The history of Realsports
Kieren Hawken investigates Atari’s popular sports series for its home systems
In 1979 the very first console war was started as Mattel’s Intellivision went headon with the market leading Atari 2600. People might not remember this battle as well as Mega Drive vs SNES, or Spectrum vs C64, but make no mistake this was an aggressive fight. One that eventually saw a clear winner, and believe it or not, sports games were at the very forefront of it all. The early sports-based games for the-then Atari VCS were very simple affairs that bore little resemblance to the pastimes they were based on. Games such as Homerun, Football, Pele Soccer and Golf had sold well but were no substitute for the real thing. The management at Mattel knew this too, and it felt that the increased power of its system could provide the sporting experiences that everyone craved. So Mattel set about creating a sub-label that it would call Sports Network, to specialise in this field, thus creating the first videogame sporting franchise. But it didn’t just knock out more realistic sports games, it also attached licenses to them to add more legitimacy. Rather than just plain old Soccer Mattel had NASL, licensed from the North American Soccer League. It also had NBA Basketball, Major League Baseball, US Team Skiing, NHL Hockey and many more. Former Intellivision president and leader of the famous Blue Sky Rangers Keith Robinson, who sadly passed away in 2017, had previously talked about this with us. “There’s no doubt about it, these were the games that sold our console,” he said. “Our TV adverts made the 2600 look laughable in comparisons. It was very clever marketing and established the Intellivision [as] the serious sports game machine.” Keith was right, too, as Major League Baseball tops the charts as the system’s bestselling game of all time, no mean feat for a sports title.
Talking of those TV adverts, they soon became the key for Mattel, mainly thanks to hiring George Plimpton to front them. For those unaware of his work, George was a writer, actor, journalist, keen amateur sportsman and, most importantly, a sports commentator. He was highly respected in his field and very much seen as an authority on all things sporting. In these
short pieces of film he briefly compared, like for like, games on the Atari 2600 and Intellivision, not just telling you how superior Mattel’s games were but also showing you. Images of George along with his words would also be reused in magazine adverts. There was no escape from Mattel’s aggressive advertising. Atari, for the first time in its history, was on the ropes and needed to make a big comeback. So after a meeting of its bosses, the company came up a plan to launch a new sports range of its own. All of the company’s existing sports games would be discontinued and replaced with a new lineup of titles, which would be named Realsports, and were set to be launched in 1982 for both the rebranded Atari 2600 and its new stablemate the 5200 Supersystem, as well as Atari’s 8-bit home computers.
The first three titles in this series would be recreations of baseball, American football and volleyball. The last of these proved most interesting as not only was it a sport that Atari hadn’t covered before, but also one that couldn’t be played on the Intellivision either. The developer assigned to this game was Bob Polaro, who had previously programmed the bestselling Atari 2600 port of Defender. Bob had already done some work on a volleyball game for the Atari 2600 and remembers when he was asked to resurrect it. “Realsports Volleyball was my second
game for the 2600 after Stunt Cycle, which was never released for some reason,” he explains. “It was just called Volleyball originally and I was making good progress with a couple of stick figures bouncing a ball around. But the bosses weren’t that impressed and I was asked to drop it to go back to Stunt Cycle and convert the game into Dukes Of Hazard, which never got released, either! Then the bosses at Atari came up with the whole Realsports idea and I was asked to resurrect Volleyball again. They wanted me to make several improvements to make it more realistic such as better animation and more colourful backgrounds. They really weren’t happy about the square ball in the game though, especially when I told them there was nothing I could do about it!”
