Tecmo Super Bowl gunning for resurgence with esports

They just couldn't let it go away. They saw too many people making a pilgrimage to Madison, Wisconsin, every year to be huddled around box televisions and Nintendo consoles, playing a 25-year-old cartridge still lodged well into sports gaming lore.

Despite the age of the game and advancements in technology, there was growth potential in Tecmo Super Bowl. Hundreds still flocked to Tecmo Madison, considered the game's national championships, on a yearly basis. Last year, tens of thousands watched over an online stream as a man known only as Joeygats won what was thought to be the last crown in February.

As Dave Murray ran last year's live stream, he had a continuous thought: Why did this have to die? This had been the most successful iteration of the tournament, so he approached the retiring founders, Josh and Chet Holzbauer, with a proposal:

Save the tournament. Let him purchase it for an undisclosed amount and run it. He had been involved the past five years, and with a marketing background, the 35-year-old Tampa, Florida, resident believed the timing was right for the tournament to prosper. The Holzbauers agreed -- and so the tournament lives on this weekend at the High Noon Saloon as Tecmo Madison XIII: Return of the Mack.

"Realizing how much this meant to everyone, a time to convene to get 500 people together in a room and celebrate a game that we love," Murray said. "Realizing that, looking to the past three years specifically when I really applied myself to the marketing side of things, that we hadn't even scratched the surface of what this thing could be.

"So we kind of looked at it as a whole of we have this inherent group of players that love this thing. There are thousands more that love this thing and what if we reach those players. It just kind of grew from there."

As esports continue to thrive -- and as retro gaming becomes popular in esports with Super Smash Brothers and Street Fighter -- Murray believed Tecmo Super Bowl was the next game able to make the jump into an emerging esport.

Murray and his 39-year-old partner, Casey Paquet, weren't sure what would happen when they took over. Selling out the tournament -- featuring a 292-player field from 31 states, Canada and Costa Rica -- less than a week after the announced return gave them their answer. People were still interested. It gave their potential five-year plan -- turn this into an event thousands might attend, even if they aren't playing -- more life.

"Dave and I are looking at this as this is the first year of it being a real, legit esport kind of angle with a growth strategy of going along a path that some of these retro gaming tournaments have gone," Paquet said. "Learning what they've done correctly and then figuring out how to get it in front of the people who are interested in it.

"Not just necessarily build an audience, the audience is already there, but let them know that we're here and it's something cool they can participate in whether they are physically there, whether they are watching online or playing in between tournaments online as well."

That's already started. This year's tournament had one satellite tournament in Green Bay, Wisconsin -- the second-largest Tecmo Super Bowl tournament in the country. In August, they are starting a second satellite tournament at the Let's Play Gaming expo in Dallas. Eventually, the plan is to divide the country into regions for both in-person and online qualifiers -- similar to how the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest and the World Series of Poker run their qualification events.

There are also sponsorships. A mutual contact with Murray and tournament director Jon Bailey led to an association with Koei Tecmo for the first time. Koei Tecmo senior vice president and general manager Amos Ip told ESPN he wasn't sure what the partnership would look like beyond this tournament, but that the company has had internal discussions of diving into esports. He wouldn't say whether Tecmo Super Bowl was a title they were considering, but he called it a "tent pole" brand. The renaissance of the game in recent ad campaigns for Kia and Bud Light also piqued Koei Tecmo's interest in the tournament.

"Just nostalgia and with Nintendo, mini-NES coming back and a lot of nostalgia on the brand," Ip said. "It's never going to fade, so to speak, with it being a part of a lot of people's childhoods and adulthoods, I guess."

They also partnered with Hyperkin, a company that makes peripheral products for game consoles providing the Retron 1 consoles for group play. Then there's the biggest name in the Tecmo lexicon -- Bo Jackson.

An initial introduction by a now-retired player, Ryan Krebs, who helps run the New York City Tecmo tournament, led to Bo Jackson's Give Me a Chance Foundation signing on as one of the Madison's sponsors. Two raffle grand prizes of a meet-and-greet and cocktail party with Jackson at his annual golf tournament will be awarded, as will a signed jersey and five signed posters.

All this can be viewed on a live steam on both Twitch and Facebook Live this year, with announcers calling action late in the tournament. This, Murray figures, will be a way to push for further reach. But for their future visions of expansion, this year has to be a success.

Much of what this year's update has been -- other than bringing the tournament back -- has been to modernize it. A server has been constructed to log scores and seeds instead of the pen-and-paper method of the past. There's also a change to the format of the tournament. Group play will be four people divided into 72 groups -- with only the winner advancing. Based on records and point differential, the 72 players will be seeded, with the top 63 players earning their way into the main draw and the remaining eight players participating in a play-in tournament to get the final slot in the field.

From there, it'll be single elimination until the elite eight, when it turns into double elimination to crown a winner, who will take home $2,500 of the $5,000 purse -- although the top 12 finishers will receive money.

This is what Murray and Paquet hope is the start of a potential foothold for 8-bit legitimacy in the esports world. Beyond the main event of Tecmo Super Bowl on Saturday, there are 32-player tournaments Friday night in NBA Jam and NHL '95 on 16-bit Sega Genesis. The long-term plan, Murray said, is to keep Tecmo Super Bowl as the main event but to have smaller tournaments in other games surrounding it, turning it into a weekend of retro gaming. If that sounds familiar, it's similar to how the WSOP operates, the big main tournament with smaller tournaments building up to it.

It's just part of the strategy -- one that wasn't necessarily envisioned before a couple of years ago.

"A year or two ago, I would have said we could have steadily grown Madison by a dozen or two dozen people every year," said former owner Josh Holzbauer, who will stay on as tournament master of ceremonies. "I don't I think I would have thought much beyond that. Now? Given the interest we had from ESPN last year and what Dave and Bailey are doing with marketing and sponsorships, the future is bright.

"Now that eSports has really become popular, who knows, maybe someday it could be on TV somewhere. Maybe they could take it to another city and play it at a bigger arena, a place where more actual spectators could come, people who maybe don't even know the game all that well, but who just want to watch the action. I think that's a possibility, and I never would have thought that a year ago."

All of that is part of the vision put together by Murray and Paquet -- to turn something a quarter-century old into something that will grab the national consciousness once again.