Twelve-year-old Jeff Hansen's face is impassive as he watches the earth rush toward him. He is 3,000 feet in the air, his body hurtling rapidly earthward, but the only thing that concerns him is the bright-yellow bull's-eye painted on the ground far below. This is a competitive jump, and Jeff wants that bull's-eye. His altimeter clicks off the distance to the ground: 1,150 feet...1,125...1,100.... He hears a beeping when he reaches 1,000 feet, a warning that it's time to pull his rip cord. He ignores it: 975...950...925.... For accuracy's sake, he has decided to stay in free-fall as long as possible, thus eliminating any uncontrollable drifting. Of course, with every second he delays opening his chute, the probability of a safe landing decreases. But he needs that bull's-eye: 900...875...850.... The last two digits of the altimeter are a blur. If he doesn't open his chute soon...800...700...600....
For those who question the wisdom of letting a 12-year-old kid jump out of an airplane, fear not. Because while Jeff's feat does require unflinching nerves, lightning reflexes and an intuitive sense of timing, it does not require a crash helmet, a safety harness or even a parachute. Jeff is standing on terra firma in front of a 24-inch TV monitor. He's playing Pilot Wings, a Nintendo video game that simulates skydiving. So as his on-screen alter ego plummets through the air, Jeff himself is on more than solid footing; when it comes to video games, Jeff Hansen, the reigning Nintendo world champion, is without peer.
Though the king of video games has no equal, the throne itself has many pretenders. Ask any of the more than 100 million video-game players in the world who the best player is, and you're likely to get 100 million different answers. "The first thing people say when I meet them is, 'I could beat you,' " says Jeff. But unlike the typical video jockey and neighborhood hotshot, Jeff has an official claim to his title.
In 1990 Jeff beat out more than 5,000 other players to win a nationwide Nintendo competition. Then, last September, at the invitation of a Japanese TV show, Jeff traveled to Tokyo to take on Yuichi Suyama, the 12-year-old video-game champ of Japan. Playing three different games over a span of six minutes, Jeff conducted a video-game clinic, nearly doubling Yuichi's score. He left Tokyo with a golden Mario (the hero of Nintendo's Mario Brothers games) trophy, an impressive championship belt and the Nintendo world title.
But as with all champions, the time must come for a title defense, and Nintendo has determined that Yuichi deserves another shot. That is why Jeff finds himself standing in the middle of the Las Vegas Convention Center on this January morning, surrounded by nearly 100 people, all of whom are watching to see if he can nail the bull's-eye and retain his title, or if Yuichi, standing four feet to Jeff's right and focusing on his own screen and sky diver, can hit his bull's-eye and take the title back to Japan.
Jeff is too immersed in the game to feel the pressure of the moment. His parents, however, do. Near the back of the crowd, Karen Hansen hops up and down, her fists clenched and her arms held tightly at her sides. She is mostly silent as she watches her son manipulate cartoon figures on the screen, but occasionally she lets loose with a "C'mon, Jeff!" Alma Hansen, Jeff's father, is sitting on a ledge to Karen's right. Alma, who runs a small mortgage company in Murray, Utah, just south of Salt Lake City, is dutifully recording the action on the family's camcorder, the job made difficult by hands that are shaking like windblown leaves. "I only got one hour of sleep last night," he says. "Jeff slept right through, but me—I couldn't do it."
At first glance Jeff would appear to be a parent's worst nightmare. He spends five to six hours a day playing video games. He plays in the mornings before school, and he rushes home in the afternoons and plays some more. His four younger brothers and sisters complain that they can never beat Jeff; the fact is, no one can beat Jeff. On any given afternoon half of the adolescent population of Murray can be found in the Hansens' den watching Jeff as he blasts and zaps his way to the highest levels of a game. "Often I'll find 30 kids over at our house just watching Jeff play," says Karen. "Then, when he beats the computer at the game, they'll all come running upstairs yelling, 'We beat the game!' Isn't that funny? Jeff is their entertainment."
Such expertise at a seemingly mindless activity would cause most parents to cringe, on the assumption that proficiency at video games is a sign of a misspent youth. But Jeff has done his parents proud. He's a straight-A student in the seventh grade at Hillcrest Junior High, an electronics prodigy who, at the age of four, took apart a broken radio and put it back together in working order. He was programming computers by the time he was six and working out binary math problems in his head a year later. He plays the piano and composes music, wins spelling bees against students who are two and three years older, and is one of the better three-point shooters on his youth-league basketball team. He's also close to becoming an Eagle Scout.
