Winter of 1996. My best friend and I had spent two months of Saturdays that could have conceivably been spent meeting girls playing a season of Madden ’96. He had taken the Detroit Lions, dominating with Chris Spielman and Barry Sanders, while I took the difficult path of guiding the Houston Oilers with an unproven Steve McNair. After he cruised into the Super Bowl, I found my upstart Oilers facing the Raiders for the chance to meet him. Down 4 with seconds left on the 10 yard line, McNair threw a perfect pass to the corner of the end zone only to have it intercepted by a phantom player who came off the sidelines to intercept it. For the first time, Madden’s newfangled instant replay feature came in handy, as we could go back, review, and count. Sure enough, there were 12 Raiders on the field.
I learned two lessons that day:
- The Raiders always cheat.
- I was hopelessly, deliriously, addicted to pixelated sports I controlled from my couch.
Tonight after the show, I’ll be heading to my local game shop to buy Madden 13. I’ll be behind; the real Madden fans picked it up last night at midnight and have had an entire “sick day” to get the hang of it. By the time the NFL season begins, I’ll be in year two of my franchise. (I could take the Packers, but like my Houston Oiler days of old I’ll be looking for a challenge. It’s the Arizona Cardinals for me.)
Sports and video games have always had a connection – Pong was essentially a tennis simulator. For me, however, sports video games have always been about another connection, a personal one. My Mom never quite understood my video game hobby, but I still have distinct memories of one of the rare times she did – playing Bowling for the Atari 2600 with me when I was probably about 5. When I was a teenager, that time when it’s impossibly hard to think of anything you would possibly do with your parents, my Dad and I bonded over Madden and FIFA on the Sega Genesis. Through elementary school, high school, and college, some of the greatest memories I have with my friends came during long sessions of everything from Tecmo Bowl to Virtua Tennis. Today, with online play, those same friends and I can still play even though we live in different time zones.
This is all a long way of explaining my credentials. I know sports games. If there is one I haven’t played, I’d be surprised. (Mutant League Football? Rugby World Cup ’95? Kurt Warner’s Arena Football Unleashed? Check, check, and check.) So, in honor of this year’s Madden football release, I give you my list of the ten greatest virtual athletes of all time.
10. Peyton Manning – NCAA Football 98, Playstation
In 1998, EA Sports conveniently left out a key aspect of the game – defense. With Peyton Manning tearing up the SEC that year, it made him easily the most dominating player in the game and one of the greatest ever. He’d be ranked higher, but the aforementioned lack of defense game-wide made all quarterbacks pretty unbeatable. On a side note, Peyton Manning has remained pretty much impossible to stop in every iteration of Madden ever since.
9. Mark Price/Danny Ferry – NBA Live 95, Sega Genesis
This one takes some explaining. In the 16 bit early days of EA Sports, before there were digitized facial expressions and motion captured sweat, there were essentially four different player types: The bald black dude, the black dude with hair, the blonde white dude, and the dark haired white dude. Mark Price and Danny Ferry both fell into the final category. Mark Price was unstoppable from three point range, but had one weakness – a player controlled defender could sometimes block his shot. The way around this was the Danny Ferry fake-out. It worked like this. When the useless Danny Ferry was in the game, try to subvert your opponent into thinking it was him at three point line and not Mark “Can’t Miss” Price. When your opponent leaves “Danny Ferry” (who was really Mark Price) open, you start raining threes. There was simply no better way to shame your opponent.
8. Lawrence Taylor – Tecmo Super Bowl, NES
Tecmo Super Bowl is the one game that garners multiple players on this list, and I could probably add even more. The entire game is built on the concept of putting up insane stats you would never see in real life. If you’ve ever heard an announcer say someone is putting up “video game numbers”, it’s probably because they grew up with Tecmo Bowl.
L.T. Was the defensive player in the game. He could tear through an offensive line like it was paper, and 50-75 sacks was a realistic goal for a top player. There was only one offensive player he couldn’t stop – more on him later.
