When he visited our television sets a generation ago he came to us in two different forms, one of them human. In his time he was unmistakably the best athlete of both realms, and his latter manifestation—the indestructible, immortal, and still unstoppable Video Game Bo Jackson—returns to the field next week.
Jackson, whose appearances in 1989's Tecmo Bowl and 1991's Tecmo Super Bowl inaugurated a new type of sports nostalgia, will be available to all players who create an "Ultimate Team" in the first week of NCAA Football 14's release (it hits hits shelves July 9). They'll receive a card of Jackson rated for his freshman season at Auburn, good for playing 25 games with him.
For the rest of the season, a 99-rated Bo Jackson, based on his Heisman Trophy winning senior season of 1985, will also be available in NCAA Ultimate Team, but he will be very difficult to find, or very costly to acquire from the game's auction house.
He will not appear in Madden NFL 25, which also has an Ultimate Team mode.
"He was kind of a late addition for NCAA," said Tom Lischke, a producer on Ultimate Team for both games. "We had been trying to get Bo into Ultimate Team for years now. We thought we had him last year, but he decided at the last second he wasn't interested.
"We've been chasing him for a long time. He's such an awesome video game icon. He is The Video Game Running Back."
Once signed, though, Jackson presented a different problem to the team: How to properly rate such a gifted performer—and someone who brings back such fond memories—without breaking the game. Tecmo Bo Jackson, as he is commonly called, was such a destructive force that the Los Angeles Raiders had to be banned from human-versus-human conflict, like a rec room arms treaty. Yet Tecmo Super Bowl was not, in intent, an arcade game like NFL Street 2, Jackson's last video game appearance of any kind. It strove to create an NFL of believable performers relative to one another.
With Jackson, it got plays like this:
"We really had to talk with our core gameplay guys and go over, 'OK, how are people going to expect him to be? What sets him apart? What would be defining?'" Lischke mused. "To match Bo's last appearance that, I think, is iconic for everybody [Tecmo Super Bowl] we'd have to blow him all out and wreck everything. There's basically no room for any other running back in the game.
"He needs to feel different from anybody else in the game, but still be true to the overall experience," Lischke said.
The other quandary is much of Jackson's godlike persona is built on what he did as a professional—whether it was running for 221 yards on Monday Night Football, destroying Brian Bosworth in the same game, or as a Kansas City Royal, leading off the 1989 All-Star game with a 500-foot home run as President Reagan watched from the broadcast booth. In the popular consciousness, it almost blots out what Jackson did for Auburn, except for plays like this:
As showstopping as that run is, it's more along the lines of what Lischke and the NCAA developers want you to do with Jackson in Ultimate Team. I've run with 85-rated Bo, and he is as advertised. Jackson was one of the most devastating outside runners in football history, college or professional. He was elusive only because he left behind all but the fastest runners. Between the tackles, he ran over defenders rather than slipping by them.
Jackson plays true to that. His freshman, 85-rated form gives him 90 speed, 90 acceleration, 89 agility and 85 trucking (hitting a defender) versus 78 elusiveness. His 99-rated, Heisman-winning "epic edition" form gives him a combination of 99 speed and 99 trucking, with 98 acceleration, 97 agility and 82 elusiveness. He should also never fumble, with a 95 ball carrying rating. You get 25 games with 85-rated Bo. If you find 99-rated Bo, you'll get 45.
A 99-rated Bo Jackson should be, relative to NCAA Football 14, about as jaw-slackening as Tecmo Bo was to his game. "People ask me all the time what is ID is; they want to take him out on the field in the test environment," Lischke said. "The QA guys and the different developers on other teams. They all wanted to see Bo Jackson."
Of course, anyone can give a player a 99 in anything—you may create yourself and give all 99s in every attribute. Here's where you can tell not only how good he was in real life, but the special respect he still accords in a video game: If a 99 wasn't enough to properly credit Jackson's talents, the only alternative was to lower the ratings of other runners—some of them all-time greats.
"Bo has impacted other ratings decisions," Lischke said. "Once we signed him, having him made us adjust other guys down."
Such as? Lischke didn't dodge the question.
"In this case it was really Barry Sanders," Lischke said, Oklahoma State's Heisman winner who appeared on last year's NCAA cover and graces this year's boxshot for Madden. "Barry was always the ultimate back in our game. But [he and Jackson] have always played differently, and that was a big part of our effort, to make them all play different. Once we added Bo to the mix, we had to make some adjustments. We had to leave room for them to feel different."
It is a testament to Jackson's singular talent that he is remembered like a running back who played 15 seasons and immediately entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He played three, before dislocating his hip against Cincinnati in the playoffs in January 1991, a dislocation doctors attributed partly to the force Jackson generated as a runner. He never played professional football again. Jackson's baseball career, which he prioritized over football, and had him destined to be one of the game's greatest power hitters, shuddered to a stop three seasons later.
The real things he did keep Jackson in the discussion of America's greatest athletes ever, in any sport. But Jesse Owens, Jim Thorpe and Babe Ruth didn't appear in video games while they were active. Bo Jackson did, and if he was brought down—by his own inhuman speed—in real life, he was invincible in video games. Only a few other real-life stars can provoke the same kind of two-stage awe: Ken Griffey Jr., Jeremy Roenick, Michael Vick in Madden NFL 2004. But none comes close to Jackson.
"I don't know that there's been another player who occupies the same mind space in the video game industry," said Lischke, 41. "I got excited when we added in Joe Montana for Madden Ultimate Team last year. I spent a lot of time making sure we got him right. For my generation, as video games came of age, and video game football came of age, he was all that anybody ever talked about. And even Montana didn't have that moment.
"Maybe Michael Vick did. But Bo's a whole other deal."
Top image by Getty.