Atari’s Realsports Football was a huge upgrade on the existing football game for the 2600 and was remarkably close to Mattel’s own effort. This project was assigned to Atari stalwart Rob Zdybel, and he has a pretty amusing story to share about its development. “I was asked to mock up a screen that would show a football game in progress on the 2600,” he says. “They wanted 22 players on the screen which was strictly impossible if the players were to move, but this was just a static screen. I told my boss that, but when she took it upstairs, they were like, ‘We love this! We want this football game!’ I definitely learned a lesson there!” With the first mock-up of the game out the window, Rob had to try and come up with something that actually worked. He describes this process to us, “I was just trying to be better than the previous football game Atari had made, which was called Flying Frog Football around the office because it looked like roadkill was playing the game, the graphics were that bad.
That was a pretty easy mark to hit, but I was still happy with the result.” The 5200 and Atari 8-bit version of the game was handled by Jim Huether, who’s well known for being the face of Warlords. He remembers the development period well. “This game took almost a year. It was my first real game on the 5200, and one I had wanted to do ever since I started at Atari,” he says. “I remembered that vibrating football game product from when I was kid, and I wanted to make it come alive on a computer. I essentially did this game by myself including the design, the programming, the animations, the sounds and even the draft of the manual! This game used artificial intelligence, so all the players on the field were tasked with roles at the beginning of the play. As the play developed, they would change their roles as necessary, just like in real football. The Stanford football team was hooked on this game, and I got to demonstrate it and play it for about 15 minutes with Stephen Spielberg when he came to visit, which was really cool!”
Without doubt the most talked about game in the series remains Realsports Baseball, this is mostly down to the highly accomplished 5200 version than its poor 2600 sibling however. The man behind this game was Keithen Hayenga, a new hire at Atari who would later work on the unreleased 5200 port of Tempest.
He wasn’t even assigned this project originally. “My original assignment was to be a war game called Fox Fire, which almost everyone still at Atari had turned it down,” he explains. “It was the title of a movie about war games with a Romeo And Juliet aspect and the game (and me) were going to be mentioned in the movie as advertising for the game. Neither the movie nor the game was ever finished. Then they needed someone to finish Realsports Baseball for the 5200. Jim Andreason had started it right after having done Realsports Football and he needed a break. Rather than finish his game I started it all over and got extra ROM space to put in voice, too. Jim did come back to help me finish off the gameplay though. It was awarded the title best sports game of 1983 by Video Game Update and best sports game of 1984 by Electronic Game Player Magazine, which made me very proud.” Realsports Baseball, much like its Intellivision counterpart, was very much used to try and help sell the new console featuring heavily in advertising. Atari was banking on this product so much in fact that it cancelled the release of the Atari 8-bit version, which used near-identical code thanks to the two machines sharing the same hardware, in hope that it would sell more 5200 systems. A similar ploy was pulled with the Atari 8-bit version of Realsports Soccer, too, for the same reason. Of course, history tells us that this plan very much failed.
“I GOT TO DEMONSTRATE IT AND PLAY IT FOR ABOUT 15 MINUTES WITH STEPHEN SPIELBERG WHEN HE CAME TO VISIT, WHICH WAS REALLY COOL!”
And that leads us on to talk about the European take on football, often named soccer in videogames so it doesn’t confuse the inhabitants of North America. This was pencilled in as part of the second phase of Realsports games to be released in 1983 along with titles based on tennis and basketball. The Atari 2600 version was programmed by Michael Sierchio, who also worked with Robert Zdybel on the Muppets licence Pigs In Space, and the Atari 5200 creation was coded by John Seghers, who also did Gremlins for the 5200 and Atari 8-bit. Just to add a bit of confusion, Realsports Soccer was also renamed Realsports Football for the PAL market, although the later red box rerelease returned the name to Soccer. Neither version was particularly well-received and definitely missed the mark in terms of recreating the world’s most popular sport. On the other hand, however, Realsports Tennis was quite the opposite. In fact, the Atari 2600 version could definitely be considered as the pinnacle of the series, introducing never-before-seen features, such as being able to enter your initials (a first for any Atari 2600 game) and multicoloured sprites. The only previous tennis game for the Atari 2600 was the one by Activision and as good as that was, Atari’s game was even better. Sadly, the programmer of this excellent version remains uncredited. The more than competent, although less technically impressive, 5200 and Atari 8-bit versions were handled by W Sean Hennessy who recalls how he landed the project. “Well, I got a call from my old boss at Sega, George Kiss, and he knew that I was a huge tennis fiend and wanted me to come up with a version for their new console,” he says. “I was to do the 5200 version first and then port the game to the Atari 800 after. My game was well received and I really enjoyed creating it. After that they let me pick my own projects, I was lucky to be a new guy who actually got given a game he wanted to work on!”