"The electrical-engineering department at BYU would take him right now," says Alma. "But we want him to have all the normal stages of growing up and interacting with his friends." Karen adds, "They're only this age once. They should be able to be with kids their age, and they should have this time to play games."
The Hansens bought their first home-video-game system eight years ago after being worn down by Jeff's incessant pleading. Predictably, he took quickly to the electronic games. "It would take him a little while to get used to a new one," says Karen. "But after that, it was perfection."
Karen and Alma say that they were never worried about Jeff's wasting away in front of a television screen. "We just made sure he had plenty of other activities as well," says Alma. Karen points out that they used video games as part of an incentive program: "We're the type of parents who say, 'O.K., if you get straight A's at school and you practice your piano and you do all your chores...then you can play your video games.' "
"Besides," says Alma, "consider the alternatives. He could be out there on the streets with the drugs. Or with the girls."
"Yeah, or watching network TV," says Karen.
Alma makes a face and says, "I'd much rather have him play Nintendo than watch that."
Jeff was soon unbeatable in Bennion, where they lived at the time. Curious as to how good he really was, Karen and Alma took him to a Nintendo tournament in Salt Lake City in the spring of 1990. (Nintendo had set up competitions in 30 cities as part of a search for the best video-game player in the U.S.) It quickly became clear that Jeff was good by any standard. Competing for the first time, often against players who were one or two years older, Jeff finished third in a field of 70, and his parents agreed to take him to another tournament, in Tampa. There Jeff finished first. At the national finals in Los Angeles, Jell' zapped past the 29 other regional champions to be crowned the U.S. champ. Then came his world-championship victory over Yuichi.
Along the way Jeff has picked up some nifty bonuses, including a $10,000 savings bond, a Geo Metro convertible, a big-screen television, two pairs of Reeboks and free trips to Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago and, of course, Japan. He has also become something of a celebrity in Utah. He had his first speaking engagement in December, before 5,000 elementary school students at the Salt Palace, where he gave an antidrug speech. "Never in a million years could we have imagined all this," says Alma. "It's a fairy tale come true."
Jeff has taken his fame in stride. When asked if he enjoys the limelight, he merely shrugs and says, "I guess." Though naturally inquisitive and kinetic, like many kids his age, Jeff tends to say little in the presence of strangers. Does he get nervous when competing? He shakes his head and then lets his mother respond for him. "He doesn't get nervous," says Karen. She looks at her son and smiles. "I'm the one who gets nervous."
Jeff's sky diver continues to fall. Karen is now exhaling with every click of the altimeter: 600...500...400....
Before the match Karen admitted that she was worried. Yuichi was certain to have boned up on Jeff's techniques, and because he lost last year by such a large margin, the Japanese boy had undoubtedly practiced hard. Sure enough, after the first two games of their three-game match, Jeff and Yuichi are neck and neck. The championship comes down to the last jump in the skydiving game.
As his sky diver reaches 400 feet, Jeff finally pulls his rip cord. But he is still falling at an alarming rate. He drops like a lead weight toward the outer edge of the target. Just when it seems that his sky diver is going to splatter all over the ground, Jeff pulls back haul on his controller, flaring his chute. His sky diver dips, slows and then sails gently forward, his legs just a few feet from the ground. His feet skim the surface until...bull's-eye.
Karen lets out an earsplitting shriek. Jeff's many relatives, who had gathered near the front of the crowd, leap to their feet and cheer. Alma looks quickly over at Yuichi's screen; although Yuichi also let his sky diver fall until the last possible second, he has landed just outside the bull's-eye. Moments later, it's official. Jeff's final score is 4,672,250 points, Yuichi's 4,231,650 points.
Jeff turns away from the screen, grinning. Yuichi also looks rather pleased. Through an interpreter Yuichi says, "Last time I lost by two million points, so I had regret. This time, the difference was only 450,000. I am not disappointed."
Paul E. Dangerously, a pro-wrestling manager who is the celebrity announcer for the event, approaches Jeff with a microphone. "Jeff, I want you to say something to these people, because I know they want to hear something from the world champion."
Undaunted, Jeff stares levelly at the TV cameras and at the expectant faces of his fans and says, "I'm happy."
Jeff played to a full house—his own—as friends and neighbors cheered him on.
Jeff (left) shook hands with Yuichi after besting him for the Mario.