Sal DiVita, the lead artist and game designer at video game maker Midway, was suplexing his co-worker. A big pro wrestling fan, he was having a bit of fun in the motion capture room after miming tackles for the animations of the company's upcoming video game, NFL Blitz. He'd mix in elbow drops, leg drops, and other wrestling-inspired moves. The guys were having a laugh, so he figured he'd do more of it.
Next thing DiVita knew, they were brutalizing each other with late hits and violent takedowns. DiVita executed flawless piledrivers. Everyone loved them, so he broke out a modified spinebuster, where he mimicked lifting up a ball carrier by his face-mask and shaking him in the air before collapsing to the ground so his victim would land spine-first. The room burst out in hysterics and glee, knowing they had the foundation of a football game unlike any other. "We were like, 'Oh my God, this is so fun," DiVita said. "I can't wait to get it into the game.'" Meanwhile, the NFL hadn't checked in on the project since signing a licensing deal with Midway.
"I'm not sure if the NFL had any idea what we were gonna do," said DiVita with a laugh.
It didn't. While the game was in development, Midway approached the NFL about a licensing deal for what they billed as a football version of NBA Jam. The league accepted with a basic understanding that the game would be an arcade-y version of professional football, bending the rules without snapping them like a twig. The NFL has always been concerned with its image, but prior to the concussion crisis, that largely meant celebrating the sport's brutality, not shying away from it. DiVita and his giggling colleagues had no idea they were creating an era-defining video game that would go on to spawn nine sequels and distill mid-1990s NFL fandom to its essence, all while inadvertently foreshadowing today's debates over the damage done by football and its future as America's favorite sport.
Back at Midway's offices, DiVita and creative director Mark Turmell supplemented the wrestling moves with the neckbreaker, which DiVita describes as "a guy grabs another guy's neck and just drops on his back and basically cracks the guy's neck on his shoulder as the guy falls down." There also was stomping on the bodies of incapacitated players, exuberant trash talking involving bleeped-out curses, and mild blood spatter. The game's creators weren't alone in loving the hyper-violence. Thanks to a combination of on-screen mayhem and easy-to-grasp gameplay, prototype versions of NFL Blitz tested very well at local Chicago arcades, where it was routinely the top-grossing game.
A week before NFL Blitz's scheduled launch, someone at the NFL office had the bright idea of finally checking out the game that would carry the leagues logo. Officials flew to Midway's headquarters in Chicago and watched Turmell and DiVita play the game. Both developers figured that the NFL wouldn't be pleased, to say the least, so they went as light on the brutality as possible. Thing was, much of the violence was coded into the game in a way that made it inevitable, regardless of particular button presses. Suplexes and neckbreakers abounded.
As soon as the demonstration game ended, the NFL reps asked for a few minutes alone. When they emerged from their private talk, they said, "We're going to have to wash our hands of this." They offered Midway the license fee back, but declared they couldn't have the NFL's name on the game. When pressed for a reason, the officials confessed it was simply too violent. The NFL Blitz team had to decide between the license and the violence.
As the developers behind the multi-billion dollar NBA Jam series, Turmell and DiVita knew that league licenses could make or break sports game sales. So with the NFL representatives still in the building, they proposed stripping NFL Blitz of some of the most controversial moves and graphics, then testing the game in the local arcades over the weekend as a way to measure the importance of those moves. If it still did well, they'd make the changes and ship as an NFL product. If not, they'd agree to the split and sell the game without the NFL's license.
With the stakes in mind, Turmell first wanted to show the NFL representatives what they had used to inspire their artistic vision for the game. So he screened a NFL Films "Biggest Hits" video, a gleeful celebration of brutality already being marketed and sold by the league. "You can't deny that the NFL is fast and furious when you're looking at the tapes," Turmell says now. The lasting irony is that the league, for a brief moment, decided it had to "wash its hands" of a product modeled on its own fundamental fury.
The game was quite obviously not a simulation in the realm of the Madden NFL franchise or NFL Quarterback Club, but it was disconnected from reality in a revealing way. The NFL Blitz team wanted to include everything people loved about football and take out the things they don't, creating a consequence-free version of the sport. Keep and exaggerate the bone-splitting hits; lose the killjoy penalties and injuries.
Turmell and DiVita spend the weekend with the NFL going through each animation. Upon seeing the spinebuster move for the first time, DiVita distinctly recalls the league reps exclaiming, "Are you guys fucking out of your minds?" Turmell and DiVita feigned shock, like a kid caught doodling on his school desk during class. Even though DiVita spent two days motion-capturing the move himself, he knew it had to go. "It was painful to take that one away," he said, "because I thought it was beautiful and violent." The blood splatters were also a victim of NFL censorship.
The late hits were an issue, too. At the time, a user simply had to move the joystick towards a downed character to jump, stomp, or clobber the player after the whistle. "You guys can't do this," the NFL employee told the game makers. "You can't hit a guy after the play!" Well, DiVita wondered, what if the late hits weren't automatic? What if players had to press a button to pummel an incapacitated ball-carrier?