7. Ken Griffey Jr – Ken Griffey Jr Baseball, Super Nintendo
One great thing about having a video game named after yourself. You get to make yourself as good as you want. Griffey took this to heart and was at least twice as good as every other player in the game.
6. Jeremy Roenick – NHL 94, Sega Genesis
There were plenty of players in the greatest sports game ever made (and that point’s not up for debate) who could score at will. Gretzky, Hull, Mogilny – they were all easy hat tricks. What set Roenick apart was the ability to bone-crushingly check any of those other guys so hard they would crumple to the ice and start bleeding from the head. Instant game changer.
5. Magic – Street Sports Baseball, Commodore 64
This is easily the most obscure title on this list, but should be well known to anyone who knew the joys of gaming on a Commodore 64 back in the 80s. The Street Sports games were meant to mimic sandlot pick-up games, right down to a schoolyard pick ‘em of the various players. Magic was always the first pick. He ran like Ricky Henderson, fielded like Ozzie Smith, pitched like Roger Clemens, and hit like Tony Gwynn. Presumably, he grew up to be Ken Griffey, Jr. in Ken Griffey Jr Baseball.
4. Michael Vick – Madden 2004
It’s easy to forget how new Michael Vick seemed in 2004. The only thing you could compare him to were video game athletes from the past; he had no real life counterpart. So it was only reasonable, that when it came time for a Madden version, that he would be Superman. Vick could scramble forever without being caught, and run it up field or throw it 60 yards at will. How good was he? EA Sports basically scrapped everything for 2005 and became the most defense-heavy game in the series.
3. Mike Tyson – Mike Tyson’s Punch Out
I’ve beaten Glass Joe in under a minute. I know how to dodge Bald Bull’s bull charge. I had to hit select between rounds to get some extra energy, but I’ve taken down Soda Popinsky and Super Macho Man. But Iron Mike, you are my Everest. 25 years later, and every time that pigeon-loving monster winks I know I’m in for a beating. I know there are those of you out there who can beat him blindfolded. I just hope I can last a round someday.
2. Bo Jackson – Tecmo Super Bowl
Take the Raiders in Tecmo Super Bowl, and you only need two plays. Bo runs right, and Bo runs left. Want to tackle him? You need 6 guys. Want to catch him in the open field? You better have The Flash. Bo Jackson was so good, he’s the one guy in this article who has his own t-shirt memorializing his video game skills.
1. Craig Candeto – NCAA Football 2004, PS2, Xbox, Gamecube
Throughout college, my roommate Aaron and I played a never-ending dynasty in NCAA football. I still have it on a memory card somewhere, about 20 seasons in. We took one team, and he controlled the defense while I ran the offense. We pulled off two miracles during this run – winning a national title with the Indiana Hoosiers and meeting women who would agree to marry us despite our proclivity for 6 hour video game football sessions. We became experts at the game, and got to know every great player in it. No one stood out like Navy quarterback Craig Candeto.
Candeto, simply put, was an unstoppable football machine who could break a 40 yard run one play, and throw a 40 year bomb the next. Once, in a rout, we put him in at linebacker just to see what he would do. He injured the opposing quarterback. He was Rambo in pads.
Turns out Candeto really was a phenomenon. After college, he became a Navy fighter jet pilot. Today, he’s coaching quarterbacks at the Citadel. Of course, he has no idea that a group of guys in the midwest have risen him to folk hero status based on his video game self. To this day, though, I can call Aaron, refer to a player as “Candeto-esque”, and we’ll both know exactly what we’re talking about. Craig Candeto is more than a player – he’s a shared memory of good times. Ask me why I’m buying Madden 13 today, and there’s your reason.
Matt Regashus is the producer of The Bill Michaels Show. Follow him on twitter @BigRaguSports. Questions? Comments? E-mail him at email@example.com