MADISON, Wis.—Most of us are realistic about our shot. We are going to get our asses kicked, and then go to the bar. But we're in March, we're in a tournament, we're all sports fans and if anybody in the 224-man field of Tecmo Madison, the largest Tecmo Super Bowl event in the nation, didn't harbor the faintest Cinderella delusion at some point, I have to wonder why they bothered signing up.
Jordan Rodgers, 30, of Portage, Pa. typifies why we are here. "Well, I don't want to go two-and-out," he tells me. No one does. He spent about $600 in airfare, registration and hotel, to come here. "But I'm hoping to make some noise in my group and, who knows, maybe make it to the elimination round." I hear this a lot. I've said it myself.
We look around the room and see a lot of guys who look just like us: men in their 30s, who probably went to a large state school like the one in town, who fought with friends over who got to play as the Houston Oilers, who settled dorm arguments or assigned household chores according to who won in this game.
Winning three games of Tecmo Super Bowl in a field drawn entirely from your peer group doesn't sound like an unreasonable goal. But we're not talking about beating your little brother. Most in Tecmo Madison's field are only nominally gamers. Tecmo Super Bowl is the only thing they play, either on emulators, or on Nintendo Entertainment Systems hooked to old tube TVs. And old tube TVs are the only way to properly play Tecmo Super Bowl today because, even though you can connect an original Nintendo Entertainment System to a modern flat-panel TV, if you do there's an input lag that totally throws off the game. So one of this tournament's biggest hassles is finding more than two dozen old TVs.
Tecmo Super Bowl at 21 years old, is old enough to be served the Bloody Mary most of us were enjoying in the morning. Guys my age remain attached to it because we know that the things taken for granted in a sports video game today—every team in the league, every player under his own name, and the means of playing an entire realistic schedule—has its origins in Tecmo Super Bowl. We remember crap like Ten-Yard Fight, or playing good sports games with anonymous rosters, like Hardball!. Tecmo Super Bowl gave you the entire NFL, and it kept stats, too. You didn't have to write them down with pen and paper in a three-ring binder.
Tecmo Super Bowl also may be one of the best designed sports video games ever, and a case study in how simplicity can be confused for ease. It only gives you eight offensive plays to choose from in each game, and the defense picks from the same book—essentially trying to guess what the other guy is doing. If you guess right, your defense annihilates him, even if you're the world's worst Tecmo Super Bowl player, matched up against the world's best.
The element of luck that introduces is one reason why guys like Rodgers and me and more than 100 others felt entitled to a puncher's chance at advancing in this tournament. The truth is that, to be truly competitive at all, you need to know the roster. And not just the roster of your favorite team, or the Buffalo Bills, but every team. From 1991. And not just "Well, the Redskins were good in 1991," either, you need to know how these teams were rated at the time by the guys in Japan who made the game. (And, actually, Tecmo did a good job, because the way Washington performs, you can see Mark Rypien really was a good quarterback solely because of his offensive line. He's OK in a short passing game, but Tecmo demands a tough defense and some means of immediately scoring) You need to know the whole roster, innately, like any blackjack player knows not to hit when the dealer's showing a six.
This is because of how teams are customarily chosen at Tecmo Madison and at other tournaments. You flip a coin. Winner of the toss picks the two teams to play. Loser gets the first choice of those two. "I hate winning the toss," said Jess Schuknect, 35, a Madison resident and friend of Chet and Josh Holzbauer, the two guys who organize the tournament. "It's almost like a punishment for getting something right." Most choose teams from the middle of the bunch, which again, demonstrates the need to know who actually stands out on a roster. For only the suicidal would offer any matchup involving the 49ers—the 1991 San Francisco 49ers of Joe Montana and Jerry Rice—knowing it could be used against you, even matched against another great team. And indeed, the 49ers appeared only 7 times in 364 group-stage games, losing only twice, to the Buffalo Bills.
The Minnesota Vikings, by contrast, were used 57 times, by far the most of any team, and indeed, that's who I played as when I broke my Tecmo Madison maiden. Matt Sullivan of Chicago, appearing in his third tournament, offered them and the Cowboys when he, thankfully, won the toss. The Cowboys built a three-time Super Bowl champion from a notorious 1989 trade that sent Herschel Walker to the Vikings for about a zillion draft picks, all of which turned out great. I made the same short-term mistake as Minnesota, choosing them mostly because of Walker.
