The his­tory of Real­sports

Kieren Hawken in­ves­ti­gates Atari’s pop­u­lar sports se­ries for its home sys­tems

Retro Gamer - - CONTENTS - Words by Kieren Hawken

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.


Jim Huether

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!


Alex De­meo

» [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.

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