Stop Complaining, Your Football Players Aren’t LED Blips

Reviewers are going to review but damn, Madden has been looking amazing for eons

Us Gen X’ers have seen a lot.

We watched our neighborhoods become ravaged by the CIA backed drug trade. We grew up with the Iranian revolution. You know, the social upheaval that shaped our current Middle East reality. We were beat over the head with anti-communism propaganda while we ate our TV dinners.

We remember when HBO was only on the air for nine hours a day. (People dance when that intro comes on before every movie at the Bryant Park Summer Film Festival). We were alive for the birth of reggae, punk, rap, and dance music. We remember what life was like before everyone wore Street wear as their everyday uniform and we were the original sneaker heads.

Not to mention, we were the first gamers before there was such a term. And have you seen the games that we were addicted to? I hate to sound like I need to be getting my AARP card but every time I read someone complain about the lack of improvement in graphics or gameplay, especially in a game like Madden…I lose my shit.

I don’t intend to deal with the entire gaming world here in this writing. I’ll stick to one sport — football… We’ll trace the game from its beginnings up until the modern time.

For us, we encountered the portable games first.

What happened to Mattel?

That’s simple. Nothing. They are still the largest toy manufacturer in the world. Started in 1945, Mattel had it’s first hit toy with the ukulele in 47. Of course, by the late 50s, they became known for the toy that’s spawned thousands of IG names and even more poor cosmetic surgery mishaps. Yes, we’re talking about Mattel’s Barbie.

Flush with Barbie cash, Mattel sailed through the 60s and 70s. But in 1976, they decided it was time to shake things up a bit.

It may seem funny now, but in the late 60s to early 70s, there was a race to make the first “true” pocket-size calculator, an act achieved in 1971 with the Busicom LE-120A. (A year later, the first digital watch, the ‘Pulsar Time Computer’ was introduced) Electronics were shrinking.

So Mattel had an idea — take the same electronics used to make a calculator and swap them out to make a game — and Mattel Electronics was formed. The year was 1977. George Klose and Richard Chang were the men held responsible for making it happen.

But no one knew how the programming would have to work. So they consulted programming firm Rockwell International who just happened to have the right man for the job — Mark Lesser.

They had the general idea of what the game should look like, but no one had any concept of how to implement the game, or even if it was feasible much less marketable. Mark Lesser

Lesser had been working in Rockwell’s Microelectronics Division since 1972 and had followed the advances of technology. Having already designed circuits for handheld calculators, Lesser was the perfect candidate for this crazy Mattel endeavor.

I always loved games of all kinds, so I jumped at what seemed to me a fun opportunity. Rockwell did not share my enthusiasm, so without a whole lot of support it was left up to me to both design the hardware chip and program the game. Mark Lesser

Lesser consulted other engineers at Rockwell and decided on which LED chip to use.

This chip would need to be redesigned to allow for a display of the playing field and the score digits and to make sounds and read the input switches. In addition, all the game logic, score keeping, timing and display was limited to 511 bytes of code!

To put that in perspective, what we’re talking about is .50 KB….your average text message is 10 KB. The end result was this:

That’s right. Those lines are your players and that’s you to the left. The lines on the right slowly advance towards you and you move up and down (in your mind) to lure them in.

If you stay at the bottom of the screen, the lines will move down to converge on you and that’s when you make your move! You quickly move to the top and tap forward as fast as possible.

Your blip would go to the end of the screen on the left and emerge again on the right — that was ten yards. You did this until you “scored” or forfeited on downs and started again. There was no defense.

These little white handheld football games began popping up everywhere. My second grade teacher had a drawer full of them. It was an epidemic.

The real cool people, however, had the green one — Mattel Football II. Demetrius Mothershed had one of those and that was my first physical interaction with the game. It was so addictive.

But we never got one. We got the knock off instead — Coleco’s head to head Football.

Although this game was dubbed “head to head” that was more a marketing trick. No one ever played head to head…at least we never did. Being on defense sucked. But the game was cool. It provided you with two blips that moved in unison with you. We used those two to eliminate two of the blips that were advancing towards us. There was a pass function…don’t remember using it, however.

Coleco released a slew of “head to head” games with my brother and I procuring boxing and baseball respectively. But the crown jewel remained football and it’s what we played until the red arrows wore off on the buttons.

That same year (1980) would mark the beginning of the first Video Game Console Wars…we were just too poor to participate.

(Top to bottom) Atari 2600, Intellivision, & Colecovision

Like I said, It was a different time. A gaming system could stay on the market for years on end with little or no changes made to it.

