“If you want to write your name into history, you have to pay the price!” Tough talk, befitting, perhaps, a general exhorting his troops before battle. Too bad they belong to Billy Mitchell, the former world champion of Donkey Kong, a man with an inflated sense of his own accomplishments. Seth Gordon’s documentary The King of Kong takes us behind the scenes of the cut-throat world of competitive video gaming, and it’s not a pretty sight.

Everybody sounds like The Simpsons Milhouse when they say things like: “He threatened my Missile Command score!” but it’s dead serious for the men who play these games on a world-class level (and with the exception of the elderly Qbert lady, they are all men.) When long term champion Billy Mitchell is challenged by newcomer Steve Wiebe, an epic tale of skill and clashing egos develops.

There’s not a lot of actual game play in The King of Kong, and the reason is obvious: retro games like Ms. Pac-Man and Donkey Kong aren’t a lot of fun to watch, at least not for the hours it takes these world-class nerds and “borderline autistic” personalities to complete a game. Instead, we get to meet a motley cast of contenders and organizers, including Walter Day, who runs the league with questionable ethics, and wives and girlfriends who clearly wish their men had more interesting hobbies. Steve Wiebe’s children, neglected while daddy’s trying to break the high score, offer the sharpest indictments of the gamer’s passion.

But I review movies, not hobbies, and as a bit of big screen reality TV, The King of Kong is compelling enough, at least for a while: the rivalries, challenges, suspicion of fraud, and naked jealousy on display are all the stuff of good drama. The material is ripe for a blockbuster comedy, and I’m willing to bet good money that somebody’s already working on adapting The King of Kong for Jack Black and Steve Carell. The documentary, however, ultimately gets away from director Seth Gordon. The King of Kong, drawn out in the beginning, is over too soon, and what should have been the third-act reversal appears as slapped-on text over the credits–a frustrating and somewhat inexplicable ending to a movie that just barely won me over. The King of Kong opens on August 17.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. Seth Gordon, 2007. **