"Gosh, It's Beautiful."

How did a boring Nintendo game from 1987 become the most coveted cartridge ever? It's a bit of a mystery.

None of this would've happened had Jennifer Thompson not gone thriftin'. This was in April 2013, and she was browsing clothes and $1 DVDs at the Steele Creek Goodwill in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, when she noticed it behind the glass counter. The video game title sparked a memory, a Yahoo article about the rarest games in the world. Jennifer carefully drove her '99 Honda Accord across the street to McDonald's, just to use the restaurant's Wi-Fi to make sure she hadn't been wrong. She then crossed the street again and purchased the game for $8 from the $30 she had in her bank account, praying the clerk wouldn't recognize what it was and stop her.

When she took it for validation to a used video game store in Charlotte, the young man behind the counter rustled open the plastic bag and beheld the game -- pristine in its cardboard box covered by much of the original cellophane -- coughing the words "Oh my god." He offered her all the money in the register for it. She turned him down.

Before Stadium Events for the Nintendo Entertainment System came into their lives, Jennifer and her now-husband, Jeff, were scraping by. They lived in a double-wide trailer with a mouse problem and a buckling floor, so close to the Carolina Speedway that the sounds of engines from the dirt track kept them awake at night. Jeff had been laid off from his job working power lines, and Jennifer was taking classes at Belmont Abbey College, collecting coupons so they could get free deodorant and shampoo. The couple were slowly saving money, had plans to buy a house, but didn't know how many years it might take.

This game could change all of that. It had a strange mythology, and a sect of people who obsessed about it and were insane enough to spend their mortgages just to acquire it.

It's a mystery how Stadium Events became the most valuable game in history. Ricky Rhodes for ESPN

The orthodontist wanted the game, more than any other of the thousands he'd already accrued. He'd daydreamed about what Stadium Events would look like inside the display case in his basement game room, the fulfillment it would give him.

The only orthodontist in Bedford, Indiana, Tod Curtis was 41, with a wife and two kids, and well-liked in the small town. He had a free arcade in the front room of his practice. Like many children of the '80s, he cherished the NES -- introduced to the U.S. in 1986, it remains one of the best-selling consoles of all time -- and Tod kept a spreadsheet with the names of every game made for it, all 750-plus of them. Stadium Events was the last one he needed. In 2008, he wrote "Hooray!" in the margin after buying a cartridge for $1,475, but when he placed this game alongside his others, the joy it brought was fleeting. So a few years later, he found a second copy on eBay, winning it for $11,518.19. This one was in good shape, a cartridge in its original box with a single glaring cut running down its back, missing only the instruction manual. But, again, something nagged at him.

It was hard for him to explain why he wanted an even better copy. Anyone who might see the expanse of his game room -- safely behind the key-coded deadbolted door -- would not only stand in awe but also feel a little sad for him. His obsession was not merely acquiring or displaying the games; it was about the quest and some childhood longing that buying the games temporarily sated.

The obsession was also an emotional investment. Growing up, he collected baseball cards. "I never had a Honus Wagner rookie," he lamented. "That's what this game is to this hobby. I don't know how many Honus Wagner cards are out there compared to how many Stadium Events there are. If the game is really that rare, you can see in 20 years it coming up at Christie's, where people are going to pay $900,000."

Tim Atwood discovered copies of the game. In 1992, he was on a crew cleaning out an abandoned warehouse near a JCPenney on the east side of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and at the time didn't know much about Nintendo. The word was ubiquitous -- the NES had been out for six years -- but meant only Mario to a guy like Tim. Workers in the warehouse were tossing everything into a garbage bin, including dusty arcade cabinets. Tim saw a pallet of small cardboard boxes in the corner of the warehouse; those boxes turned out to be about 250 sealed cases of individual games for the NES made before 1991, all waiting to be scrapped. He knew someone with a storage space. For reasons he still can't explain, he decided to keep the pallet for himself instead of throwing it away.

Twenty-four years later, he had become something like a myth, the 60-year-old who loved Mountain Dew and playing the now-retro NES, who might be sitting on a fortune. Even those closest to him didn't know the whole truth of the cases. Finally, his friend Tom Curtin persuaded Tim to take just one picture, to send a message to the video game collecting community. It was a blurry photo, but the words stamped on the side of the case came through clear enough: BANDAI AMERICA, INC. STADIUM EVENTS. 6PCS. Tom posted the picture on, the largest online gathering place for fans and collectors, with the title: After years of waiting ... it is here and it's beautiful!

"That's when the frickin' s---storm happened," Tim says. "I should've kept my big mouth shut."

The game calls out to collectors. It is seductive because of its rarity but also a testament to the darker side of a hobby reaching new heights of popularity.

It isn't a good game. It's a boring game. Released in 1987 by the Japanese company Bandai, Stadium Events was made for a piece of peripheral hardware called the Family Fun Fitness mat. Playing it required jumping on the mat's sensors to emulate running, the characters in the game sprinting, hurdling in accord with how fast the player could go. The graphics weren't anything special. The easiest way to play was to give up running and crouch in front of the pad and slap your hands on the sensors as fast as possible -- cheating.

