MADISON, Wis. -- Maybe the best "Tecmo Super Bowl" player in the United States, and potentially the world, has little to no interest in telling you his real name.
He says, genuinely, it would ruin his life. Most of the other competitors in this 8-bit world know little about him or are not willing to share that information. He's 28 years old. He's from Philadelphia. He goes by "Joeygats" -- the kind of name you'd see on an old AOL profile or a makeshift Eagles jersey on Sundays at Lincoln Financial Field.
Last month, Joeygats was at the Badger Bowl, a bowling alley and pub in Madison, the online legend staring at a black-box television on a corner of the stage with a Nintendo Entertainment System controller in his hands. In a match projected to a crowd of hundreds in person and thousands online, he faced a prodigy in the finals of Tecmo Madison -- known as TecmoXII, the largest Tecmo Super Bowl tournament in the country. Joeygats' San Diego Chargers, led by Marion Butts, against 20-year-old Aaron Toner and the Pittsburgh Steelers' defensive duo of Greg Lloyd and Rod Woodson.
Joeygats might be the most prolific "Tecmo Super Bowl" player in the country. He said he's played more than 25,000 games online, more than 60,000 hours of gameplay. He's posted roughly 5,100 times on the community's message board, Tecmobowl.org. And he's largely a mystery.
"I don't think no one plays this game more than me," Joeygats said. "They play live or whatever, but I play online like 30 times a day sometimes.
"I've really put in hours."
He is one of the more controversial "Tecmo Super Bowl" players. A competitor in the 256-man tournament, who asked not to be identified, called Joeygats "the closest thing the Tecmo community has to a villain." Joeygats plays primarily online. Message board posts mention his potential banishment from some leagues. He's been accused of online cheating in those forums -- claims that have never been proved -- increasing a stigma of online play versus live competition.
He has supporters in the online community. Some have helped pay for his travel to attend three national tournaments in Madison; many think he cannot afford it himself. He can be stand-offish in a group where most players are overly friendly.
He's an emotional player. His face scrunches when he misses a pass, his thin mustache going up almost to the top of his nose. When he blocked a Toner field goal attempt, he let out a scream of excitement. He's focused solely on the screen in front of him. Occasionally he lifts his arm to rub his nose or to hide his controller during play selection.
When he scored what would be the game-winning touchdown over Toner, he nodded his head and said, "I got it." After beating Toner, Joeygats shook his hand hard, got up, put his hands on his head and rubbed his black and green Philadelphia Eagles wool cap. He beat Toner -- a software developer who wore a hooded sweatshirt representing his alma mater, Southern Illinois -- 13-10 in the final.
He jumped off the stage to applause and a few hugs. Then Joeygats, wearing a black T-shirt over a gray long-sleeved shirt with a pixelated "Tecmo Bowl" helmet on it, smiled. Joeygats dedicated his win to the online community and those who helped him get to Madison, where he is 18-2, the best winning percentage in tournament history. "This means so much," Joeygats said. "It's so crazy."
But Joeygats is possibly the last "Tecmo Super Bowl" national champion.
Tapping into the past, uncertain about future
"Tecmo Super Bowl" turns 25 in December. It survived five generations of console development after its 1991 debut, from Nintendo's original system to today's Xbox One and Playstation 4. An innovation in gaming, it is still considered to be one of the best sports games ever. Video game site IGN rated it as the No. 53 Nintendo game of all time, and PC Magazine rated it one of the 10 most influential video games of all time. In 2011, an ESPNRadio bracket voting contest deemed it the best sports video game ever.
Its legacy among sports games was secured because it had then what the Madden series has now: the official NFL license. Lawrence Taylor, Bo Jackson and Randall Cunningham -- known only as "QB Eagles" because he was one of three players not to allow his name to be used for the game -- could be controlled virtually at your fingertips. The playbook was deeper than ever. Because all the teams were in the game, gamers could play a full season and ensuing playoffs -- stats tracked, a true champion crowned.
Its quirks helped, too. The most efficient way to run the ball was in a zig-zag motion. Touchbacks on kickoffs did not exist. Fumbles were unpredictable and devastating. Hail Marys were an in-game staple, eliminating 38-year-old Scott Siegel from this year's tournament, leaving him lamenting, "I should have kept running it" with Cincinnati despite having quarterback Boomer Esiason.
But even though it has endured 2½ decades of gameplay, "Tecmo Super Bowl" might finally be on the decline.
