Home / Technology / Behind the 12-year-old Wii Sports hoax that briefly fooled the Internet

Behind the 12-year-old Wii Sports hoax that briefly fooled the Internet

Before his resignation in late 2017, Uber’s then-CEO Travis Kalanick faced more than his fair share of scandals. But by far the most (read: least) important of these was Kalanick’s oftrepeated claim that, at one point, he “held the world’s second-highest score for the Nintendo Wii Tennis video game,” as a New York Times profile confidently stated without qualification.

Ars dug deep to get at the truth of this claim, publishing a 3,000-word expose that proved definitively (read: probably) that Kalanick was really just confused about what it means to have a “high score” in a game like Wii Sports Tennis.

Now, over two years after that blockbuster report shook the world of tech-executive video game high-score competition, new information has come to light that has the potential to revolutionize our understanding of this important (read: pointless) story yet again.

Wait, what happened?

First, a partial recap: the closest thing Wii Sports Tennis has to an overarching “score” is the player’s “skill level.” That’s the Elo-style measure of performance that goes up and down depending on how well you do against the computer-controlled AI.

Based on a formula derived by a truly obsessive Wii Sports Tennis player, it takes roughly 160 perfect 40-Love matches against the game’s computer opponents to raise your skill level to 2399. After that, the skill level asymptotically approaches but never quite reaches the mythical 2400, since the game’s internal decimal always gets rounded down to 2399 for the on-screen display.

Unless there's some magical, unknown way to alter photos, this is definitive proof of a 2400 <em>Wii Sports</em> skill rating.
Enlarge / Unless there’s some magical, unknown way to alter photos, this is definitive proof of a 2400 Wii Sports skill rating.

The only semi-credible claim to the contrary comes from an unsigned post to defunct Web host 250free back in early 2007 (archived here). The anonymous poster (who posed with a Mii avatar named “Adam”) wrote that it took “nearly 20,000 games” and over 900 hours of play across 78 days to get from a 2399 rating to a 2400 rating. A counter displayed on that page suggests more than 60,000 people read Adam’s story.

The truth of that anonymous claim was always questionable, even with the “photographic evidence” of Adam posing in front of a screen showing a 2400 rating. The important thing, for our purposes, was that the claim itself existed online in the late 2000s, when Kalanick could plausibly find it and perhaps cite it as evidence that his presumed 2399 rating was “tied for second.”

A message from the past

Keep all that in mind and imagine my reaction when I got an email that led off with the line “My name is Adam Haller, and I’m the shirtless guy in the 2400 Wii Tennis picture.”

Our little "Adam" is all grown up, and he found a shirt!
Enlarge / Our little “Adam” is all grown up, and he found a shirt!

Haller, who later confirmed his identity with a more modern (shirted) photo, went on to lay out the details of his hoax from more than 10 years prior (lightly edited here for clarity):

I just wanted to let you know that there was a global leader-board at some point for Wii Tennis. It wasn’t hosted directly by Nintendo but a website similar to highscores.com (I can’t recall the exact URL) [Editor’s note: He may be thinking of the defunct wii-records.com].

What I can remember is that, when I played this game, I spent a few weeks getting to the score of 2399 and at that time took the picture. Afterwards, I decided to Photoshop the picture to say 2400 instead. Mainly to mess with a friend of mine who I played with a lot. I submitted the photo to the ranking website, and for some time they had me in the top slot, but they kept asking for video confirmation, which I obviously couldn’t give them. They eventually removed me.

During that same time period, I created a website on 250free.com to blog about it. I then submitted that website to Digg and created several fake accounts to up-vote it a few times until it got some traction. I also posted the website to several other Wii Sports forums, under false accounts to give it additional hype. I relished in the comments people posted about it, some claiming they had been trying for weeks to achieve the same thing, which is likely impossible to do. I thought it was funny to imagine people trying to match this impossible feat.

I hope this information hasn’t come out too late. I no longer like the idea of people spending a crazy amount of time to match the 2400 score thinking its possible when it’s not.

There you have it. A confession, from “Adam” himself, that the claimed 2400 skill rating that was once recognized far and wide (read: on some old Web forums and a defunct online high-score board with a half-remembered URL) was a hoax!

On the one hand, this is good news for Kalanick, who can now be completely confident that his presumed 2399 skill rating is not “tied for second” in the world but actually tied for first! That “rating” isn’t really a “high score” achievement akin to a perfect game of Pac-Man or anything, but it does show a decent amount of singleminded devotion and repetition on Kalanick’s part. So good for him.

On the other hand, it means Kalanick was apparently among those fooled by some shirtless trickster who happened to have access to a digital camera and some basic Photoshop skills in 2007. As usual, the moral of the story is to be intensely skeptical of anything you read on the Internet. Even this!

Listing image by Adam Haller

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