Retro eSports: A Day at the Tecmo Super Bowl Championships in Madison

posted by Jimmie Kaska -

Editor: Jimmie was selected to provide stream broadcast coverage of several matches, including the championship, at Tecmo Madison XIII, and was tasked by his day job with describing the day's events as Madison hosted the country's Tecmo Super Bowl Championship for the 13th year.

"Hey Jimmie. Do you play video games?"

I stared at the Facebook Messenger window incredulously. Do you not see the dozens of gaming memes I spam on social media? Have you not seen the pictures of my 15-system setup in my living room?

Politely, I responded, "Yes, I play some games. Why, what's up?"

What was up was that this year's Tecmo Super Bowl Championship was looking to take the next step in growing its brand, and one of the thoughts was to bring in a professional broadcaster to give their game's live streams a little bit of an edge that perhaps other events didn't have. However, since the organizers of the event this year were from out of state, they didn't know where to start, so they decided to start locally, near Madison, to see if anyone would be interested.

I couldn't tell you the pitch line exactly; I took note of the basics, but really, all I heard was: "Would you be interested in calling the live streams of the Tecmo Madison Championships?"

I said yes without hesitation, despite knowing that there are dozens (if not triple digits) of more qualified, more professional, and better-sounding broadcasters in the greater Madison area, because it seemed like a good idea at the time. To combine my career with a hobby I'm fairly passionate about seemed like a no-brainer. So the concept was pretty sound, but in the months that followed, I wondered what I had gotten myself into.

* * * * *


We all know Bo Jackson is the star, but there's so much more to Tecmo than meets the eye

A video game tournament sounds silly to many people, but as someone who has spent the better part of his adult life hanging out at anime conventions and board game events, it didn't seem very odd to me at all. What seemed odd is that they trusted me to take their event and become an insightful, informative, and entertaining voice for their live stream, since I have virtually no competitive history in gaming and am a relative unknown in the broadcast community outside of those involved with high school or small college coverage in Wisconsin.

I had about two months to become a Tecmo Super Bowl expert.

Leading up to the event, my day job and more traditional methods of sports broadcasting took up much of my prep time; March is chock full of state high school tournaments in Wisconsin, and I was following several teams as part of my roles as broadcaster and content writer. I was attending games I wasn't on the air with, visiting a new gym every night, filling notebooks and audio recorders for several weeks. Since I don't have a great "radio" voice, I have to out-work and out-prepare my peers and competitors to stay employed--I obsess over minutiae just to keep an edge on all of those who either have decades of experience more than I do, or simply sound better (you wouldn't believe the broadcast talent that Wisconsin has, top to bottom, in every market, large or small).

All of this keeping up with my regular job meant that I wasn't really able to dive in to the Tecmo stuff until mid-March, just a couple weeks away from the event. I finally carved out an overnight while my toddler son was sleeping to play a few games on an emulator to get a sense for what the game would look like and who some of the players in the game were. We all know Bo Jackson is the star, but there's so much more to Tecmo than meets the eye, and at that point, I had fewer than 18 days to become an expert on the game.

* * * * *

The culmination of dreams I have had since I first heard play-by-play announcing in Joe Montana Sports Talk Football

It didn't take long to realize that this job was going to be harder in some ways than I had imagined, in terms of learning the ins and outs of the game. But, I also realized that years of hoarding NFL Pro Set football cards from the early 90's was going to pay off big as well: Every player in the game, for the most part, I recognized. Yes, a game that is pushing 30 and has rosters nearly three decades old was extremely familiar for me. So, one of the biggest hurdles was cleared in terms of preparation: I already knew a good deal about who was in it. Check one off on that box.

Learning how the best players played, how they set up playbooks, how misdirection and mismatches and glitches all played important roles... that was the research I needed to compile. Fortunately, the event organizers were all pretty heavily involved players as well, from actually competing with the game to organizing other events similar to running site forums, websites, and blogs with every known detail on Tecmo Super Bowl. Even more fortunately, all were more than willing to give me every piece of information I needed (and then some) to be able to at least pretend I knew I what I was talking about when it came to the actual broadcast.

I asked some really tough questions, all of which were easily answered. I asked some really stupid questions, which didn't draw any eye rolls (at least that I could see) as I built my reference spreadsheet. Most of the work that I was planning to do had been done in some form, so it was up to me to simply organize it in the best way suited for me to do the broadcast.