My first drive ended without a first down, and I punted. Cowboys returner Kelvin Martin fumbled the catch. No event is more panic-inducing in Tecmo Super Bowl because it is completely a roll of the dice. You fumble when the computer decides you fumble, and not only that, you're practically helpless to pick it up. On defense, you cannot switch players, and on special teams, you control only the punter, who was off the screen on the other side of the field. So I watched the ball bounce around the screen and hoped a guy in purple pants would grab it, giving me control of him.
Bingo, Todd Kalis scooped it up and, using every last drop of his 25 maximum speed, I steered him into the end zone for a 7-0 lead. And I admit, right there I thought I'd punctured some myth about this game, that it really is simple, or driven by luck, and that I could come in cold and fight my way out of group play to hang with 55 of the best Tecmo Super Bowl players in the country.
Then Matt scored 31 unanswered points, and ushered me to the loser's bracket with just that single fluke touchdown to my name.
"You were picking the wrong player on defense," said Matt, who himself would go 1-2 and not make it past the group stage. That should tell you how awful I was (my scoring differential of -36 was 10th worst among the 56 two-and-outs.) "You weren't picking the right or the strongest guy on the field. It was obvious from the beginning." I was fooling with lunkheads like Keith Millard at linebacker, when I should have been taking the safety, Joey Browner. Hell, I should have known to take Browner because there was a guy walking around in a Joey Browner jersey with an enormous eight-bit football helmet made of foam.
See, Bo Jackson is not the only Tecmo Bowl legend. He's just the most familiar name (and probably why the Raiders appeared just 19 times in group play.) Trevor Ozier, 37, of Houston, was wearing the sherbet orange of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Vinny Testaverde, bought for him by his friend, Brian Robinson of Newcastle, Colo. "Back in the 1990s, Trevor would run that Tampa Bay offense against me," Robinson said. "It's a real bitch to stop."
Robinson was wearing the No. 13 of New England's Steve Grogan, Tecmo-famous for a different reason. "Grogan's just godawful in this game," said Robinson. "The worst in every measurable statistic." The best jersey I saw, the one that would get you a backslap from a complete Tecmo-loving stranger, was the 79 of Green Bay's Bob Nelson. In real life, he was an utterly nondescript defensive lineman who played three seasons. His last game, in fact, was in 1990. But thanks to an erroneous speed rating, he is an animal in Tecmo Super Bowl and, illustrating Matt Sullivan's lesson to me, one of the guys you have to use if you're playing with Green Bay.
"Sterling Sharpe just caught it one-on-one versus Haddix!" someone shouted midway through the first slate of games, and this brings anyone not gripping a gamepad over to the Group AA TV to see. See, Wayne Haddix is also one of the best defensive backs in the game thanks to a fluke, seven-interception season the year before Tecmo Super Bowl released. His career was over a year later. A one-on-one catch against Haddix—this is where the game shows a cutscene of both the receiver and defensive back going into the air, and one of them landing with the ball—is a signal event in Tecmo Super Bowl. The fact it happened against Josh Holzbauer, his group's top seed, coming from Jacob Kraus of Prairie du Sac, Wis., the group's lowest, stirred interest in an early upset.
It never materialized. In this tournament it can be hard to know when you're in over your head because, frankly, everyone looks a lot alike. The Vogt brothers—Chris and Matt from Ohio, or Sobhi Youssef of Minneapolis, or the Tecmo savant Francis Buennagel of Buffalo, N.Y. all became famous thanks to this NFL Films documentary, which aired in October and is a big reason this year's field swelled by nearly 50 players. Youssef and Buennagel, both past champions, stick out because they are, bluntly, among the very, very few entrants here who are not white guys, though Buennagel's preternatural A-button tapping ability would make him stand out even if he looked like Charlie Brown. And Matt Vogt—let's put it this way, he's built like a guy who works for a steel company in Ohio. If you can't find Matt in a room, you need new eyeballs. Tony Orenga, the top seed in my group, brings a cheering section so loud and obnoxious he apologizes to his opponents beforehand.
