It sounds odd to say it, but the championship event for one of the oldest video games in esports still has some growing up to do.
Tecmo Madison, the de facto world championship for Tecmo Super Bowl, is moving away from its heritage as a getaway weekend in a bar for dad-bod 30-somethings reliving their college or rec-room glory. The 15th edition of sports video gaming’s greatest tournament will be staged in two weeks on April 7 in Wisconsin, with features acknowledging that it must be more than a rowdy gathering in a Wisconsin bowling alley, if it is to survive.
“One of the two biggies that keep me up at night,” said tournament director Jon Bailey, “is at some point, this is going to start aging out. The average age is pretty constant. Tecmo Super Bowl came out in 1991, and most people (in Tecmo Madison) were 10 or 11 when they started playing. We do get guys like JoeyGats [Joseph Chiltowsky of Philadelphia, the winner of Tecmo Madison last year and in 2016] who are in their 20s and early 30s, but it’s the sustainablility of the age group after.
“It seems to be going strong now, but you never know,” Bailey said. “By turning this into an event, it allows us more room to expand and to keep it alive.”
“Turning this into an event” involves a lot more work than has gone into Tecmo Madison before. Tecmo Madison began in 2005 as a score-settling showdown, largely among friends, in a college-town bar shortly after most of the participants had graduated. It swelled into a national phenomenon, thanks largely to a grin-inducing documentary by NFL Films in 2012. The organizers, two brothers from Madison (who have won their own tournament three times) were ready to close the tournament down, on the assumption that the game had outlived its esports appeal, and those who were the best at it now had bigger responsibilities as professionals and parents and spouses entering middle age. Dave Murray, a Tecmo Super Bowl enthusiast and impresario from Florida, stepped in to take over administration of the tournament beginning with last year’s championship.
There is now a “Road to Madison” series of sanctioned events which place winners in high seeds at the granddaddy tournament. Recognizing the travel and effort folks go to for the weekend, there’s now a just-for-fun NBA Jam tournament on the Friday before the tournament. And now every player in the field of 264 will get to play after the group stage, in two lower-tier brackets that encourage them to stick around and thank them for coming over.
“There are friendships born in this,” Bailey said, and I’ve seen that firsthand. When Tecmo Madison was held at the dear departed Badger Bowl, the eliminated players would pair up later at stations vacated by the winnowing field. They’d play crazy one-off matches, or maybe run back something they’d chosen in the group stage.
Tecmo Madison 14 will formalize this camaraderie. First place finishers from the group stage will go into a top bracket to play for the money, a $4,000 grand prize at the end of the knockout stage. Second place finishers in their group will be seeded in a consolation bracket that offers some merchandise prizes to high finishers. And third place finishers go into a just-for-fun tournament of 88 that still offers another bite at the apple.
One of Tecmo Madison’s greatest appeals is that it’s an all-comers event: Show up, go up, and maybe you blow up. Of course, the truth is that anyone capable of winning the tournament doesn’t just come out of nowhere. The new consolation brackets still keep the good times rolling even after newcomers come to the realization of their Tecmo mortality.
“Sure, it’s fun to play Regulator [Kyle Miller, winner of Tecmo Madison 10, with the competition’s best overall winning percentage] or JoeyGats, but they also want to get some games in,” Bailey said. “The community is what we’re emphasizing here. Let’s keep going. Let’s keep pushing.”
Buttressing Tecmo Madison 14 is a qualifying event for the Classic Tetris World Championship on the Friday preceding the tournament. The winner of that is automatically qualified for the 32-person bracket in Portland, Ore.
There will also be a nonofficial two-on-two competition, thanks to the mad modders who have kept Tecmo Super Bowl current and alive for the past 28 years. Two-on-two competition is run through an emulated and modified ROM put out by TecmoBowl.org, so it is not standard to the game at all. But it’s another way to keep fans in the room, Bailey said.
“We’ve been trying to find ways to keep fans interested, through things like this ‘Road to Madison,’” Bailey said. In that series, tournaments in Buffalo, Nebraska and Connecticut automatically place the winner in a high seeding at Madison. Bailey likened it to a grand slam tournament series — especially as the other tournaments may have differing rules or formats, somewhat like plauyng on grass or clay in tennis.
But when they get to Madison, it’s on. Bailey indicated that the series may expand next year to include big tournaments in California, Arizona, Cincinnati and Iowa. Again, broadening the interest in the game is the goal. Because without that, there’s no reason to hold Tecmo Madison.
“The guy who won the Lincoln (Nebraska) tournament, he had been going to Lincoln and not Madison,” Bailey said, “but now he realized there are the killers here, and he can setep up his game. So now we’ve caught a guy. We’ve got one of the unknowns, the guy who may be that controller cowboy.” Someone from the frontier who can win it all.
“What we’re trying to do,” Bailey said “is Hoover up those guys who never knew Tecmo Madison existed.” Bailey said.
Tecmo Madison 14 is April 6 and 7 at The Red Zone, a bona-fide college sports bar hard by Camp Randall Stadium, home of the Wisconsin Badgers football team.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly identified the ownership of TecmoBowl.org, the spiritual home of the 27-year-old game (where annual mods updating it may be found). TecmoBowl.org is owned by Matt Knobbe, who is managing the scorekeeping for Tecmo Madison.