On the eve of the event, I printed off my note cards, having successfully put together a novel's worth of material on Tecmo Super Bowl alone, not to mention all of the tips I received from other broadcasters heading into the event, and felt as prepared as I could be for my first official, contracted foray into the world of eSports, the culmination of dreams I have had since I first heard play-by-play announcing in Joe Montana Sports Talk Football when I was still in elementary school.

* * * * *

If I hadn't prepared well for this event, there is no way I would have survived the broadcast

On the morning of Tecmo Madison XIII, I checked my temperature and noted 103. I hadn't eaten in a couple of days from being ill, and in a way having the flu helped tremendously, since I didn't have anything in my stomach but butterflies. I wasn't well enough to be nervous. Heading into downtown Madison, the only concern I had was surviving a long day of broadcasting.

Part of the amazing thing about being a compulsive planner and preparing for just about any scenario imaginable is that when you are physically not your best, you can lean on that prep work to carry you through moments where maybe your voice doesn't work correctly, or you get sick and forget where you are for a minute. If I hadn't prepared well for this event, there is no way I would have survived the broadcast, which ended up at nearly nine hours straight.

As I arrived in downtown Madison and walked into the venue, I got a sense for how much work by a small team of people went into setting up this tournament. The venue, which had to fit in nearly 300 players, administrative staff, and some spectators, had a capacity of 400, which was tested in the early rounds. 72 stations were set up, including the main stage that would serve as the source of all of the broadcasts that would be live streamed. My job and role became pretty clear: take care of the broadcast so it's one less thing to worry about.

I can't stress enough how much help I received from the staff; I normally handle all of my own setup and nobody bothers me while I'm on the air. For this event, I had two or three people constantly asking if I needed anything, and had dozens of friendly, knowledgeable players offer some tips and advice as the day progressed.

As the tournament pressed on, I could even pick up on some of the nuances of common game references and strategy, despite having virtually no competitive experience with the game. You know, much like, for me, with actual sports.

The field first had to be narrowed down from nearly 300 players to 68, and then to 64, to set up the single-elimination tournament. Groups of four players played double-elimination round robin to send their group winner on to the "selection committee" in charge of seeding all of the players. Initially, I was to broadcast these games, but some setup quirks in the venue gave me a few hours to simply wander and ask a bunch of ridiculous questions.

Once the field was set, it was game time for me. The opening round of the 64-player tournament was all set to begin, after a bit of a delay in seeding, forcing me to fill some live streaming time with pretty much anything I had in front of me. Luckily, I prepare well, and had plenty of material to discuss until the first match got underway.

Tecmo Madison XIII LIVE

Tecmo Madison XIII LIVE - 1 from the High Noon Saloon in Madison, Wisconsin. Powered by Hyperkin and in association with KOEI TECMO AMERICA & Bo Jackson's Give Me a Chance Foundation.

Posted by Tecmo Super Bowl on Saturday, April 8, 2017

Right off the bat, two things jumped out at me during the games. First, there's not much time to discuss the prior play as you do in regular football calls. You cite the important events but for the most part you don't have time to parse each individual decision. Plus, despite having the visual in front of me, there's no way to utilize replay technology to emphasize a point to make. So, sticking with my radio roots, I described the past events in as much detail as possible. Since each game itself only lasted about 20 minutes, it wasn't possible to recap every event.

Second, much like any competitive event, luck plays a big part in success sometimes, and I saw it early and often within the game, from turnovers to dropped passes to simply running into the wrong stack of digital bodies.

Describing a video game play was pretty natural; you call it like you see it, and mix some metaphors and synonyms to keep it interesting. The games went by so quickly that I didn't really have to dig deep (until the later games, when I didn't really have any other way to describe a safety but "a safety" because it's not a play you see often in actual football). While live streamers can see the action, it felt better for me to describe the play in total as it happened because, again, that's my history.

The early games also lent themselves some guest co-hosts, who filled me in on more tips and tricks within the game. Some of the particularly elite players were calling plays before they happened, describing which playbook position was being used and how player condition (a mechanic within the game that increases or decreases player stats) affected certain match-ups. As the tournament pressed on, I could even pick up on some of the nuances of common game references and strategy, despite having virtually no competitive experience with the game. You know, much like, for me, with actual sports.

