This Saturday, more than 150 people will converge on Logan's Madtown in downtown Madison to compete for national supremacy... in a 20-year old sports videogame.
But not just any old sports videogame, mind you. We're talkin' 'bout Tecmo Super Bowl, a Nintendo Entertainment System football game major gaming magazines routinely include in their best-ever lists. This is the game that turned Bo Jackson into a videogaming legend. The game that gave us the outlaw concept of "lurching." The game that has one of the biggest cult followings ever.
If you haven't noticed, then you probably haven't dropped in on the annual Madison Tecmo Super Bowl Tournament, brainchild of brothers Chet and Josh Holzbauer. They began with 22 guys throwing down in the Plaza Bar back in 2006. Now they've got a national following, local sponsors, 18 NES consoles -- and a waiting list. Eleven alternates are ready to jump in if any of the 144 official registrants fails to show.
"A few years ago, we thought 128 players was crazy," says Chet.
The event's website has helped make Tecmo Bowl VII -- code-named "The Hoss Whisperer" -- a truly national affair. At least 50 competitors from 19 different states will be competing with the hometown crowd.
"There are so many unknowns this year," notes Chet. "There are at least 72 players we know nothing about. Of the 72 I do know, 18 of them are really skilled."
The winner of the World-Cup style event -- there are four 36-player brackets -- including one named after former NFL great and failed Detroit Lions GM Matt Millen -- snags a cool $500.
Even though the graphics date to the first George Bush era, anyone who's ever played it can tell you that the complexity of Tecmo Super Bowl goes far, far deeper than you'd expect from a game in which each team only has an 8-play playbook. This is a game in which broken tackles are as common as 800-yard rushers, and match-ups zip by in as few as 15 minutes.
It's totally normal to see plays like the one that galvanized last year's tourney, in which a pixelated QB skittered 30 yards backwards into his own end zone, only to heave a 100-yard bomb that won the game as time expired. Think of it like chess and rock-paper-scissors played at the speed of Devin Hester. Or more accurately Eric Dickerson, since the players represented in the game all played in the early 1990s.
This year's tournament will see the return of a competitive twist that debuted last year, designed to prevent a never-ending slate of San Francisco-vs.-Miami matchups. In each match, the player who wins the coin toss must propose a matchup to his opponent, who then gets first pick of the teams proposed. The source of this twist of strategic genius? That'd be a classic Saved by the Bell episode in which Principal Belding offers Mark Paul Gossellaar's Zak the same kind of deal. Now that's some 1990s cred for you.
Like a lot of the guys he'll be competing against this weekend, Chet grooves on Tecmo Bowl's deceptively deep matchup mind games, where players who pick skills teams -- think Minnesota Vikings and Washington Redskins -- can often outwit the ones who opt for traditional powerhouses.
"A lot of inexperienced players will pick the 49ers, Eagles, Giants and Raiders," he notes. "The elites will trend toward the lower or middle-ranked teams."
Josh is on record -- seriously, check the video on the website -- saying that he'd like Madison's Tecmo Super Bowl to go national, maybe taking the show to Vegas someday.
But, says Chet, "It's pretty much national right now."
Madison Tecmo Super Bowl VII: The Hoss Whisperer kicks off at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, March 5 at Logan's Madtown, 322 West Johnson St.