The people who stare at video games

Matthew Vogt did not play professional football. He didn't get the chance to play college football. He didn't even play high school football. When he turned 14, the legal age to begin working in Ohio, his father needed help in the family business, so he spent 30 hours a week in a meat market instead.

"I went to one team meeting. I went to work the next day," said Vogt. With a physique born for the duty of left tackle, he could have played for the state's winningest coach at Hamilton Badin High. "I really think I would have gone on to play at least at a small college."

Vogt, 29, directs trucks to a loading dock today. He looks very much like a guy who went to high school cutting meat and graduated to a steelyard. But where his classmates ended their days of playing before a large, cheering crowd when they handed in their pads after senior day, Vogt still is in his prime as one of the world's best in his game. And last month he engineered one of the most compelling comebacks I have ever witnessed live.

In a video game. In Tecmo Super Bowl, to be precise, a 22-year-old cartridge for the Nintendo Entertainment System.

I shouldn't have to justify competitive video gaming as a sport by now, especially when the U.S. State Department is giving foreign gamers the same kind of visas that elite athletes receive. Still, this concept is usually met with arched eyebrows and smirks, even from some gamers themselves — 45 million of whom still go to Twitch every month to gobble up hours and hours of what I just described: watching someone play a game.

Forget the visas; if an audience of 40 million doesn't make something a legitimate spectator sport, then nothing does.

These guys take their craft as seriously as a football player

"If you watch pro gamers in any game, whether it's a first-person shooter or a strategy game, the level of skill involved is incredible," Matthew DiPietro, a Twitch executive, said when I asked him to justify the most visible product his business serves up. "That's something that's not immediately apparent to a nongaming audience. These guys are professionals, who practice for hours and hours every day, and take their craft as seriously as a track athlete or a football player."

What bothers people about the comparison of eSports stars to professional athletes is the absence of physical activity in the competition. I'm not talking about the effort of the participants, either. Most will question whether something can be a sport if so much of its existence takes place on a screen.

The Orange Bowl sat 75,500 people in 1982, but millions more watching on NBC saw Kellen Winslow helped off the field by two San Diego Chargers after the Epic in Miami. Hundreds were leaving Dodger Stadium's parking lot when Kirk Gibson launched his home run in the 1988 World Series, and yet thousands have intensely personal recollections of that event. N.C. State students gathered for the 1983 NCAA men's basketball final, live on a blurry projection screen outside D.H. Hill Library. Who knows if they really saw Lorenzo Charles, but his championship-winning dunk is venerated as if it happened in person.

To flip the premise again, Daigo Umehara had a live audience for his famous full parry in Street Fighter at the Evo World Championships ten years ago. Last month, Poland's Virtus.pro team literally played in an arena when it took down rival N.I.P., the world No. 1, in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive at the Extreme Masters World Finals. And to all of that you can add Matt Vogt's win over James "Skunker" Thomas in the loser's bracket semifinal at Tecmo Madison X on March 8, the 256-player tournament that effectively crowns the world champion of that — sure, I'll say it — sport.

The badge of honor for a sports fan is to say you were there. And I was. As sure as my mind's eye replays last year's Auburn-Alabama finale, I can picture Vogt, in a Michigan football beanie and sweatshirt, hunched over his gamepad to the right of Thomas, whose "Skunker" nickname was earned with the unforgettable shutout he laid eight years ago on Sobhi Youssef, the black hat of elite Tecmo players.

The badge of honor for a fan is to say you were there.

Jon Bailey, the tournament's director, could not see either of the the participants, the crowd was so thick around the main competition screen at Badger Bowl, Tecmo Madison's home. "As I'm looking out over a sea of people, my job is to make sure James and Matt are at the TV. And I can't pick them out of the crowd.

"I can see Matt's brothers, Chris and Joey," he said. "And then the sea parted and I could see them both, going through the flip, sitting down, doing the final checks. Then I could stand and watch the game."