Esports are on the rise, and the future of this retro game is unclear. There is interest -- the tournament's video head, Dave Murray, said 5,585 unique visitors watched live on the video streaming service Twitch with 35,542 total views. Unlike thriving esports games, Tecmo's following is in a different age bracket. The majority of competitors are ages 27-40, a time when responsibilities change. Online interest in the game has declined even though live tournament participation has risen.
Matt Knobbe runs Tecmobowl.org and is considered the "Godfather of Tecmo." The bearded 38-year-old from Lincoln, Nebraska, said he believes Tecmo online peaked three or four years ago. There's a presence, but to play online, games have to be downloaded. Kyle Miller, frequently Joeygats' opponent online and often considered the best player in the country, quit playing online last year as he saw competition dwindle. He'll now play only live tournaments, a sentiment many shared at TecmoXII.
Toner, in theory, could represent another generation of Tecmo players. But he doesn't think such a resurgence will happen.
"Every tournament I've went to, I've met one or two guys who are 20-22," Toner said. "Outside of that, they are always old guys. I don't see this new wave of Tecmo players coming through or anything.
"The new generation, they aren't into Tecmo. They are into Madden, are into other stuff."
Live Tecmo is also in flux. On Jan. 4, Tecmo Madison founders Chet and Josh Holzbauer announced this year's tournament would be their last as organizers. TecmoXII moved up two weeks because Chet's wife is due to give birth to their first child, and the original early March weekend was too close to the due date. Josh already has one child. Miller, who was high school football teammates with Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert, missed last year's tournament for the birth of his first child. Some top players once committed to a no-sex-in-June policy -- seriously -- to ensure they wouldn't miss Madison for pending child births.
Not anymore. The game they played as kids is secondary to families they've created with kids of their own.
"I love the game and I still love playing it just as I did at the first one and still get excited about the tournament," Chet Holzbauer said. "But it's a time thing. It's priorities. It's work. It's family."
The attraction of the game has always been part nostalgia, from the game's rudimentary graphics and easy-to-pick-up gameplay to the players involved. It allowed competitors brief re-entry into their own childhoods. Barry Sanders, John Elway and Ozzie Newsome are long-retired from playing in real life. Elway and Newsome are now Super Bowl-winning executives. Yet Tecmo allowed virtual football resurrection in 8-bit form.
It's no coincidence the Tecmo Madison field was littered with old jerseys from Hall of Famers like Sanders and Warren Moon to Tecmo legends like former Green Bay Packers quarterback Anthony Dilweg and nose tackle Bob Nelson.
"When people hold the controllers in their hand and start looking at the game, it's taking them back to when they were kids," Josh Holzbauer said. "When they were young and 8 years old getting a Nintendo system and a "Tecmo Super Bowl" cartridge for Christmas.
"They remember that so fondly. That's part of it, too."
"Obviously it's legit"
Josh and Chet Holzbauer were roommates in a Madison apartment in 2005, years removed from Tecmo's initial popularity, when a friend's boyfriend invited them to play the game before a night out. It invoked memories of playing their cousins at extended family Christmas parties in Milwaukee. The next day they purchased an NES and "Tecmo Super Bowl."
On Feb. 10, 2006, Chet emailed Josh, asking about interest in starting a citywide "Tecmo Super Bowl" tournament. Josh responded as many would -- "I think you have too much time on your hands" -- before agreeing. They held the first Tecmo Madison, Tecmo I, 15 days later at The Plaza Tavern in downtown Madison. The brothers posted an ad on Madison.com inviting players to the tournament and 22 entrants showed up. One, Peter Kerins, spread news of the tournament online after participating.
Sobhi Youssef showed up at Tecmo II, won and told the Holzbauers about Knobbe's site and the online community. The tournament blossomed from 32 players at Tecmo III in 2007 to the 256-player main draw, not including play-in competitors, in 2016. About 725 players have competed in at least one Tecmo Madison. The tournament was the focus of a 2012 half-hour NFL Films documentary.
Tecmo Madison's popularity can largely be attributed to the Holzbauers. Josh, 34, and Chet, 36, were organized, promoted well and found ways to make the tournament more interesting. Each tournament theme combined a legendary player and pop culture. The 2016 tournament was called "There's Something About Barry," melding Barry Sanders and the 1998 movie "There's Something About Mary," which played on loop throughout the day. Regions were named after "There's Something About Mary" actors Ben Stiller, Matt Dillon, Cameron Diaz and, of course, Green Bay Packers quarterback and scene-stealing cameo star Brett Favre.