Nonetheless, Nintendo of America president Minoru Arakawa thought the technology could be huge, so the company purchased the mat and relaunched it as the Power Pad. Stadium Events was then rebranded as World Class Track Meet, so as "not to confuse the market," according to Gail Tilden, who worked for Nintendo at the time.

But what happened to the Stadium Events that had already been made? Nintendo and Bandai have declined to shed any light on the matter, leaving collectors to speculate. Rumor had it that the game had been sold at only one Woolworth's, which turned out to be false. Other collectors subscribe to the theory that Nintendo destroyed the remaining copies.

Not even Howard Phillips knows the truth. He was the face of Nintendo of America from the mid-'80s until 1990, testing and promoting NES games in Nintendo Power magazine. (A child of the '80s might remember him as the guru in a bow tie in the "Howard and Nestor" comic.) "There were 10,000 copies, maybe, produced," he says. "That sounds like a crazy- big number given that so few have shown up. Ten thousand copies for the North American release was close to minimum run. If there were 10,000, I don't know where they ended up. I don't have recollection of us burying them in a landfill. Destroying them or reworking them would've been a laborious task. Getting the label off would've been overly laborious on a per-unit basis. So ... the rarity is a mystery, isn't it?"

“No other game changes you like this one. You can't go back after it.”

- Jay Bartlett

Down the years, the game's mythos has only grown, a backstory muddled with wild yarns from collectors on how they got it and where they kept it. Someone in Atlanta named Cory (who was afraid to have his last name published) paid $35,100 for a sealed copy that he kept in an acrylic case with UV protection, which he then hid inside a Kashi cereal box. Dain Anderson, who created the Nintendo Age site, had considered the game his "white whale" for years -- he traded more than $34,000 worth of Atari games to get just one copy. Another collector traded a $30,000 piece of art for a sealed copy (there were five verified to exist). A lawyer in Wisconsin got his through a divorce: "I don't have enough to pay you," his client told him, "but I hear you like Nintendo games ..."

Pat Contri, who co-hosts one of the most popular gaming podcasts on iTunes, the Completely Unnecessary Podcast, owns every other officially licensed NES game, but he says he won't buy Stadium Events on principle. He recently self-published Ultimate Nintendo: Guide to the NES Library 1985-1995, a 437-page book that rates NES games on a five-star system, and Stadium Events scored 1.5 stars. Meanwhile, hundreds of the other games are hardly worth anything at all; Super Mario Bros., arguably the greatest Nintendo game of all time, is worth around $11. "You can buy an identical copy of the game [World Class Track Meet] for $3," Pat says. "Stadium Events gets pushed up on a pedestal. I despise the aura around it -- an aura of elitism. It draws out the worst of the hobby."

Of course, a large part of Stadium Events' value is driven by its perceived scarcity, which means that if more copies surface -- copies that might have been sitting in some attic, or maybe in some abandoned warehouse -- there could be turmoil in the collecting community, a sudden erosion of the game's worth. And if the game loses its worth, what happens to the people who obsessed over it, let alone spent small fortunes on it?

After salvaging a pallet of cardboard boxes in the corner of a warehouse in 1992, Tim Atwood's collection could be worth millions. Ricky Rhodes for ESPN

Tim Atwood sat silently at his home near a dairy farm in central Michigan, smoking a joint, his own blend of weed grown in his backyard. He named it Kid Icarus, after the famous but infuriating NES game. He was contemplating: Would he ever really consider selling his sealed case of Stadium Events?

When his friend Tom posted the fuzzy image of the case on Nintendo Age, collectors called him a dangerous hermit, and some questioned whether the picture was real. Others were glad he could conceivably destroy the game's value by flooding the market.

"That's actually my last case," Tim finally revealed. In fact, he continued, he originally had not one but three sealed cases of Stadium Events, each containing six copies -- upward of $300,000 worth of games. He'd already opened the other two and sold off the contents the past few years. He chose collectors he liked and made those lucky recipients sign a nondisclosure agreement, keeping the source of the game and its price secret. That would mean instead of there being five sealed copies of Stadium Events, as verified by the Video Game Authority grading network this year, there were actually 23, when you include the six still in Tim's possession and the 12 people who had one but couldn't tell a soul.

Tim insisted he didn't need the money. He occasionally sold some games on eBay when he needed cash, drew his disability from a car accident and lived an otherwise quiet life. Once, he said, he'd given someone a $1,000 game for a single dollar, just to see the look on that person's face. He did stuff like that to piss off other collectors, whom he blamed for inflating the value of the game.

As for those who speculated that his remaining case was fake, well, Tim didn't care, though he admitted that he had shown it only to his lawyer and to the person who had rented him the storage space where he kept it. He also had an immense NES collection in his barn, just about every game, sealed. A fortune in plastic cartridges that had never seen daylight. Whatever he claimed about cases of Stadium Events rang believable.

Tom, who had driven all the way from Boston to hang out and play games with his friend on this day, kept joking that if he beat Tim in Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour on the GameCube that Tim would have to take him to see the infamous box. Not a peek at the copies of Stadium Events contained inside. Just the box.