But James Thomas? A guy with two first names from Wisconsin? Yeah, go Google that. He is better known as "Skunker," because he blanked Youssef—who truly does consider himself the best in the world at Tecmo Super Bowl ("bestinworld" is his nickname on the Tecmo Madison leaderboard)—the first time the two met, in the first game of a double-elimination championship at Tecmo Madison II. Jordan Rodgers, the first-timer from western Pennsylvania, won his first two games in Group K. A third victory would assure him of his goal of making the knockout stage. He'll go up against Skunker for it.
Rodgers instead leaves the game having something in common with Youssef—both being skunked by Thomas in tournament play. The game actually is called with a handshake in the second half, with Thomas's Vikings leading Miami 30-0. An interception by, yep, Joey Browner to open the fourth quarter is the killing blow.
"I was really impressed with him," Thomas said after the game. "Watching him before, I was really worried about him." There's a jump-catch exploit that Tecmo experts know, and Rodgers showed he could use it in earlier games, Thomas explained. "I wouldn't want to have to play him in single elimination."
Rodgers was crestfallen but not eliminated. He was still alive in the final of the loser's bracket, whose winner would get the runner-up bid to the next stage. He faced Kevin Hine, 27, of Columbus, Ohio. The two met at the bar earlier in the day, even sharing a cheat-sheet for picking matchups if they won the toss. Rodgers already had his mind made up if he did. "I'm gonna go Jets-Steelers," he says. His favorite team is a risky selection. Pittsburgh has a great defense but can't move the ball at all. "I grew up with the Steelers of Louis Lipps, Bubby Brister, Merrill Hoge," Rodgers insists, "so if I'm gonna go down, I'll go down with them."
It doesn't come to that, though. Hine wines the toss and offers him the choice of the Chargers or the Redskins. Rodgers takes the Redskins. Hine gets out to a 7-0 lead on a 46-yard sweep with Marion Butts. Thomas had exposed Rodgers' weakness defending a long run, especially if his opponent had a free blocker, and Hine clearly was going after it. On his next possession, Rodgers faces fourth down from his own 37, calls timeout, and elects to go for it. The ball is intercepted at the five. "I'll take that, it's like a punt," Rodgers says.
He claws back to 14-7 when Earnest Byner breaks a 23-yard run. But Hine immediately responds, passing for a touchdown from Billy Joe Tolliver to Ronnie Harmon with 3:26 left in the third quarter. Anyone who plays Tecmo Super Bowl knows Rodgers has a lot less time than that, because the clock runs faster than real time. When Rodgers' next series ends in an interception, his tournament is effectively over. His shoulders slump. He loses 21-7.
Rodgers still stuck around, even with more than nine hours left to play in a tournament that ends around 10 p.m. when Chet Holzbauer subdues Kyle Miller, of Elkhart Ind. in two straight games to repeat as Tecmo Madison champion. Very few leave the tournament once they are beaten, and I'm not just talking about superstars like the Vogts, or Buennagel and his brother, Louis, who bowed out gracefully late in the day. I saw tons of guys who went 0-2 and were done by 1 p.m. still standing in the banquet room when Holzbauer's Bengals beat Miller's Lions 28-17.
Holzbauer is, for the next year, the de facto world champion of Tecmo Super Bowl, a game most American males that age have told at least one person they are the best at. Hell, I have, and I'm objectively terrible at it, It's an obligatory claim, nearly impossible to prove. Indeed, Tecmo Madison doesn't style itself as any kind of national or world championship, even though it probably is. It's just Tecmo Madison. Someone, conceivably, is out there, capable of beating Holzbauer by 28 points tomorrow.
But we still say "I'm the best at Tecmo Super Bowl," because it has meaning as a cultural shorthand. It means you got the game on Christmas Day when you were in grade school. It means you stuck Jerry Rice at running back and racked up 300 yards against the computer. It means you and your friends had a rule against sticking Jerry Rice at running back.
And now it means you're in your 30s. You're at an age where you can't go down the street to play Tecmo Super Bowl at a friend's house, you have to get a hotel room in a strange town and put $600 on a credit card to play it in a bar. It means you finish a complete stranger's sentences because of memories you made two decades ago, and you buy him a drink. You don't come to Tecmo Madison to really find out if you are One of the Best at Tecmo Super Bowl. You're here, like Jordan Rodgers, to learn that you always were.