Ultimately, the NFL accepted compromises on many of the contentious animations. To wit: in the prototype version of the game, several seconds would pass between the end of a play and the appearance of the playcalling menu, allowing a gang of defenders to congregate and dogpile on the poor, helpless victim, creating a cacophony of anguished howls. The NFL Blitz guys reduced the time window of the one-way brawl to three seconds.
After Turmell finished the editing, he loaded the new code into arcade machines for weekend testing. The game remained on top, so they called the NFL to push forward with the release.
The league accepted, but wanted Turmell to send it a video of all the motion-captured moves before launch. Rather than sending a gameplay video, he made a decision that may have saved NFL Blitz: he sent the league all the animations as depicted in an editor tool, which only shows the outline of a motion-capture figure moving against a dark, dimensionless background. Without any context, the over-the-top hits and tackles were neutered. The NFL either didn't have a problem with what it saw or never watched the tape, because it never said anything to the NFL Blitz team about it again.
When the arcade version of NFL Blitz launched in the fall of 1997, it was a tremendous success. In direct contrast to more complex football simulation games, anybody could walk up to a coin-operated cabinet, score touchdowns, and send ball carriers flying with a single punch.
This was no accident. Belying its freewheeling take on football, the game was technologically advanced for its time. In order to make the game so easy to play, much of the complex decision-making had to be built into the artificial intelligence. The passing mechanism is illustrative: as a seven-on-seven game, each play had a left, middle, and right receiver (there were no running plays). Although players could flick their joysticks to choose which player to pass to, if two receivers were close to each other, the game would decide which one to direct the ball to based on who was open. "It was actually really tricky coding," DiVita said. "It was trying to figure out what you're intending on doing, not necessarily what your stick is exactly doing. So it will make decisions based on several aspects of distance, what the play is, where guys are, how many people are around certain guys." The NFL Blitz team found people got far less frustrated and had more fun when plays were successful. Turmell and company created similar mechanisms for tackling, catching, and other gameplay features, all so gamers could spend less time mastering joystick moves and more time beating the hell out of each other.
In the late summer of 1998, Midway launched the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation console versions of NFL Blitz with an $8 million marketing campaign, including a commercial spot that became a hallmark of the franchise. In the ad, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart plays target practice by hurling footballs at the members of a nondescript marching band. Stewart picks them off one by one, like a first-person shooter with the difficulty level turned all the way down. As NFL Blitz gameplay flashes across the screen, a low, gravelly voice advertises in a monotone: Deadly long-range passes. Linebackers without conscience. A wretched assault on the senses of fair play. No refs, no rules, no mercy. The commercial aired during 1998's first Monday Night Football game between the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots, as well as on CBS, ESPN, The WB, UPN, MTV, USA Network, and Comedy Central.
I thought Turmell was joking when he told me, "Of course, the letters started coming in from high school and college marching bands." He wasn't. The National Association of Music Educators (which, apparently, is also not a joke) decried the commercial as just another stereotypical example of band geeks being harassed by jocks. "Many band directors especially in high school are upset over it, because of the time, effort and talent it takes to do the half-time shows," Christine Sezer, general music and choral director at the Howell Township Middle School, told the Newark Star-Ledger at the time. The organization charged with defending the dignity of marching bands demanded, in written form, that Midway suspend the commercial—two weeks after Midway's marketing campaign ended and the commercial had ceased running. The New Jersey Music Educators Association (still not a joke) even discussed the TV spot at the annual teachers convention that year, which surely resulted in the widespread abandonment of the term "band geeks."
Predictably, it wasn't just band geeks who were repulsed by the game. The late 1990s were marked by strong criticism of violent video games, with many (older) Americans concerned about the effects of virtual violence on impressionable youth. NFL Blitz struck a chord in that climate, attracting both customers and backlash. Amusingly, some NFL beat writers crossed over into video games journalism. "This is what multiple-concussion sufferer Troy Aikman means when he says that the NFL's claims that it wants to decrease the incidence of serious injuries ring hollow because the league, through NFL Properties, simultaneously sells carnage to younger audiences as the game's primary come-on," wrote sports columnist Phil Mushnick in the New York Post. Channeling his best Helen Lovejoy impression, Mushnick also wrote, "If the NFL doesn't immediately remove its name and its hypocritical, greed-driven blessings from this commercial and this game, then you'll know precisely the regard the NFL holds for both its players and our children."
Ironically, NFL Blitz's cartoonish violence prefigured the league's conflicted present, where moral hand-waving serves as a temporary stand-in for serious concern. People love football's inherent brutality, and love decrying its harmful effects on the human body. The same goes for the NFL, which was—and to a large extent, still is—perfectly comfortable profiting from violence as long as it seems under control. The NFL didn't have any problem with NFL Blitz's mayhem when it out-sold every other football game that year, including Madden NFL.
The following year, perhaps realizing the NFL Blitz editor tool didn't properly represent the game's carnage, the NFL's licensing team asked for a full gameplay video to review before the game shipped. Ever practical, DiVita and Turmell sent the league a six-hour video featuring every tackle and move the game would have, with the most brutal collisions animated only once, and stuffed together towards the end of the video. DiVita and Turmell never found out if the NFL actually watched the video, and they didn't much care. Once again, the gameplay was approved.