Beginning as a weekend get-together among close friends, Tecmo Super Bowl's world championship remained true to that spirit over its first 12 years. When Tecmo Madison returns this weekend, there will still be plenty of camaraderie, but it will more resemble an esports marquee event that wants a wider audience, and will work hard to earn it.
"There was so much interest in the event, but still, nobody would know what the hell was going on unless they were in the venue," said Dave Murray, the owner of TecmoBowl.org, who bought the tournament from founders Chet and Josh Holzbauer of Madison, Wisc. after they'd decided their increasing obligations in work and family left little time to run it properly.
"Now we'll have live brackets online. No more me running over to a paper bracket to take a picture of it and run it on Twitter," said Murray, who had struggled to stream, live-tweet and keep track of the action at the daylong event himself.
Tecmo Madison 13 is Saturday in Madison. Over the past dozen years it evolved from a rowdy gathering of college buddies into the de facto world championship of a Nintendo Entertainment System cartridge beloved by sports fans and non-sports fans alike. There's no qualifying event to participate; anyone who registers on time will compete against the best players in the world. This year's field maxes out at 292, a record.
The action will be streamed live on Twitch, of course, this time with a broadcast team of Jimmie Kaska, who covers high school and small college sports around Wisconsin, and J.D. Fox, who will produce the stream and provide analysis.
Jon Bailey, the tournament director and a partner in Tecmo Madison's new ownership, is providing the broadcasters with a media guide highlighting the key performers, their histories, and fundamentals of the game, to draw out the personalities and action that make Tecmo Madison so enjoyable in person.
And the tournament format itself, even with its record size, has been streamlined for watchability and excitement. Tecmo Madison had been a near 15-hour affair in the past. It’ll now get going around noon ET, and take about 10 hours. Group play will now feature round-robins among four players, instead of eight, with only the top finisher advancing to the knockout stage. The resulting 72-person field will then play a single-elimination bracket until the double-elimination final. In the past, it had been double elimination from the quarterfinals on.
Bailey said the format changes were necessary to cut down on long gaps in play, which typically developed in mid-afternoon as the stragglers from the group stage wound up. The double-elimination rounds from the final eight forward, while a nice idea, also contributed to some sloppy and play-it-safe tactics, too.
"I feel like we're definitely getting the esports, NCAA feel into the tournament," Bailey said, especially with only one per group advancing. "From game one and round one, it's already critical. From our top seed, Joeygats (Joseph Chiltowsky of Philadelphia, last year's champion) to the lowest seed, every game is critical."
The big-time tournament feel won't be just in the format changes, or the official scorekeepers taking results instantly on tablet to keep the pace of play going. Bailey and Murray have brought aboard sponsorships and partners, too. Hyperkin, the peripheral maker, is sending its RetroN 1 consoles to serve as the competition stations in group play. (Original NES systems will be used in the knockout stages. All games will be played on CRT televisions.) While he will not be there, Tecmo Super Bowl all-time great Bo Jackson has lent his name and foundation to a charity fundraiser, with a chance to meet him offered as a grand prize.
And, notably, the game's maker, Koei Tecmo, is involved in the phenomenon for the first time. Officially the tournament is called "Tecmo Madison 13 in Association with Koei Tecmo." The arms-length relationship likely has to do with not encroaching too far on a game that, while obsolete and played only in its original form, still has the NFL's logo all over it.
Still, Bailey — a Bay Area native and longtime admirer of the Evolution Championship Series and other fighting game tournaments — reached out to Koei Tecmo of America after last year's tournament to see if there was any shot at keeping it going with K-T's help. He and Murray were surprised by the response.
"Bailey and I were like, 'Man, this thing cannot die,'" Murray recalled. "It started out very interesting, we got shot up to a vice president (at Koei Tecmo of America) and he was so excited to be talking to me and Jon instead. He was like, 'You know so much more about our property than I do.’”
"It's a dead title and they have no plans to spin it up again," Murray said. "But they told us they appreciate that we keep it alive."
That's a bit of a different tune from what Bailey, who was also the original tournament director for the Holzbauers, was saying to me before Tecmo Madison 12 last February. Somewhat wistful, Bailey and others felt that they had carved up Tecmo Super Bowl's roster and strategy to the point where they knew everything and had "beaten" something that had no end stage, no final boss.
But an influx of new talent, some of it younger than Tecmo Super Bowl itself, changed Bailey's mind. "When I made that comment, I didn't know just how far down the rabbit hole Dave and his buddies had gone with this game," Bailey said. "They know where everything is in the game, they're finding all kinds of hidden skins and screens and sounds in the game."
Murray estimates about a third of this year's field are "all new players to us," poking at the other mythology of the more insular and secluded Tecmo Madison: Anyone good enough to win it was known to the Holzbauers and all of their elite-playing friends, like Francis "Mort" Buennagel of Buffalo, Kyle "Regulator" Miller of Elkhart, Ind., Chris and Matt Vogt of Cincinnati, or Erik "Rikster" Johnson.
Joeygats, for example, is not an unknown but comes more from the online Tecmo Super Bowl scene, and is the first champion not to hail from a snow-belt city. He defeated Aaron "The Kid" Toner of Champaign, Ill., who took apart Regulator and Mort in a Cinderella run to the final round. Joeygats and The Kid had played Tecmo Madison before, but last year was definitely a coming-out party for both. Isaac Wright, aka DisastaMasta, is also seeded in the field's top 16; he's only 23 years old.
Tecmo Madison 13 kicks off at noon ET on Saturday. Polygon will carry the live stream of the action here. The tournament had to leave its long-running home, Badger Bowl, which was bought out and will become a car dealership. But it will still begin with Josh Holzbauer as master of ceremonies, reading from "The Book of L.T.," which is usually some bizarre passage from one of Lawrence Taylor's two biographies.
And it's still in Madison, this time at the High Noon Saloon. "It's tough to walk away from what is unironically the Mecca of retro gaming," said Bailey, who now lives in a Minneapolis suburb. More than 30 states will be represented in this year's field, but most competitors are still within a few hours' drive of Madison.
"I feel a real attachment to Madison," Bailey said. "When we started this thing, I hadn't met my wife, hadn't done this or that yet, I was this unformed person. [Tecmo Madison] is this touchstone for me. It was an anchor point, for this one point, this one weekend, we're gonna do this thing."
Roster File is Polygon’s news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games.