Skunker's namesake victory came with the Dolphins. "James has played something like 200 to 300 games where he was the Dolphins," Bailey said. "When James has the Dolphins, it's like Peyton Manning, where Manning gets to the line and knows the defensive back is burned already," Bailey said. "Snap, catch, first down."

Thomas won the coin toss and, per the rules Bailey established years ago, offered Vogt his choice of the Chiefs or the Dolphins. Vogt, brilliantly lured to the trap, took Kansas City.

"I was expecting greatness out of it," Bailey said. "I really was."

Vogt knew, as any Tecmo player does, that Christian Okoye is a running back second only to the immortal Bo Jackson. He knew he had the Chiefs' Derrick Thomas, a linebacker almost as destructive to this game as Lawrence Taylor.

"I was expecting greatness out of it"

But Vogt also had terrible defensive backs against hall-of-fame quarterback Dan Marino, and a receiving corps with the best ratings in the game. And he didn't know Skunker could play Miami like a piano all night.

"I turned to Larry Irwin [the assistant tournament director] and said, 'Skunker's gonna win 21-7,'" Bailey said.

Vogt fumbled in both of his first two possessions, and Skunker turned them into touchdowns to lead 14-0. "Garbage" is the term Tecmo players use when the game's dice-roll outcomes, like a fumble, come up snake-eyes. "If I would have lost this to garbage play, I'll take that loss a lot better," Vogt said. "What's going on in my head at the time is the opposite of being aggressive. I only have three more possessions and I have to score on all of them. And I have to play lights-out defense."

He did. "You hear the cliché on ESPN all the time, but it's the truth: He really controlled the line of scrimmage," Bailey said. "James couldn't get in his backfield, couldn't get him for losses. On offense, Matt was always ahead of the chains, always checking in on second down with 4 yards to go."

But the worst was yet to come. Tecmo Super Bowl was one of the first sports video games to try things that modern sports titles call "dynamic player progression." Except this was a total crapshoot. Each quarter, a player's condition can change completely at random, heedless of what may have happened. There are four ranks, from Excellent to Bad. In the obligatory personnel checks after the second-half kickoff, Vogt discovered Christian Okoye was listed in bad condition.

It effectively reduced one of the game's best players to the level of a benchwarmer. Furthermore, Okoye is almost fumble-proof when he's in at least Average or better condition. But at Bad condition, he runs an extreme risk of dropping the ball, and it is almost assured if he is grappled by an computer-controlled defender and then hit by a human player rapidly tapping the A button. Vogt still kept Okoye in the game, but on every carry had to steer him out of bounds, away from the natural advantage Okoye provides, which is to break tackles and deliver extra yards.

"I'm not going to lie, I felt defeated after three quarters," Vogt said.

The Tecmo Hail Mary

Matt Vogt intercepted James "Skunker" Thomas at the 1-yard line, and then ran back his Victory Lap touchdown to ice the game. But their epic at Tecmo Madison X actually may have been decided on Thomas' last offensive possession, when Vogt stopped him on a kickoff return short of his own 18-yard line.

In Tecmo Super Bowl, all passers are, famously, capable of throwing a football the length of the field on the fly. The trajectory of the pass depends upon the player's "pass speed" rating. Slower pass speed ratings create the game's trademark moonball lob, putting the toss out of reach of the defenders.

Because of this, it is a strategic fundamental of Tecmo Super Bowl to put in your backup quarterback, with a slower pass speed, when throwing the Hail Mary. When Skunker took out hall-of-famer Dan Marino and replaced him with tomato-can Scott Mitchell, everyone knew what was coming.

But the real secret to a Tecmo Super Bowl Hail Mary is to get the receiver to jump up and catch it in mid-air ahead of the defense. Computer-controlled defenders run to the point where the ball is supposed to land. They don't cover the receiver. And human players cannot see where their defensive back is because the screen only displays 35 yards of the field, and scrolls the rest as the ball flies.

This gives a huge advantage to the quarterback. So if his throw is timed perfectly, the receiver will jump up and catch the ball at the 1-yard line while every defender is 10 yards behind him in the end zone.

