Who knows how many have set down their bags in a motel in Madison, Wisconsin, quietly nurturing the fantasy that they were the one, the resurrected dorm rat or basement fighter who materializes out of nowhere and, with a fast tap, a puncher's chance and a timely glance at the other guy's controller, goes to the super bowl of Tecmo Super Bowl and wins the whole damn thing.
Yet the Man in the Woods, as tournament director Jon Bailey was fond of calling this mythical person, never knocked on the door at Tecmo Madison, one of the great all-comers championship events in American sports. Today it stages its final tournament. If anyone there is good enough to win, he is already known to the registration desk taking check-ins at this moment.
The last Tecmo Super Bowl championship is going out a winner
"Last year's championship really came down to whose offset-I formation would light up which tackle," Bailey said. "It really has come down to how the NFL itself runs. You're trying to get Anthony Carter matched up on the bottom of the other guy's formation for the slow bomb to win it. There's no Man in the Woods studying it from that level. There's no Man in the Woods."
It is partly for this reason that Tecmo Madison, the de facto world championship for the landmark Nintendo cartridge, now 25 years old, holds its last tournament today. The five-member organizing committee, all in their mid-30s, have gotten big promotions requiring more of their time at work. They're married, and they are or they're about to become fathers. But in talking with them, one gets the sense that there is nothing left to accomplish in this game; that, impossibly, Tecmo Super Bowl has been beaten, in the sense that The Legend of Zelda or Super Mario Bros. or another game of that era was beaten decades ago.
To a sports fan, this doesn't make any sense. The Denver Broncos beat the Carolina Panthers two weeks ago. They didn't beat football itself. A video game that replicates a sport, no matter how outdated, is supposed to be endlessly replayable as long as another warm body is on the couch with a controller in hand.
"You can play this game online, but that is totally different," Bailey said. "When we all play each other now, or when I go over to Madison to play, the games are boring. I know what Josh is going to do. Josh knows what I am going to do. I don't even tap anymore," Bailey said, meaning the rapid-fire assault on the A button to break or complete a tackle.
Tecmo Madison began in 2005 as an attempt to settle the universally made boast of who is best at Tecmo Super Bowl. Today, Chet and Josh Holzbauer have their answer: They are. Chet is a three-time finalist and the only two-time champion with both titles coming against fields greater than 175 competitors. Josh, the younger brother, won the first tournament and is a two-time finalist. Originally scheduled for the midpoint between the Super Bowl and the NCAA men's basketball tournament, it has had more than 64 competitors for more than half its lifespan, and more than 200 since an Emmy-nominated NFL Films documentary aired in 2012.
"I really felt the tournament was big time at that point," Chet Holzbauer recalled. "You had almost 200 guys at that one for the first time, from more than 20-plus states, it really started to become a championship then."
If you could win this tournament, they would know your name
It's also the year Chet Holzbauer won his first title. It may seem suspicious to others that the organizers of a tournament are the ones who are best in competition. Vince Lombardi won two Super Bowls and his name is on that trophy, but he was a coach, not the commissioner. Still, this is no put-on; the Holzbauers and their friends — Bailey, a law school pal of Chet's from Marquette; Erik "Rikster" Johnson; Tony "Eat Shit" Orenga and James "Skunker" Thomas — have opened the door to everyone and dominated the thing they created. Thomas' 49 tournament victories are the most of anyone without a Tecmo Madison title. His nickname comes from the landmark shellacking he applied to Sobhi Youssef of Minneapolis, in a duel-of-the-fates double-elimination finale at Tecmo Madison 2 that still saw Youssef crowned the champion.
"I think it is very unlikely there is someone out there who is unaware of the tournament, and who possesses the skills necessary to win it," Chet Holzbauer said. "I'm not trying to demean anyone; the guys in the tournament are cold-blooded professionals. And you see first-timers at these tournaments, they're just in over their heads. They're amateurs because, well, they are."
At an elite level, Tecmo Super Bowl is akin to the most complicated game of blackjack one could ever play. It requires a complete memorization of the roster of the National Football League in 1991 — this is the first console game to be licensed by both a professional sports league and its players' union. And a Tecmo Madison contestant must know not only how long-retired NFL players performed in that era, but also how they function according to the quirks of the video game.
This is important because the competitors don't pick their own teams. The winner of a coin toss names the two for the match. The loser picks one of them. Yes, Bo Jackson in this game is the greatest video game athlete of all time. And yes, Joe Montana and Jerry Rice are nearly automatic for a touchdown. But it is suicide to offer the Los Angeles Raiders or the San Francisco 49ers, even paired together, because of what a top-flight opponent could do with either of them.
"When we first started," Bailey said, "everyone played a different style. You could believe in yourself — 'I want to play this method,' and still win, because people didn't see it or know it, or it wasn't the preferred style. Now, we've got tech to beat everything, and now we're just working the margins."
Bailey in 2013 ended Youssef's competitive career, in the last tournament where he made the knockout stage. It was a shocking upset, 23-13, Falcons over Tampa Bay. Bailey, who as a California native (now living in Minnesota) is the only true outsider among the midwestern core, ran Youssef out of the building all the way to the parking lot, where he immediately got in his car for the drive back to Minneapolis. "I made it to one elite eight," Bailey said, "and yet that pales in comparison to not only taking on the champion, but having the man want to quit midway through the third quarter."
Still, the last real surprise, and likely the only one at Tecmo Madison, came in 2009, the fifth tournament and the last one small enough held at The Plaza Tavern, a dive with an honest-to-God Battletoads arcade cabinet. In Tecmo Madison 5, newspaper publisher Chris Vogt of Hamilton, Ohio slammed the door on Youssef in the second round; it was the first time Youssef was in the tournament and did not play the final. Vogt's brother Matt, also in his tournament debut, wiped the floor with defending champ James Bontempo to reach the quarterfinals and establish a new and formidable name at Madison.