Due to the internal turmoil at Atari, in the wake of the North American videogame crash, no more Realsports games were produced under Warner Brothers management, despite the fact big-name sports such as ice hockey, golf and wrestling, had not been covered. However, once the new streamlined Tramiel-owned Atari Corporation started to get software development into full flow it was decided
that the Realsports brand was to be resurrected for two more titles. The first of these was Realsports Boxing for the Atari 2600 in 1987. This was coded by Alex Demeo, who later reused much of the code to create Title Match Pro Wrestling for Absolute Entertainment. This turned out to be a very impressive title for the 2600, really pushing the system to its limits in terms of graphics and sound. This led to it being heavily featured in advertising for the newly designed 2600 Jr console. Alex recalls how much easier it was to produce games for the system in the later years, “Originally it took at least six months to code a 2600 game and it was usually the work of just one programmer. By then it only took us three to four months to turn a project around thanks to timesaving routines and programming aids that had been developed. Additionally, the work was now (usually) divided up among several people with dedicated artists and musicians etc.”
The last game in the series was an Atari 7800 port of Realsports Baseball, the only game in the franchise released for the Prosystem this didn’t hit the market until 1988. Somehow, though, this version managed to be vastly inferior to the Atari 5200 original. The gameplay was very limited, buggy and a poor imitation of the real thing. It was also a clear step down in both the graphics and sound departments, too. This was a sad end to the popular series and one that 7800 fans definitely want to forget about, a system that was sadly neglected when it came to sports games. Despite this disappointing conclusion to the story, the Realsports series is still fondly remembered by most Atari fans and the associated games definitely mark an important step in the evolution of sports games. In fact, there are still people out there who regard Realsports Baseball on the 5200 as the best pixellated version of the sport in existence! While we wouldn’t go that far, it would be wrong to deny its greatness and it’s definitely the game most worth revisiting. We would recommend the more recently released Atari 8-bit adaptation, though, so you don’t have to use the 5200’s awful non-centring joysticks!
“IT ONLY TOOK US THREE TO FOUR MONTHS TO TURN A PROJECT AROUND THANKS TO TIME-SAVING ROUTINES PROGRAMMING AIDS THAT HAD BEEN DEVELOPED”
» [Atari 2600] Part of the Atari’s 2600 original sports lineup, Football was widely mocked among the senior coders at Atari and it’s easy to see why.
» Designer of Realsports Volleyball Bob Polaro is a regular visitor of US gaming expos.
» Jim Huether proudly shows off his Atari 5200 version of Realsports Football to Steven Spielberg and the top bosses at Atari.
» [Atari 2600] The mock-up of Realsports Football that Rob Zdybel produced for the 2600 had more sprites on screen than was possible.
» [Atari 2600] The 2600 version Realsports Baseball was rereleased late in the system’s life as Super Baseball with a new title screen and some colour changes.
» [Atari 2600] Title Match Pro Wrestling for the Atari 2600 is actually a hack of Realsports Boxing by original programmer Alex Demeo.
» [Atari 7800] Realsports Baseball was the only title in the series to be released for the 7800 Prosystem, sadly it’s terrible.
» [Atari 8-bit] Quite surprisingly, there are very few tennis games available for the Atari 8-bit, so the Realsports entry is a welcome addition.
» [Atari 2600] Realsports Basketball never officially made it to market, however ROMS have surfaced online.