Skunker knows how to time it perfectly.

"If you snap the ball on the 18-yard line, you can run straight back and, as soon as you hit the back of the end zone, throw it, and you'll perfectly time it," Jon Bailey said. "James was the one who taught me this. It's the touch-and-throw. Run straight back, touch the back of the end zone, and throw."

But there's a catch to making the catch. "If you're backed up inside the 15, you can't do that," Bailey said. "You'd have to run back and take a little bit of time before throwing."

When both players know this trick, a weird mating ritual ensues on the kickoff. The kicker, with the lead, attempts an onside kick to give his opponent the ball at the 50. The returner then races backward as hard as he can for his own 18, with his opponent trying to stop him from losing yardage.

Vogt said he didn't know about Thomas' secret weapon. After going ahead in the fourth quarter, he made a full-strength kickoff and stopped Skunker short of the 18. It may have decided the game right there.

Still he plowed ahead. Skunker made the 21 points Bailey predicted, but stopped there. Vogt trailed 14-0, then 21-7, then narrowed to 21-17 despite running with Okoye in the worst shape of his life. With less than 90 seconds left in the game, facing fourth down from the 3-yard line, Vogt ran a quarterback draw with Steve DeBerg, one of the weakest runners in the game (maximum speed 6), for the three-point lead.

Despite trailing by three and receiving the kickoff deep in his territory, Skunker still had Vogt almost where he wanted him. All of those games he played with the Dolphins had taught him how to unleash the ultimate weapon in Tecmo Super Bowl — the end zone-to-end zone touchdown pass — with perfect accuracy. But today he was just a few pixels short. And trailing by a field goal with maybe two plays left, Skunker had to take a more conventional approach, to play for the tie, but only made it to the 30-yard line.

From that range there is more than enough time for the Chiefs' Derrick Thomas to bull through the coverage and destroy a field goal attempt before it can be kicked. Skunker knew this and had almost no choice but to throw. He did, with Marino, one of the highest rated passers in the game. Vogt intercepted it at the 1-yard line.

Badger Bowl detonated. Matt stood and hugged Chris, his doting older brother. "He almost cried," Matt said. "He loves it when I win. I told him I didn't care about this finish, I care about him and how he played, and how my little brother Joey played, more than myself."

Then came the Victory Lap. There still was time on the scoreboard. "Punt it!" said Aaron Hake, a close friend, and he wasn't crazy. You can't take a knee in Tecmo Super Bowl, but a ball in the air will kill the game's inscrutable clock. And the Dolphins fumbled the return anyway. Vogt scooped it up and, as time ran out, bore onward to victory, with the weaving, defender-shaking run innate to everyone who's played this game more than once.

"It was like a two-hour movie, where the good guy comes out in the end," Vogt said. "I stood up and turned to the crowd as I was running it back. Once there's a fumble in the game, you can't fumble again on the same play. It's what the crowd wanted. It was awesome."

The thing about watching a game — any game — live versus on TV is the volume of the crowd's roar is not distorted or limited by any instrument recording it. One hundred percent of that emotion goes right through you. What I heard is as authentic as any cheering I've heard at any professional or college football game. The dice were loaded from the start, and Matthew Vogt, the high schooler who never played a down, won in the face of it all, to cathartic applause.

The cheering is what separates matters. What is a sport? In our televised, livestreamed age, where toe-touching contests get Olympic endorsement, the only commonly accepted value is that a sport is a competition played before a crowd. And the crowd at Tecmo Madison is there for more than throwing back beers and backslapping on a cold day indoors.

"You're watching two of the best guys in the world at a thing, do that thing, in front of you," Bailey said. "That's where the crowd's energy comes from."

The crowd made Matt Vogt's video game into a triumph, and made that triumph a memory. His feats may have had no physical manifestation, but they come to life in the retelling, and in the awe on the faces of the spectators. That is a sport.

Roster File is Polygon's news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games. It appears on weekends.

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