Yet Chris Vogt then lost to Josh Holzbauer. And Matt — even playing with the immortal Bo Jackson — ran into the enigmatic "Buzzsaw," Kevin Miller of Milwaukee. "It was Chicago versus the Raiders," Matt Vogt recalled. "I had the Raiders and a a 24-3 lead in the third period. And Bo Jackson fumbled three times."
"He played a totally different style of Tecmo Super Bowl," said Josh Holzbauer, Miller's finale opponent. Holzbauer won the coin toss and proposed a Kansas City and Cincinnati matchup. "I found out later the Chiefs were his favorite team," Holzbauer said. "He just stomped me."
I guarantee there is someone reading this today, about to comment, who thinks he is the best at Tecmo Super Bowl, who has some matchup in mind he thinks he can exploit. This person is a loud idiot. Of a field comprising 250 at Tecmo Madison, the organizers know (and seed) close to 160 of them, Josh Holzbauer said. These players can win with any team, and intimidate the hell out of you when they do sophisticated things like substituting plays and checking their lineups' conditions at the beginning of each quarter. I participated twice and have four losses.
"The tournament would usually introduce one really good player we did not know of before, but that stopped around Tecmo 10," Josh Holzbauer said. "Even if someone shows up, and is good, and we don't know them, they weren't going to win. Not at Tecmo 10 and 11, and certainly not at Tecmo 12. You have to be able to handle the crowd. It throws people off their games. There's a difference between playing in a living room, and in front of 200 people screaming at you.
"And fatigue is a real thing there," Josh Holzbauer continued. Tecmo Madison is a one-day affair stretching from group play at 10 a.m. to a final round more than 12 hours later. It's held at Badger Bowl, a quintessentially midwestern bowling alley with a stage, a banquet hall, and two huge bars pouring everything. They set up a Bloody Mary buffet table for the morning registration. "You show up at 8:30 and the championship ends at 10 or even 12 at night," Josh Holzbauer said. "And some people will drink a fair amount, too."
The organizers don't have a simple home field advantage, or the lure of intoxicating beverages to subdue the competition. Bailey said the committee — himself, the Holzbauers, Orenga and Dan Durch — spend six months getting the tournament prepared. They have put in vastly more effort to perfecting their games.
"Overnight, Chet went from the worst tapper in the world to one of the best," Bailey said. "But he spent years having me and Josh, and Peter Kerins and James Thomas beat on him. He had to develop an entire game around the idea that 'I can't tap.' So now, all of those tricks he has, he doesn't really need them, but he can still use them."
Yet Chet Holzbauer is likely not the greatest active Tecmo Super Bowl player. That title belongs to Kyle "Regulator" Miller of Elkhart, Ind., whose .886 winning percentage at Madison is by far the greatest among all players. He did not appear at last year's tournament, but made the final round in the preceding three, winning it all in 2014. Further, Miller has competed entirely in the "modern" era of the tournament, meaning against fields larger than 100.
"If you play Tecmo long enough, you have someone you want to figure out any way possible to beat him," Bailey said. "No one epitomizes that like Kyle and his brother. Kyle is the best tapper, and Matt (his brother) plays a game of no turnovers, no one-on-ones. He's not going to let you have the ball because he grew up with a brother who wouldn't let you do that."
Miller is joined Derek Ruble of Indianapolis, who last year swept three straight Madison players — Orenga, Josh Holzbauer, and Skunker — in the elite eight knockout stage and prevailed in the final over Josh "Coconuts" Aaronson of Oshkosh, Wis., the only player in Tecmo 12's field to make that stage in each of the past two years. While these three players are very well known, there is also a sense of Madison ceding the field to other parts of the upper midwest.
"I have a child, and she's 20 months old now," Josh Holzbauer said. "Chet and his wife are expecting very soon. Tony (Orenga) just got engaged. Bailey has a baby. Erin and I are trying for our second. It's getting to that point where we don't have as much time for this."
"When we started this thing, I hadn't met the woman who would become my wife," Bailey said. "We started this when we were 23 or 24. Now we're 33 and 35, and life got in the way of this incredible thing where we get to be 20 again. We could keep trying to do this, we could get roughly the same 50 to 60 guys every year, and could keep setting aside days for this where we're away from our wives, telling our kids 'daddy's not around.' But the product would still go down and down."
A lingering Tecmo Madison ultimately would reduce to an ordinary gathering of friends at a bar. That would be a poor memorial to what has been one of the greatest bro weekends ever, for young men grasping for the reclamation of their college days. Even the annual also-rans, like Jess Schuknect, who never made it out of group play in nine appearances, will stay all the way to the finals to watch. As the numbers thin and competition stations clear out, friends sit down to play one-off games with oddball pairings, like the Colts or Patriots against the 49ers.
There is no Man in the Woods
"My favorite memories are playing the Thursday night before the game at Skunker's place," Chet Holzbauer said. "It used to be a complete blast, about 10 to 15 guys doing a pre-tournament tournament, drinking and joking." Yet in the past two years, those numbers have dwindled, the pre-tournament games have become rote, the outcomes almost foreordained, as good a signal as any that this is the time to go.
"You're not supposed to beat a sports game," Bailey said. "No one 'beats' Madden, no one 'beats' MLB The Show. You just keep going. But we've beaten the game. We've thought about every matchup, thought about every guy on the bench you can bring in.
"Unfortunately there's no end screen. there's no 'Congratulations, you found the princess,' there's nothing," Bailey said. "It's going out on that note, that in the end this was successful, and as good as any time to leave."
And the Man in the Woods will stay there forever.
Roster File is Polygon's news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games.