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Was Uber CEO Travis Kalanick Really the 2nd Best 'Wii Tennis' Player in the World? An Investigation

We have some questions.

Jess Joho

Image: Adam Tinworth/Flickr

A recent New York Times profile of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick reiterates one of the company's go-to anecdotes about how Kalanick "once held the world's second-highest score for the Nintendo Wii Tennis video game." To anyone familiar with the Wii, Wii Sports, Nintendo, video games, competitive gaming, global leaderboards, or how player rankings work, the statement immediately sounds a little off.

As the story goes, one night in 2010 or so, Kalanick was with friend and Uber investor Chris Sacca. Sacca's dad requested a game of "Wii Tennis" and Kalanick allegedly blew them all away before revealing he was tied for 2nd best in the world.

The first problem here is that "Wii Tennis" is not a video game that exists. I reached out to several Uber representatives a few times for clarity on this but the company replied that, "we're not commenting." When we asked Nintendo of America for help in identifying this game, it said "We have nothing to announce on this topic."

Based on this story's many retellings (and the images used whenever it makes media rounds throughout the past couple of years), most people assume that they actually meant Wii Sports, released in 2006, which included a tennis mini-game. It was also an insanely popular game that sold over 82 million copies and was packed in with the Wii in North America, so it makes sense that Sacca's dad had it. The problem here is that Wii Sports had no online play of any kind and therefore no leaderboard to keep track of the best players in the world.

Wii Sports. Image: Nintendo

"There was no ranking for Wii Sports apart from sites and message boards where users seemed to collate and compare 'rankings,'" Nintendo Life editor Thomas Whitehead told me. "It's worth noting that Wii Sports had no online play at all, so any 'ranking' would just be from playing offline."

Let's give Kalanick the benefit of the doubt and argue that the story could be referring to the more recent Wii Sports Club, which released in 2013 and also included tennis. This version of the game did have online play and leaderboards. However, Sacca said that the story took place before Uber got huge, and in a CNN video specifically dated the incident "around 2010," so they couldn't have been playing Wii Sports Club.

In my search for the truth, I turned to some unofficial experts on Wii player rankings, Twin Galaxies, an organization dedicated to the verification of video game world records and eSports stats.

"[Kalanick's] claim about being the 2nd best globally ranked Wii Tennis player is difficult to confirm, since he is not specifying the ruleset that he played by and who authenticated the measurement," says Twin Galaxies owner Jace Hall. Twin Galaxies' scoring database for the top-ranking Wii Sports Tennis players measures four categories: Highest Skill Level Reached, Ball Return, Target Practice, and Swing Timing. Unsurprisingly, Kalanick is nowhere to be found among these top rankings, and Hall confirmed there are no records of him ranking, but does allow that "it is entirely possible that his claim may be based on a closed system that he participates in that we do not have visibility into."

One theory that might potentially back up Kalanick's claims (though it contradicts many other details from the anecdote) is that the max skill level achievable by any Wii Sports Tennis player is 2399. Conceivably, in the midst of being the new CEO at a nascent Silicon Valley startup goldmine, Kalanick also found the time to research this little known fact, and jump to the conclusion that a score of 2398 meant he was tied for 2nd in the world.

Granted, as Whitehead generously points out, "If you have that rank in the game, you've played it a LOT and would be one of only a few, probably." Regardless, it remains to be seen why a billionaire who made it onto Forbes' "World's Most Powerful People" list would feel the need to keep returning to this mediocre claim to gaming fame.

Grand Slam Tennis. Image: EA.

Another theory that could make this story about Kalanick slightly less lame is that Sacca was actually referring to Electronic Arts' Grand Slam Tennis for the Wii, which was released in 2009, and did have online leaderboards. I reached out to two EA representatives to request access to said leaderboards but have yet to hear back. I've also reached out to Sacca for clarification, but have yet to hear back. As I said, it makes a lot of sense that both Sacca's dad and Kalanick played Wii Sports because it came packed in with the Wii. It makes less sense that they both had this third party tennis game.

It's entirely possible that Kalanick was, at some point, the 2nd best Grand Slam Tennis player in the world, though at the moment it is impossible to confirm.

In the CNN video, Sacca asked moderator Laurie Segall: "Would you ever want to compete with Travis Kalanick after hearing that story?"

No. I would not. But not because of Kalanick's alleged intimidating gamer skills. But because Kalanick took a simple, fun game, and made it weird.