The Atari 2600 had been out for five years before we got one, a used one at that. My mother bought it from a church member that December which we remember most for the Blizzard of 82. Thankfully, football was not one of the cartridges that came with it because Atari’s football sucked. Especially compared with the game made by Mattel Electronics, Intellivision.

Shortly after cornering a large part of the electronic gaming market with it’s handheld games, Mattel decided to dive into the Atari-dominated console market. Although Atari had introduced the 5200, it’s most popular gaming system was still the 2600 so Intellivision recruited George Plimpton to express his fealty to Mattel.

At the sixteen second mark you can see Atari’s woeful, Bob Whitehead (keep that name in mind) designed, football game and the Intellivision game right after. In Mr. Whitehead’s defense, he had very little memory to work with and no model to follow. But once we saw Intellivision’s NFL Football…yo, we were shook.

Sadly, we never got to play the Intellivision game that often. The only person that owned the system was Bobby across the street and for whatever reason we were rarely invited over. Reginald McKie says it’s because we were so damn poor. And we were. But damn.

Whatever the case, eventually we scored Super Challenge Football…it wasn’t NFL Football but it was good enough. The best way to score…throw a pass, run to the bottom of the screen, and turn up field…there was no chance of you running out of bounds. You learned these tricks, and the computer was no match for you.

We never played on 2 player mode.

Like I said, we were poor. When something broke, there was no replacing. Atari was on the broken-cable-now-you-have-to-replace-it teachings long before Apple. And this…

…was the first thing to go. This was before the internet. Something like this broke, 9 times out of ten, you had to replace the whole damn unit. And we already bought the system when it was old as hell.

So when that went, so did our gaming. Which was cool because Hip-Hop soon took over and became all-encompassing. I didn’t learn about the video game crash until much much later.

(Oh, Colecovision showed up late wearing the proverbial same dress as the host. Shit looks just like Intellivision, don’t it? Whatever the case, they arrived and then there was ‘the crash.’)

The next football game we played, we played in the arcade first and shortly thereafter, it came out on the latest gaming console…the one that resurrected the gaming business…the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).

I had a job. My own money. And that money was dumped into Tecmo Bowl. Sayyed Khaaliq Munajj will tell you, we dropped 90% of one of our minuscule paychecks into this game. Shot out to Celebrities for bilking us for check after check.

That game handled up to four players and what made it so enjoyable was if players grabbed you, I don’t care if it was four or five players, you shake that joystick back and forth…hard…and watch the players fly off of you.

And it was the first game where you could actually have a (minor) passing game. It became a major passing game when Tecmo Bowl made it’s way to the NES gaming system.

Aiyetoro KMT was the only person that I knew with that Nintendo. I would go over to his place on the weekends and he would almost always pick San Francisco. Tecmo Bowl offered two running plays, two passing plays, and if you on the defense pick the same play that the offense pick, it resulted in a sack.

Not so with San Francisco.

Tecmo was the first game able to license the names of actual players and there was no sacking Joe Montana and there was no covering Jerry Rice. So Aiyetoro would run up the score on me everytime. Some embarrassing shit. If I can recall correctly, you could switch between two receivers, an impossible thing to defend (unless you were playing the computer which was quite predictable).

It was a fun game, though nothing like real football; the same way Jerry Rice couldn’t be covered, Bo Jackson couldn’t be tackled. We were no longer playing with blips nor were we playing with nondescript sillouettes. It was more like playing with cartoon characters.

Remember when I said keep that name Bob Whitehead in mind? Well, Mr Whitehead became one of the more prolific game developers. Not only was he one of the founders of Activision, the first third party video game developer, he also went on to start Accolade.

Accolade is where he put out 4th and Inches. Never played it. Saw it advertised in comics the last year I seriously collected. Like I said, never played it but what I saw then and what I’ve learned to be true is Whitehead, pulling from his experience with the successful Hardball — the Baseball game Accolade put out a few years earlier — incorporated real play options.

That, in this writer’s opinion, is the most revolutionary addition to football video games. Graphics would naturally progress but without adding that one special touch, gameplay might be fun…but not realistic. Bob Whitehead, the creator of the first Atari football game, avenged himself with this creation.

Whitehead retired from game production and lives comfortably in Maine but if he had a wee more foresight he could have retired to the south of France and 4th of Inches could have been his cash cow.

