MADISON––I have a pair of buddies from primary school, brothers Josh and Chet Holzbauer, who organize the largest Tecmo Super Bowl tournament in the world. You remember Tecmo Super Bowl, right? The old-school Nintendo video game. The precursor to Madden.
At least they think it's the biggest tournament in the world, a claim that's difficult to confirm with absolute certainty. But it's the biggest that they know of by a large margin. They attended a tournament in Chicago in 2010 with 40-some participants.
Saturday's event held at Logan's Madtown pub in Madison––a Don Majkowski to Sterling Sharpe bomb from State Street––had 176 competitors. It was the eighth consecutive year they've organized such a contest.
I always knew they hosted a Tecmo Super Bowl tournament and have always wanted to attend but never had the opportunity to see the the spectacle myself until this year. I would be a spectator. The level of play was too brutal for a novice like me.
On Friday night I sent a message to Josh on Twitter, who goes by the handle of @TecmoMadison, inquiring when the action would begin.
Josh responded: "10am. It's going to be a madhouse with NFL Films crew there, but always room for one more."
I laughed. That was Josh's quick-witted sense of humor, the type of guy that could crack a joke with every reply on Twitter.
Then I arrived on Saturday and realized it was no joke. Right in front of my eyes was a crew from NFL Films, one guy holding a camera, another with a microphone on a boom.
Sure enough, NFL Films is creating a documentary on Tecmo Super Bowl to be released in the fall on one of the ESPN platforms, according to Josh and Chet. They were contacted out of the blue in October by producer Greg Frith asking whether they'd be interested in having their shindig being filmed chronicling some of the competitors' preparation and participation in the tournament.
"Of course, we said, 'Hell yeah, we're interested,'" said Chet.
Apparently the tournament in Madison will be part of a larger narrative examining the enduring charm of Tecmo Super Bowl.
"There's a lot of different angles to it," explained Josh, a 30-year-old project manager for a software developer. "One of them is all the former players who still like the game and thought it was really great. It was the first time that they got to see their name up on a video game.
"Another angle was that there's still these cult followings out there even 20 years later when there's so much more advanced games out there. There's still hundreds and thousands of people out there that stick with the retro games. There's a certain fascination there."
Toga Party, Football Style
Walking in the door of the Wisconsin tavern I'm greeted by dozens of jerseys of NFL players from the 90s, one guy wearing Kansas City Chiefs Zubaz pants and Chet, proudly donning a Brad Muster outfit complete with a neck roll and eye black.
The theme of this year's tournament was "Tecmo VIII: Muster's Last Stand," a play on "Custer's Last Stand" but after the former Chicago Bears fullback and a player in the video game.
Every year there's a theme for the tournament. Last year, it was "Tecmo VII: The Hoss Whisperer" in honor of ex-New York Giants quarterback Jeff Hostetler. In fact, Josh has a database of 400 potential names for future editions of the competition, each named after a player in the game.
Chet, a 32-year-old attorney, was hoping to win this year's "Best Dressed" contest, a $75 cash prize.
Of more importance, however, was the $1200 given to the first-place winner of the tournament, no small beans. Josh had won Tecmo I, back during its humble beginnings when they had just 20 participants. Chet had never won, and the odds of him doing so were becoming more and more difficult with each passing year.
Exactly half the U.S.A. was represented with competitors from 25 different states, and the competition was fierce.
I used to play Tecmo Super Bowl back during my formative years, the last occurrence of which was probably sometime when I was a teenager. I asked Chet how I would fare against one of the better players in the tournament.
He told me I'd get annihilated and would probably be lucky to score. The competition was pretty fierce.
"I think that there's a particular age group, probably between the age of 25 and 35 where everybody had a group of friends that they played with," said Chet. "Within each group of friends, there was one guy who was the best out of that particular group. And that person always thought that they were the best in the world at that game.
"Believe it or not, we still get emails every single year from guys that haven't attended the tournament in the past saying 'Everyone else is playing for second' or 'I am the best in the world at this game.' And you just sort of laugh it off, because it's another guy who, yeah, he was dominant against his group of friends, but the level of competition at this tournament is unlike anything most people have ever seen."
The challenge, over the years, has been to create a tournament that's both large in scale and fair to all the participants.
The 176 competitors need to be whittled down to 64 to create a single-elimination, NCAA basketball type of bracket.
To get down to 64, the 176 players are broken in four groups of 44, each comprising a different "region" in the 64-team field. Those 44 players are then broken into 11 groups of four in which they do World Cup style group play, a true round robin from which those who go 3-0 automatically advance to the field of 64. Those who go 2-1 take part in a series of play-in games to round out the bracket.
This way, every one who enters is guaranteed to play in at least three games, which they've found out is pretty important when people are coming from several states away.
The first two groups of 44 play from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and the next two play from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. The 64-team single-elimination format then runs its course from 4 p.m. until around 7 or 7:30 p.m.
"That's really the height of the tournament," said Josh. "That's when it's at its best is when it's single elimination."
There's also the question of equity and fairness. Anyone who's played the game remembers that the San Francisco 49ers featuring talent such as Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Ronnie Lott had a distinct advantage over, say, the Phoenix Cardinals that boasted Tecmo luminaries like Timm Rosenbach, Vai Sikahema and Tootie Robbins.
Every game at Tecmo Madison starts with a coin flip. The winner picks the two teams that will play each other. The loser gets his choice of the two teams. It's genius, really.
"It's an incredibly fair system," said Chet. "You can't pick an uneven matchup, because your opponent will pick the superior team, and you'll be stuck with the inferior team."
Finally, there's a ton of logistics that need to be considered to put on event of this magnitude. The venue provides a handful of televisions for use during the tournament, but for everything to operate efficiently, they need simultaneous use of 22 separate TVs and and Nintendo Entertainment Systems (NES).
Predictably, they crowd-source the necessities.
"There's a lot of lag on the newer TVs," said Chet. "It's just that the technology is so different from the 1991 game and the LG TVs and the plasma TVs that are released today. We're using six of the venue's TVs and 16 old-school TVs from other competitors and TVs we've gathered through the years.
"Josh and I have accumulated a number of NES systems over the years. Between him and I and our buddies, we probably have 11 or 12 NESes. We're forced to rely upon the other guys coming to the tournament to bring TVs, to bring NESes. It is a collaborative effort for a field this large."
All in all, the event takes them an astronomical amount of preparation. From December when they open registration until March when the competition occurs, they spend the better part of three months of their spare time organizing every detail.
But it all paid off.
My friend Chet won the whole kit and kaboodle. Of 176 entries, he came out victorious. He's the unofficial Tecmo Super Bowl world champion.
At least until next year.
Here's a short, five-minute documentary from the 2010 tournament, Tecmo VI, featuring Josh and Chet...
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