Travis Kalanick, CEO of Uber, has had a difficult few months.
His company has been accused of systemic sexism, leading to an internal investigation. One of his lieutenants has been accused of stealing confidential data from former employer Google. He was caught on video aggressively berating an Uber driver after the driver complained about pay.
Now there’s a new, bizarre minor scandal plaguing the embattled executive: Questions have been raised over claims that he was once ranked number two in the world at “Wii Tennis,” part of a game for the Nintendo Wii games console.
First, the claims: A short bio of Travis Kalanick that used to be on Uber’s website said he has “managed to rack up the second highest Wii Tennis score in the world. Game, set, match.” And it’s been cited by investor Chris Sacca over the years, and reported by media outlets (including Business Insider) as evidence of Kalanick’s “singular focus” that has led to Uber’s success.
Here’s what Sacca once said (emphasis ours):
“A few years ago, Uber was barely started, Travis was at my house up in the mountains over the holidays hanging out with me and my family, and he’s pal-ing around with my dad. And my dad says, ‘Hey, let’s play a game of Wii Tennis (Nintendo Wii).’ My dad had a Wii at home and considered himself a pretty good tennis player. He’s like mildly athletic and has played in a few local tennis tournaments. So Travis is like, ‘Alright.’
“Travis is barely awake yet. And they sit there and they start playing this Wii Tennis game and my dad is getting abused. He’s losing handily to Travis… And Travis is like, in full ‘Princess Bride’ style, he says… ‘I’m playing with my opposite hand.’ And so he switches the controller to his other hand.
“They start the match again, and my dad doesn’t score a single point. He is absolutely swinging away and he gets no points in, and half of Travis’ serves are just aces. My dad is completely dejected. So this grin comes over Travis’ face, and… he starts thumbing over on the controller to the settings page on the Wii and to where they have the global high score. And he says, ‘I’m actually tied for second in the global rankings in Wii Tennis.’ He was the second best player in the world in Wii Tennis.”
However, there’s a problem: There is no game for the Wii called “Wii Tennis.”
The simplest solution here is also the least flattering: That Travis Kalanick simply lied, because the surreal anecdote contributed to his founder myth as a driven and relentless entrepreneur. But that doesn’t work — because Sacca has specifically recalled playing “Wii Tennis” with the exec, and the exec showing him the global leaderboard. (The alternative here is that Sacca is also lying, but then this all gets too conspiratorial and ridiculous to consider.)
So what is “Wii Tennis”?
The obvious answer is that it refers to the tennis game included in “Wii Sports” — the game that came bundled with new Wii consoles. But there’s a problem with that. There is no online leaderboard in “Wii Sports,” according to Ars Technica’s Kyle Orland, who literally wrote a book on how the Wii works.
Alternatively, it might refer to “Grand Slam Tennis,” another Wii tennis game, an option that Motherboard discusses. “Grand Slam Tennis” did have an online leaderboard, making it possible. But the way Sacca tells the story, Kalanick roundly thrashed Sacca’s dad at “Wii Tennis” while visiting the Sacca family home, and Sacca’s dad already owned a Wii. This would require both Sacca’s dad and Kalanick to have owned “Grand Slam Tennis” — when it’s much more likely that they both had “Wii Sports” instead.
An article from Ars Technica goes into impressive detail about an alternative solution. This is that they were playing “Wii Sports” — but that Sacca became confused over what he saw. Without getting too deep into the technical nitty-gritty, Wii Sports did have an offline ranking system that assessed you based on your performance against AI opponents. It’s possible that Kalanick hit 2399 out of 2400, the second-highest possible level, an extremely difficult thing to achieve. (It’s not even clear if reaching 2400 is even possible.)
Kalanick then showed this to Sacca, the theory goes, who became somehow confused over quite what he saw. But even this doesn’t make total sense, because according to Sacca, Kalanick played his dad and showed off the global ranking while visiting Sacca’s house. Kalanick’s level data wouldn’t be accessible on anyone else’s Wii (because it wasn’t online), so it would mean he decided to take his Wii to his investor’s house — a strange (though not impossible) thing to do.
In short: We don’t yet know the truth of whether Uber CEO Travis Kalanick was the “second best player in the world in Wii Tennis” — but the claim is certainly an odd one.
Uber, disappointingly, declined to comment.