It's blasphemous to say so out loud, but Tecmo Bowl ruined video-game football. It hurts to say such a thing about a seminal video-game title: The 1989 Nintendo game was the first console title that included the names of actual NFL players. Tecmo Bowl is so beloved that there are still Internet leagues devoted to it. Bo Jackson has said that he "can't go a week" without someone rhapsodizing about the greatness of his Tecmo Bowl character, dubbed"Video Bo" by ESPN.com's Bill Simmons.
The problem today isn't that there are no longer any games like Tecmo Bowl. It's that there are only games like Tecmo Bowl. By today's standards, the game was extremely limited: only 12 teams and four plays to choose from. (The 1991 sequel, Tecmo Super Bowl, included every NFL team and a mind-boggling eight plays). But back then, it was a revelation. During the Atari 2600 years, my brother and I would watch NFL games, joysticks in hand, and pretend to control the teams. (Yes, I know it's sad.) Tecmo Bowl was the first game that gave you the feeling that you were manipulating real players. It's what put us on the road to having sports broadcasts that look like video games, rather than the other way around.
But by following the successful Tecmo Bowl template, game developers have abandoned an entire genre. Before Tecmo Bowl, the best sports games weren't licensed by sports leagues and didn't include authentic team or player names. Some games, such as Konami's Double Dribble, featured teams that were obvious imitations of their real-world counterparts. Then there were games such as SNK's Baseball Stars, which included the Lovely Ladies, the Ghoulish Monsters, and the aptly named Ninja Blacksox, whose roster featured nothing but ninjas. Once Tecmo Bowl came along, these unlicensed games seemed exceedingly lame. Who wants to play with a team full of girls when you can make Bo Jackson rip off 80-yard runs?
In retrospect, there was greater variety in the sports-game universe in the days before gamers turned up their noses at ninja ballplayers. After Tecmo Bowl, every sports game was licensed by an actual entity—the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NHL, the NCAA. As a result, every game aspired to just one thing: to be the best possible simulation of an actual sports league. By the age of the PlayStation 2, sports titles were characterized by a depressing sameness, prompted in part by developers' ambitions and in part by the censorship and content regulation that comes when you sign a licensing deal with a giant corporation. In 2002, for instance, Paul Tagliabue brought some of his No Fun League ethos to the NFL's licensed simulations by asking Midway to eliminate some of NFL Blitz's groin kicking and body slamming.
The release of Blitz: The League, Midway's new unlicensed football game, heralds a return to variety in sports games. Blitz: The League—a sequel of sorts to NFL Blitz, its licensed predecessor—is unlicensed out of necessity. In 2004, the NFL and the NFL Players Association signed an exclusive five-year deal with EA Sports, the makers of the Madden franchise. Midway's response: Create a game that takes place in a mythical football league, featuring teams like the "Washington Redhawks."
Despite that team name, Blitz isn't a pale imitation of the NFL. It's more like a pale imitation of the XFL. Players and coaches curse, you can dress up your cheerleaders in leather, and you can send "escorts" to the other team's hotel before the game to reduce their stamina. When one of your guys gets hurt, you can treat the injury with traditional medicine or "juice" him to get him back quickly while risking even greater injury. (If you want your players to pass a drug test, you can buy them a "Pissinator.") There's a wide receiver named "TO Moss," an Arizona receiver named "Tidwell," and a quarterback named "Mexico." You can name your team whatever you like, and you can design your own uniforms. I chose a pinup girl riding a rocket ship for my helmet logo, though I was tempted by the cross, the beer bottle, the samurai, and the fist with knuckle jewelry that says "BLING."
Blitz: The League's weakness is that it often seems more interested in shock value than entertainment. The campaign mode opens with New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor—er, "Quentin Sands" of the "New York Nightmare"—breaking a quarterback's arm. Cheerleaders dance, crawl along the ground, and bend over in front of you while you're trying to select a play. The most sensational content is presented during cinematics—in-game movies that you watch passively rather than participate in. When my rookie quarterback went back to a "VIP room" with a cheerleader for what I'll call a "voluntary workout," the scene seemed designed to titillate without giving me any choices. The introduction of morality-based consequences—such as in Knights of the Old Republic—would have made the game more complex, or at least more replayable.
If an NFL simulation is what you're looking for, Madden is still the standard-bearer. Even when it featured actual NFL teams, Blitz's cartoonish eight-on-eight gameplay was both faster-paced and less faithful to reality than Madden's 11-on-11 action. But as Madden has gotten more realistic, it has come to resemble the real NFL: conservative and unadventurous.
With most video games, the trend has been to give players more and more freedom, as with the open-ended Grand Theft Auto titles. But EA Sports has been taking choices away from Madden players for years. For one thing, Madden eliminated the opportunity to hit opponents after the play. A creative game developer might have built in a penalty for repeated late hits, such as a suspension or a fine; instead, EA just took them out entirely. John Madden himself insisted that fourth-down conversions be made more difficult, so Madden conversions would succeed at the same rate as those in the actual NFL. But perhaps NFL coaches would succeed on fourth down more frequently if they tried the tactic with the carefree abandon of Madden players. (There's research to support this hypothesis.)
Blitz: The League is important, then, as a reminder that sports video games don't have to be constrained by authenticity. Gamers feared that last year's proliferation of exclusive deals (EA Sports also controls the licenses for NASCAR and NCAA football, while Take-Two Interactive has the Major League Baseball Players Association license) would limit competition. But rather than "curbing creativity," as one game company complained would happen, the deal has fostered it. The NFL's contract with EA Sports has given Midway a mandate to distinguish itself with an inventive, if flawed, new game, rather than reprise its second-tier NFL simulation.
The removal of the NFL's content controls means that gamers will be able to choose among a diversity of football games, rather than multiple variations on a single theme. Blitz: The League isn't the revelation that Tecmo Bowl was. But it is an omen: The fact that EA has a monopoly on the NFL may, at long last, loosen EA's monopoly on video football.