We're well in the grip of the football season now, which means it's been just long enough for your team's preseason pipe dreams to melt into their usual mediocrity on the gridiron.
But if you're looking to take matters into your own hands and boost your favorite team's fortunes yourself in a recent video game, you don't have a lot of options these days: it's Madden or bust, baby. But if you're willing to look backward to live out your end-zone dance fantasies, there's a small but thriving community of fans who put hours into hacking modern rosters into classic sports games every year, particularly NFL Blitz and Tecmo Super Bowl.
Tecmo needs no introduction: the NES classic has been the favorite of old-school football fans for thirty years now. While the 1991 game was the first to include both the real teams and their real players together (thanks to official licenses from both the NFL and the Players Association), its true legacy as the classic gridiron football game has eclipsed this historical footnote a hundred times over. Still, since many of today's sports fans are too young to remember legendary names like Dan Marino and Jerry Rice, fans like TecmoBowl.org founder "Knobbe" take it upon themselves to painstakingly update the game's roster every year for each of the game's 32 teams.
Like a lot of gamers his age, Knobbe got into sports video games in high school and college with friends, pouring untold hours into classic sports games like Tecmo Super Bowl, NBA Jam, and Baseball Stars. After college, he discovered rom-hacking — the practice of using software like hex editors to modify old games — and he quickly realized that he could combine his love of sports with his background in computer programming to mess with his favorite old games. Capitalizing on the already-existing competitive scene for Tecmo, Knobbe founded TecmoBowl.org to give the fanbase more of a home to discuss hacks and strategies.
Though Knobbe says he prefers to play the 1991 original himself, he understands that roster updates are a key aspect of the sports game experience, and a good way to make the classic game more relevant to younger fans. That said, he says that the rom hacking process itself can be a lot of work, especially when you consider just how much the NFL has changed in the thirty intervening years.
"With ‘Tecmo Super Bowl’ it's about deciding if there are changes to the NFL that are applicable and feasible to implement."
"With Tecmo Super Bowl it's about deciding if there are changes to the NFL that are applicable and feasible to implement," Knobbe told Input in an email. "Typically, changing helmet colors or designs is fairly trivial. A lot of the higher level redesigns are from the process of changing the game over the years. The rosters themselves are time-consuming but constantly changing, so it's not something you can finish in advance. The best-case scenario is that I have a roster 95% done before Labor Day, where most NFL teams have finalized their rosters, and I have a release ready before the first NFL game that Thursday."
Some of these shifts were more demanding than others. For example, several teams have been added in the NFL since 1991, including the Carolina Panthers and the Houston Texans, and those teams were hacked in. However, even the 2022 version of the hack does not account for the NFL's new 17-game season, which was inaugurated in 2011 - seasons are 16 games instead. Knobbe says this change would be quite difficult to implement, but it may happen in future versions of the hack.
As an adult with a full-time job and a host of other responsibilities, Knobbe says that he doesn't have much time to play Tecmo Super Bowl with his friends these days. (There are still many in-person Tecmo tournaments even today, and there are reliable ways of playing the game online with friends via emulators.) But while he knows that the classic game can't compare to the popularity of mainstream fare like the latest Madden, he says that the niche community of Tecmo die-hards is one worth serving. The yearly roster updates give the fans just another way to engage with their favorite sports game, and that's worth it to him.
Where ‘Tecmo Super Bowl’ rides the fence between realism and chaotic fun, ‘Blitz’ smashes through its gate.
While Tecmo Super Bowl is arguably the most popular sports game to hack, it's far from the only one. An enthusiastic hockey fan who goes by the handle "UltraMagnus" has taken it upon himself to create modern rosters for several beloved sports games, including the seminal Midway game NFL Blitz. Where Tecmo Super Bowl rides the fence between realism and chaotic fun, Blitz smashes through its gate, hurdles over the wreckage, and gives it a bionic elbow drop for good measure.
Like Knobbe, UltraMagnus grew up on 8 and 16-bit sports classics, especially NHL 95 and Tecmo Super Bowl 3, sneaking off to play matches with his brother while his dad was at work. He continued playing sports games well into adulthood, but he always felt that the modern fare focused too much on the simulation aspect and less on the gameplay itself. Once he discovered the online rom hacking community, however, he realized that he could update his favorite games with today's players with a little bit of effort.
Though UltraMagnus clearly loves the process of producing hacks — he's produced an impressive number of updates in a short amount of time — he says that the process of creating the hacks is a lot more involved than some fans might realize.
The process of creating the hacks is a lot more involved than some fans might realize.
"'Time-consuming' is an understatement if you've never done it before, and it's time-consuming even when you've done it for a few years," he tells Input via email. "It just takes a lot of patience and saving your work... I give credit to a lot of other modders for helping me go from 'what the hell do I do now?' to 'hey, what does everyone want done in this game?' It's nice to be able to give back to the community."
Currently, UltraMagnus is in the process of starting a custom online league for NHL '95, one of his favorite hockey games, using his rom-hacking prowess to help players create their own teams at WN95HL.com. Though hacking these games brings him satisfaction, playing them with a whole league of actual people has been a very positive experience, and one that he hopes to continue into its second season.
While I've never been much of a sports game person, the passion I saw in these communities inspired me to try my hand at Tecmo Super Bowl myself. After setting up the game to play with a friend online, it was easy to see why so many fans continue to play the game even 30 years later. Since it's an NES game, it's deceptively simple to pick up, but it hides a lot of complexity behind its chunky 8-bit models and charming chiptunes. Even if you're too young to have experienced it firsthand, games like Blitz and Tecmo are well-deserving of classic status, and if you're so-inclined, you should try your hand at them yourself.