Once Upon a Time, There Was a Hedgehog

Blake Harris on Sonic, hustling, and his new book, Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle That Defined a Generation

If you ask Blake Harris what he does for a living, he’ll tell you he’s a writer. But he’s also a salesman, one practiced in the art of the soft sell. Just ask his doorman.

"Mr. Harris asked me, ‘Do you like video games?’" the besuited twenty-something doorman tells me. Next to his security camera feed, there’s a beaten-up review copy of Console Wars, Harris's 576-page saga about the gaming industry which was released in bookstores last week. "I said, 'Yeah,' and he was like, 'You should check out this book I wrote,' and he gave me a copy. I'm like 25% through it, and I'd say it's amazing! It's a must-read."

Wearing flip-flops and striped shorts, face unshaved, Harris leans against the doorman’s desk and smiles. As he's learned in his research, there's no brand evangelist quite like an enthusiastic gamer, and now he has one of his own, greeting visitors at the front door.

Console Wars (which was released last week) is Harris’s first book, and also happens to be the first book-length history of the vicious battle waged by Sega and Nintendo for the hearts and minds of early-1990s gamers. Sega began that decade as a virtual nonentity in the gaming market, but launched an all-out attack on industry leader Nintendo, that—improbably—worked, winning Sega market-share parity with Nintendo in the U.S. for a time. At its core, the book is a story about the dark arts of marketing: somehow, a bunch of middle-aged stiffs convinced America that Sonic The Hedgehog (yes, that's a capital "T"—we'll get to that) was cool and Mario was not.

"Sega were very conscious of the zeitgeist of the early '90s," the 31-year-old Harris tells me. "They leveraged what was going on at Nickelodeon, what was going on in the grunge craze, the political attitude with Bill Clinton taking over in 1993. They were able to package all of that in a way where people thought they were buying something new."

Upstairs, in the sleek condo he shares with his fiancée, Harris opens his laptop and we watch a Sega TV spot from the period. A teenaged white dude with a flannel shirt and Kurt Cobain haircut makes a Macaulay Culkin-esque face of surprise as a Sega game blows his mind. The camera spins dizzyingly, guitars wail, and no shot lasts longer than a second. A disembodied voice screams "Sega!" so quickly that the name is barely intelligible.

The ad is groan-worthy now, but at the time, Harris says, it was revolutionary: prior to that, he claims, no one had tried to brand gaming as an extreme sport—it had all been sterile kids' stuff. At the heart of Sega’s teen-focused push was Sonic, dashing across screens with spiked hair and a sassy expression. As it turned out, Sega had put a near-insane amount of work into crafting their animated brand ambassador.

"His middle name was 'The,' with a capital 'T,'" Harris says. "That fact doesn't matter to 99.9% of situations, but their marketing guys knew there would be some situations where that could be an interesting or funny anecdote. Plus, it'd read more strongly to have a capitalized 'T.' That's something a lot of other companies wouldn't think about. But they wanted to get every inch out of their characters."

Harris is getting every inch out of his own product, as well. In a truly bizarre turn for a first-time author, Harris began a documentary about the console wars simultaneously to researching his book, and sold the rights to a feature-film adaptation, helmed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, even before he’d sold the book proposal. A few years ago, Harris was just a fan of The Social Network; today, that film’s producer, Scott Rudin, is producing the movie version of his book. By just about any standard, Console Wars was a success months before it hit shelves.

Lest anyone get jealous, "I'd come from seven years of failure," Harris says. After graduating from Georgetown with a creative writing degree, he sank $40,000 dollars into a self-produced mockumentary about rock-paper-scissors, penned multiple failed screenplays, and toiled at a day-job trading Brazilian commodities. He’d hired a manager who believed in him, but that was about it. His turnaround began in 2010, thanks to a lame birthday gift.

"My brother's a terrible gift-giver," Harris says. "He was like, 'What's one of the best gifts you've ever gotten?' And I was like, 'Well, when we were kids and we got our Sega Genesis, that was pretty great.' So he just ripped that off and gave me a used Genesis."

The underwhelming present sparked his curiosity. Harris wasn't a gaming addict in the '90s, but he had lived through the Sega-Nintendo battle, and soon found himself perusing Wikipedia articles on the console wars—only to discover that there was no authoritative book on the topic. He was a fan of narrative nonfiction about big business ("I think Michael Lewis is just the top, the paradigm for nonfiction writing," he says), and decided to try his hand at the genre in his off-hours from commodities trading.

What followed were months of non-stop hustling: making cold calls to Sega and Nintendo execs, getting access to the print-only archives of trade magazines, and simultaneously trying to find Hollywood stars who might want to attach themselves to the project (he says he got his first meeting with Rogen and Goldberg after Googling the term "celebrity gamers" and asking his manager to reach out). Even now, he says he's doing much of the book publicity on his own, writing personalized emails to bloggers and editors.

To listen to him talk, it almost sounds like he's selling an app instead of a book. Indeed, Harris has the earnest, enthusiastic demeanor of a startup founder: casual to a fault in his dress and just humble enough to avoid sounding like a jerk, but unwaveringly committed to selling what he's created.

As afternoon light fills the condo, Harris pulls out his used Super Nintendo console and plugs it into the TV—the fateful Sega Genesis, he explains, is on the fritz. He’s very good at NBA Jam, a hit 1993 game with a comically unrealistic depiction of basketball (all matchups are two-on-two and the ball occasionally bursts into flames), but he’s even better at NHL ’94, though he politely suggests we stop playing once it becomes obvious that I have no idea how to work the controls. Before inserting a new cartridge into the console, he’ll blow into it loudly, a ubiquitous '90s troubleshooting tactic. ("People say it’s an urban legend, they say blowing doesn’t work," he says in a rare moment of irritation. "But it does!")

When it’s time to go home, he offers to escort me to the subway. During the walk, he talks about some panels he’s leading at the San Diego Comic-Con and E3, and quizzes me on my childhood preference for Nintendo over Sega. But his eyes really light up when he talks about his next hustle: he co-wrote the book and lyrics for a musical about two guys who get trapped in the Internet, called WikiMusical. It debuts in July.

"I think you’ll really like it," he says, giving me the doorman treatment. "Let me know if you want to come."

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