This year's tournament started with a video of real-life Sanders highlights and traditional readings from the unofficial bibles of "Tecmo Super Bowl": The Book of LT. The Book of LT consists of two Lawrence Taylor autobiographies -- the Old Testament being "LT: Living on the Edge" and the New Testament "LT: Over The Edge." Players from North Dakota made trading cards, not of the guys in the game but of Tecmo Madison competitors themselves.
Each game starts with a toss of a gold or silver commemorative coin with Sanders' face on it. The winner of the toss picks which two teams will be used in the game. The loser selects which team he wants to use. Kerins came up with this format for Tecmo VI. There were different rules in early Madison tournaments, but the protocol grew and adapted. In Tecmo IV and Tecmo V, using the 49ers was prohibited. The tournament starts with double-elimination group play to narrow the field to 64, then single-elimination up to the last eight before reverting to double-elimination until a champion triumphs.
The tournament is profitable, too. Badger Bowl general manager Jeff Cummings said TecmoXI in 2015 cleared $30,000, one of his top in-venue days of the year. The Holzbauers created a nostalgic and fun experience for players who drove and flew to Madison to participate for competition and camaraderie.
"Some people have a hard time convincing the wives or girlfriends this is a cool thing," said David Thompson, a 34-year-old from Buffalo, New York, who drove 12 hours with four others to play. "But the thing is, once you come to the tournaments and get the camaraderie going, you realize that this may be on the exterior kind of a dorky thing but then all the guys are awesome and they like it, too.
"So obviously it's legit."
To help with growing tournament demand, the Holzbauers scoured Craigslist and thrift stores for box televisions -- the game can't be played on high-definition TVs because of lag -- along with Nintendo consoles and cartridges. They asked competitors to help with bringing equipment because they needed at least 32 "workstations." Considering the age of these televisions and consoles, it helped to have extras on hand in case something broke. On Friday night the many box televisions sat in Badger Bowl like a technology graveyard, ready to be hooked up at a busted TV's notice.
Jon Bailey keeps the tournament on time. Dave Murray flies up from Tampa, Florida, and helps run the live stream. Wives and girlfriends help with registration. Tony Orenga runs the website, TecmoMadison.com. He also draws the Orenga Posse, a group of 20-25 people who dress up like Luigi and creepy mariachi men and cheer him relentlessly.
Orenga's fiancée, Jamie Morrone, leads the usually-drunken Posse, including props like a $100 lifesize cutout of Orenga in a dog costume and an Orenga Fathead wall decal. Touchdowns at TV No. 10, the Orenga TV, meant Posse chants of "Jamie and Tony sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. First comes love, then comes Tecmo, then comes a baby ..." Morrone's drunken response: "Heck no." After Orenga loses in the round of 16, Morrone calls it "devastating." Initially skeptical of the entire tournament, she said it became one of her favorite days of the year.
"It's a spectacle," Morrone said. "But it's actually fun to be a part of."
"One more year"
Chants of "one more year" sprung up whenever Chet or Josh Holzbauer spoke. There is hope another national tournament emerges, and regional competitions in Ohio, Iowa, Indiana, New York City and Green Bay, Wisconsin, are possibilities to take over. But the commitment -- the Holzbauers estimated hundreds of hours of work, about 10-15 a week -- is daunting, and Madison's tournament size more than quadruples the next-largest competition.
The final Tecmo Madison championship match, between Joeygats and Toner, was played on a "Tecmo Super Bowl" cartridge autographed by Tecmo legend and former Bengals safety David Fulcher, who has appeared at Tecmo tournaments in Ohio.
As Joeygats celebrated his win, Chet and Josh searched the crowd for perennial players. This would be the end. The Holzbauers signed autographs on T-shirts and posed for pictures. Half the competitors in the tournament are new each year for various reasons, but the remaining regulars have become a family, a major part of the Holzbauers' lives.
The day after the tournament, most participants drove or flew home. In many ways, it signaled an end of holding onto youth, an end of the first half of many of their lives and an end to more than a decade's worth of friendships forged over a video game created 25 years ago -- one with an uncertain future.
"It's the realization that a lot of these guys I'm never going to see again," Knobbe said. "I'd like to think I'll see Chet and Josh again, but this might be the last time I see Chet and Josh. It might be the last time I see Jon [Bailey].
"They'll always be tournaments and whether or not there's 256 people or 24 people, that's just a little bit of scale. At the end of the day, it's still a Tecmo tournament."