Tim rolled a cigarette. The blue of midafternoon faded into the unlit sky, the black of the middle of nowhere. "You can smoke my weed, the cigarettes, you can even stay here," he said. "But I'll tell you the one thing you can't do -- see that box of Stadium Events."

He would never sell the remaining box. He would leave it as inheritance and let his grown kids "figure out what the hell to do with it."

The orthodontist sat in front of his computer near the end of the auction on, hoping to buy the Thompsons' copy and terrified that his account might not work correctly or that there would be just enough of a delay on the site for his bid to fail.

His hands, normally steady in his trade, turned clammy and uncertain. It was maybe the most beautiful copy of Stadium Events that Tod had found. There was no way he could let it go: a pristine copy of the game, complete with its manual, the cellophane still attached to the box. He stood up, paced, sat back down -- a wreck. His wife was standing behind him, yelling, "Buy it! Buy it!" He typed the bid at the last second: $25,000, an admittedly outrageous amount of money.

There was a delay. Finally, the words popped up: Tod was the winner.

He jumped out of his chair, toward his wife; they fell into each other, danced. He'd done it, again. More money thrown after this obsession. But this was different; he knew this was the end, nowhere else to go. He slumped back into the chair victorious, suddenly reminded of the practicalities of a bank transfer to a couple in a small town in North Carolina.

"No matter what I collect now, it can't match the experience of collecting that NES set. It's not possible," he would later say. "It's kind of like being a Red Sox fan, like I was growing up. I wanted more than anything for the Red Sox to win that 1986 Series. I was devastated when they didn't. But if they had, that would have meant losing the thrill of the hunt for the next two decades."

The game arrived in the mail, packed by the Thompsons like a Russian nesting doll, box inside of box. Sitting in his basement, he was mindful of the mechanics of each deep breath -- raising the box with the Japanese art style illustration on the cover, two runners in motion, one in red shorts, the other with blue shorts and a headband, competing in an Olympic sprint. He had a spot at the left edge of the Nintendo case for the box, where it joined his other copy. He even put on his white orthodontist gloves to first touch the game. "Gosh, it's beautiful," he said.

He has yet to play it.

The game put a down payment on a little brick house with black shutters in Gastonia for Jennifer and Jeff. It bought a microfiber couch and a pool table. It helped pay off Jennifer's student loans. It paid for some of her Pyrex collection stacked in luminous colors in the dining room, with just $2,000 left over to put in the bank.

One day not long ago, Jennifer stood in her kitchen, frying bacon and giggling. "I don't know if it changed our lives," she said, drawing the "I" into an "ah" in a lilting accent. Jeff, a tall, hefty dude in a ball cap, shook his head. "Oh, but it definitely sped everything up," he said. "This has been wild."

After breakfast, the couple gazed at each other, at one point holding hands, almost in comic affirmation of their journey together, via video game, which had led them to an orthodontist in Indiana, and to this. Every time they hired someone new at work, his co-workers, first thing, would beg Jeff: Tell us the story! Tell the story of the game ...

Jeff laughed. "It's such a horrible game, though."

Tod Curtis spent the equivalent of a small mortgage to add copies of the game to his Nintendo collection. Ricky Rhodes for ESPN

In 2015, Tod heard from a man named Jay Bartlett, who loved video games so much he took on a quest to meet other collectors, trying to procure every licensed NES game within the span of a month. It was, literally, a Nintendo quest, a documentary of the same name that trailed him on his road trip. Stadium Events, the movie foreshadowed, would be the hardest of all to get.

At the end of the movie, Jay visited the only orthodontist in Bedford, Indiana.

Jay stood in Tod's basement as the orthodontist held his copy of Stadium Events, considering whether he would sell it. Tod knew he didn't need three copies of the game. He didn't want to hoard them, and he knew other collectors wanted it. Tod saw plenty of himself in Jay, that feeling of wanting to be complete. He held out the game, his copy with the long cut in the back of the box -- relinquishing his ownership, passing it like a family heirloom from one obsessive to another.

"He was the perfect buyer," Tod says today. "Someone who was passionate about it, someone with a great background story." But even now, Tod admits he dreams about what might be inside Tim Atwood's remaining box and whether anyone could ever persuade Tim to sell. Obsessions don't stop just because you have everything you obsessed over.

For Jay, as he carried the game in a leather satchel from Indiana to his home in London, Ontario, Stadium Events seemed an archaeological artifact. He felt an awesome power; he was a new member of an arguably insane club. Hearing him describe how he landed the game is like listening to someone recount a feat of athletic prowess, as though acquiring it were a matter of endurance: "There aren't many people who could go for it ..."

He wanted the game on display, where its importance would cast shadows on all the other games in his collection. He felt the game altered how people viewed him. He had Stadium Events, he was worthy; he'd passed some invisible threshold.

"No other game changes you like this one," he said. "You can't go back after it."

Almost every night before he could go to sleep, Jay walked the hallway past his game room, opening the door a crack, staring for a few seconds into the darkness, then flicking the light switch, illuminating the box with the runners on the cover, one with the sweatband and one with the red shorts, and the telling scar running down the back.

He had to make sure it was really there.

More Stories