Tecmo Madison XIII LIVE - 2

Tecmo Madison XIII LIVE - 2

Posted by Tecmo Super Bowl on Saturday, April 8, 2017

In the context of a tournament in virtually any sport or setting, this one had nearly every conceivable major storyline you could hope for

As the day gave way to evening, I forgot that I was even sick. I had been on for about four or five hours, and suddenly had a mild panic in which I wasn't sure how much I had left in the tank. The time had moved on very quickly as I was on the air--even the time spent filling between games didn't seem very difficult. But, with a small break, I was weighing the pros and cons of food. It had been 60 hours since my last meal and I wasn't sure I could hold it down, so I opted instead for another bottle of water and took a quick walk to get the blood pumping for the final round of matches for the evening.

Nearly 300 registered players, about 275 of which competed, had been narrowed down to eight, a double-elimination round. The field included past champions and the defending champion, as well as a couple of upstarts making a deep tournament run. I used about a dozen comparisons to the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament to illustrate the level of player still around in the tournament. There were your blue-blood defending champions and players with several tournaments' worth of experience. There was a player who had pulled off consecutive last-second victories. One player had upset a pair of the tournament's best competitors to advance to the final pairings. In the context of a tournament in virtually any sport or setting, this one had nearly every conceivable major storyline you could hope for, so there was no shortage of material to discuss.

The crowd itself had barely thinned out to this point. Despite over 96-97% of the field being eliminated, dozens of players remained to observe the final matches of Tecmo Madison. One of the event organizers said that players from 37 different states had registered to play, and of all the co-hosts and players that joined me, none were from Wisconsin. I suppose, if you came all this way for the event, why wouldn't you stick it out to the finish to see who would end up the champion?

* * * * *

Tecmo Madison XIII LIVE - 3 -- FINALS

Tecmo Madison XIII LIVE - 3 -- FINALS

Posted by Tecmo Super Bowl on Saturday, April 8, 2017

The event, which played nearly 300 games and featured nearly 300 players, came to a close. Tecmo Madison XIII had its champion.

The finals were about to begin, but not before some furniture re-arranging to make sure that everyone could see the screen in real-time. The projector was running on a bit of a delay, so I had some time to kill on the air.

I made it a point to thank the organizers for the opportunity. I know eSports is growing and it's a venue professionally that, if I had more opportunities to pursue, I would definitely want to get involved in since it matches my most obsessive hobby (video games) with a job I've been doing since I was 17 (broadcasting). So, I am not blowing smoke when I say that it was a tremendous feeling to be a part of this event.

After making some notes about how the previous night's events (an NBA Jam and NHL 95 tournament) may have drawn more people to Tecmo Madison, the championship game arrived and the players pitted two of the best teams in the game--the Eagles and the Raiders--against each other. The players playing for the title were both past champions, including last year's winner, and it was the defending champ playing as the Raiders pulling away late thanks to four (!) safeties to help clinch the second back-to-back and third two-time championship.

Just like that, the event, which played nearly 300 games and featured nearly 300 players, came to a close. Tecmo Madison XIII had its champion, with sights set on an even bigger Tecmo Madison XIV.

* * * * *

The camaraderie and friendship among the competitors stood out to me. There are many examples of toxic cultures in social media and gaming, but this was the far opposite end of the spectrum. For the casual observer, it may not seem like much, but it's easy for non-gamers to dismiss an event like this as niche or weird, only being notable if something bad happens. Everything about Tecmo Madison was positive. Nobody was frustrated at any delay, technical issue, or outcome: the attitude was fantastic, and had I not felt as sick as I did all day, I may have spent more time after soaking in some more of the atmosphere. 

Not only had I survived my first venture into eSports, despite being virtually unrecognizable to just about anyone in broadcasting, despite having never played games competitively, and despite a 103-degree fever and a shaky, but empty, stomach. I ended up thriving in it and having an absolute blast with the people who are as passionate about this particular game and its community as I am about what I do for a living. Like anything, if you care about what you're doing, the more successful you'll be doing it. There wasn't a second I didn't feel out of place at Tecmo Madison.

Learn more about future events with Tecmo Madison by going here

Tecmo Super Bowl Championships XIII in Madison
Tecmo Super Bowl Championships XIII in Madison
The Tecmo Super Bowl Championships are in Madison for the 13th year, happening on April 8

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Jimmie Kaska

Jimmie Kaska

Jimmie Kaska covers high school and college sports for iHeartMedia in Wisconsin and the Midwest. His work is featured on The Big 1070-Madison, The Big 920-Milwaukee, and News/Talk WMEQ-Eau Claire. Read more

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