Whenever you hear Howard Lincoln's name, it isn't a good thing. It is rarely ever of his own accord, as the name of the borderline-reclusive Mariners CEO is shouted as the default reason for everything that's wrong with the organization. Through it all, he sits back and weathers it, with his only significant recent comments coming in a lengthy end-of-year sit-down with Mariners beat writers—and he was lambasted for those too.
In the interview, Howard Lincoln swore he'd get the Mariners back on track and, when asked why he's the right man for the job, he said "I’ve been very successful in everything that I’ve done in my life." It was a line that caught my and, likely, many others' attention considering the Mariners' track record over the past decade.
But, for those of you who are unfamiliar with Lincoln's history before his time as Mariners' CEO, I recommend you educate yourself. Not only was Lincoln successful, but—and there's really no other way to put this—he was a ruthless badass.
Lincoln experienced incredible success during his time at Nintendo, but for purposes of this post, I want to call out his most noteworthy accomplishment and the style through which he handled himself. Many of you may already know Lincoln was instrumental in obtaining the licensing rights for Tetris—but what you don't know is how this all went down.
The deep story of Tetris is complex as there were many companies and entities fighting over the rights to the game so, for purposed of this publication, we'll keep it simple as we can.
Tetris was originally created by an individual who worked at the Soviet Acadamy of Sciences. And he turned the rights to the game over to the Soviet Union to sell. It's very complicated, but during the late 80s, as mentioned, several companies claimed they had rights to the game—one being Atari, and their console subdivision Tengen, and another being Nintendo.
Tengen and Nintendo did not get along, as Nintendo had strict licensing rules Tengen didn't like: developers could only release five titles a year for the NES, and they'd have to be NES-exclusive for two years. Tengen sued Nintendo for having an illegal monopoly and, during the litigation process, even obtained from the Patent & Trademark Office a version of Nintendo's chip that prevented the NES from playing unlicensed games. They reverse-engineered the chip, found a way around it and started selling unlicensed NES games. Their litigation with Nintendo didn't go well, and they eventually settled.
But the next time they went to war with Nintendo, over the rights to NES version of Tetris, they weren't so successful—after only four weeks on store shelves, the courts forced Tengen stop selling the game and recall the copies that were already sold.
From the article mentioned above, detailing Lincoln's time with Nintendo:
According to the book "Game Over: Press Start To Continue", Howard Lincoln says, "We knew we had those bastards by the balls. We knew we were going to make a fortune on this product and they, in turn, were going to get kicked in the head."
[Tengen CEO] Hide Nakajima knew what Nintendo was up to. Nakajima says, "Something went on between the Russian author and Nintendo", he claimed. "Nintendo knew we had the license, and it urged us to go forward with the game. Nintendo only cared once we filed the antitrust suit against them. They went after us. Howard Lincoln and [Nintendo of America head] Arakawa wanted to stop us. It was revenge."
Howard Lincoln affirmed this last point, "It was revenge" he says "And you know what they say about how sweet revenge can be."
It wasn't the only time Lincoln would ruthlessly maneuver Nintendo into position to kick a competitor while they were down. During the early-90s, when members of the video game industry were called before Congress to testify on violence in games being sold to children, Lincoln successfully threw Sega under bus and positioned Nintendo as the company that did right by consumers.
It was more than Lincoln's ruthless negotiation and litigation tactics that helped Nintendo succeed, as Lincoln was also instrumental in building strong relationships with developers. Lincoln is largely credited with fostering the relationship between Nintendo and Rare and, had it not been for Lincoln, it's likely we never would've seen Goldeneye, Perfect Dark and Banjo Kazooie on the Nintendo 64. He was also crucial in bringing LucasArts and EA Sports into the fold.
So, yes, while you can't deny that, as the top executive at the Seattle Mariners, Lincoln has failed recently. And it's very possible the ruthless, competitive nature you see above has played a role in that. But it's impossible to deny Lincoln's business acumen.
Of course, with the Mariners' estimated value exploding in recent years, there's also no denying Lincoln has been successful in running the business side of the Mariners. But, ultimately, it's the overall product he's putting forth that's most important. Lincoln's been instrumental in bringing incredible products to market before, and, as it seems he isn't leaving the M's anytime soon, it'll be interesting to see if he can get back to his old ways soon.