheelhouse after the Atari.
MR: What’s your relationship with video games now?
CS: It’s sort of an interesting arc. After the heyday of high school and ColecoVision, when the 8-bit Nintendo versus Sega thing came out, you had to make the choice: you had to be a Nintendo guy or a Sega guy, and I chose Sega. So I never owned a Nintendo system until three or four years ago when my buddy gave one to me. So it was interesting to be on that side. I mean I played it, but I never owned one. And then I kind of got out of [gaming] for a while.
MR: Is the tournament something that still comes up in your life? Like, do your family and friends still rib you about it?
CS: [Laughs] It really doesn’t come up. It’s still part of me, in a lot of ways, even though it’s not something…I don’t walk around like it’s part of my everyday life. [Laughs] But I still like video games! Once in a while someone will discover the video and I joke around with it.
MR: And you’ve been a regular attendee at the Midwest Gaming Classic for the past ten years?
CS: Yes. In fact, last year I got my brother to go to the MGC. He still likes gaming but isn’t into it as much as I am. But at the MGC last year they had an Atari 400 setup with Pac-Man on it. We’ve never played that since the 1982 tournament on that system. So we needed to have a semi-finals rematch like we did in 1982. Same rules: five minutes starting at the key level. This time, he got the last key and won.