The Game: Trade those pads in for pixels and get ready to hit the gridiron. Each player controls a football team represented by Xs or Os, and uses a keypad to select offensive and defensive maneuvers – and the trakball to tear across the turf as fast as the player can move it. Additional quarters buy additional playing time (each quarter gets two minutes of play). Whoever has the highest score at the end of the game is the winner; later four-player variations sported additional trakballs so the offensive player could control his team’s quarterback and another could control the receiver for passing plays, while there were now two independent players on the defensive team. (Atari, 1978)
Memories: The only serious rival for Space Invaders‘ arcade affection in 1978, Atari’s Football almost beat those crafty aliens to the punch by a couple of years. Designer Steve Bristow, one of the original Atari engineers, was working on a football project called Xs and Os as early as 1974, but wound up setting it aside when he was assigned to work on Atari’s first big post-Pong hit, Tank, in the Kee Games skunkworks. Bristow also created the revolutionary trakball control, which Football was the first game in the world to use. Dave Stubben later stepped in and completed the game, and during the 1978-79 football season, Atari’s Football took in as much money as or, depending on the location, more than Space Invaders. The game was also cleverly marketed as a two-piece unit: for arcades or other locations where having the controls and monitor at standing height was desired, an additional “riser” – basically a sturdy weighted stand with no electronics inside – could be used to prop the main cabinet up by about a foot. For bars or other locations where having players seated was more appropriate, the riser could be left off and the game would rest at a comfortable sitting height.
It’s somewhat hard to imagine the road that led from Atari’s Football – one of the most abstract representations of the sport ever to appear, literally using text characters to show the players’ positions – to modern, realistic TV-coverage-style games like Madden 2004. Space games can still get away with black backgrounds and abstract constructs because, well, they’re set in space. But it is perhaps by tracing the evolution of sports games that one gets an idea of how far video games have come. When you go from Xs and Os to a 3-D polygonal Brett Favre who looks like Brett Favre, all in the space of 30 years, you begin to get an idea not only of how far we’ve come, but on which side of the gameplay vs. graphics debate the greater emphasis has been placed.