Well one man did have that vision. In fact, he left a lucrative career as Apple’s Director of Strategy and Marketing to start a company based on that vision. That man is William Murray Hawkins III, better known as Trip Hawkins.

EA Sports Tiburon, Orlando, FLA

Trip Hawkins knew at 19 that he wanted to design video games. He estimated it would take him seven years to achieve his goal of starting a company that did just that. A year later he designed a simulated football game on BASIC. I’on’t know if many of you remember BASIC, but the first thing you learned was ‘IF’ and ‘THEN’ statements, you learned how to make the computer count, stuff like that. Designing a simulated football game…must have been a lot of ‘IF’ ‘THEN’ commands.

Ten years later, after a stint at Apple (he was employee #68), Hawkins started his own video game company, Electronic Arts (which started out as Amazin’ Games). The year was 1982.

I felt late, because of the success of Atari’s early hardware and a cottage industry of Apple II software companies, I counted 135 already making videogames. But I had a unique vision and thought I could become one of the leaders. This is what happens after you hang around with Steve Jobs for a few years! Trip Hawkins

Part of Hawkins ‘unique vision’ was to create a realistic game of his favorite sport — football. But the challenges were endless: EA kicked off right before the video game crash, they landed John Madden to be the face of the game but he insisted that there be 11 players on the field, and, as developer Joe Ybarra stated, “We were trying to model NFL football on a computer with less horsepower than your watch.”

But the biggest challenge was the fact that Hawkins wanted to get the game right. Because of this he had Madden send in an NFL playbook which Ybarra had to translate into code…a job mostly left in the hands of programmer Robin Antonick. And there was still so much to figure out: which angle should the game play from, how would you differentiate each individual teams’ playing style, etc. To speed up the process, Hawkins even considered getting the work done out of house by Bethesda Softworks, company that had made the computer football game, Gridiron.

As the saying goes, success has many fathers but failure is an orphan. Most games took 15 months to develop…Madden took six years. The game was deemed a failure and dubbed “Trip’s Folly.”

$4 Billion+ dollars later, Madden is a “Folly” no more and everyone wants their cut. The programmer Antonick lost a suit filed against EA claiming he was owed royalties and Bethesda Softworks settled out of court and the companies founder Chris Weaver, who takes credit for EA’s physics engine, thinks, “a piece of Gridiron still lives in JMF (Madden)even today.”

Up to 120 developers work on Madden, far cry from the days of having Antonick knocking away most of the code or Ybarra working 16 hours a day on computers that had four colors, no sound chips, and only one joystick port…and there’s a new Madden iteration every year. For the past 28 years that’s translated to a top ten bestselling franchise.

EA Sports aims to make the gaming experience as close to the television watching experience as possible, a job handled by former NFL Films cinematographer Brian Murray. (I know I’m not alone in looking for highlights from a game on YouTube, clicking on a link, only to find out that it’s Madden gameplay)

Our thought process is, ‘how do we script cameras so that they’re not only indicative of what you would see in a broadcast, but also accurate to cinema, and don’t create an immersion breaker between D-cam and the procedural camera system? So we created this really nice camera language where now you can’t tell between the two. Brian Murray

All this so people can complain about the sun setting on the wrong side of the Coliseum in Los Angeles home games. Google “problems with Madden” and you’ll see valid complaints about load times and gameplay issues like the clock not stopping when a player goes out of bounds. That’s valid.

But you’ll also find complaints about “not enough incomplete passes” or “no decent halftime show.” You’ll find complaints about the preseason play not being significant…so on and so forth.

Maybe it’s critic fodder, I hope it is. Because if not, either people are not old enough to remember the LED blip struggle days — which, I guess is understandable. If you grew up on Madden all you know is greatness.

But if you’re old enough to remember and have been playing games since the 80s then you are some serious ingrates. Whatever the case, we should be thanking the video game gods daily for the alleged tax dodging Trip Hawkins.

We spent hours entertained by games that had nothing more than lights, or stick figures, or cartoon-looking characters. It never ceases to amaze how real the players look, how close to reality the gameplay is. Not to mention, as pointed out in a Men’s Journal article a year back, players find that the game helps them adjust to NFL schemes, the game is that accurate. No. It’s amazing.

But to quote the great Louis C.K., “Everthing is amazing and nobody is happy.”

Want to see how Madden has progressed since 2000? Watch the below clip.

If you really want to geek out on the history of football video games, then read The History of Football Games. It’s some intense history that dates up to 2005…eleven years old, for sure, but you’ll see how quickly games developed. It’s an hour and half read…so yeah.