Let's remember Bill Walsh College Football
The Sega Genesis walked so the modern sports video game complex could run
Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.
Since I launched Extra Points as a full-time gig back in 2020, I’ve written a lot about college sports video games, specifically the EA Sports College Football franchise.
I didn’t set out specifically to do this…but I like video games, I like learning more about licensed products and intellectual property and athletic department revenue generation, and unquestionably, these games have become important not just as revenue generators, but as cultural touchstones. So if I’m gonna write a newsletter about off-the-field stories in college sports…it would make sense that I’d write about video games.
I’ve been working on several reported stories these past few days…I’m working on a newsletter about college athlete trading cards, about mid-major realignment, about shifts in the NIL Collective industry, and about new conference media deals.
But all of those are about one email or one phone call away from being where I want them. And even as I’m trying to focus on Serious Professional Grown-Up Reporter things, my eyes keep going back to this box on my office shelf.
The first college football video game. Bill Walsh College Football, for Sega Genesis
My original Sega and copy of this game have long since gone the way of the yard sale, along with my childhood comic book selection, Pokemon cards, and pogs. But a few weeks ago, I found a used copy at Half-Priced Books, and bought it…even though I don’t have a Sega anymore.
I had forgotten, for example, everything that came with the game. The original package includes a 62-page manual, including a multi-page historical explanation of the West Coast Offense and Walsh’s historical influence on football strategy, as well as a series of team-specific cards. Each physical card includes the roster and ratings for the various historical teams in the game.
I’m “actual read the manual in a video game” years old.
This was actually useful since you couldn’t easily check to see how good anybody was at the team select menu.
Remind me not to attempt any passes with 1992 Columbus. Yikes.
And oh yeah, this game wasn’t licensed
Right when you boot up the game, at the very title screen, is a message saying that this game was not “endorsed by any school.” There are no school logos, no school names, no bowl names, or any school IP whatsoever.
BOOOOOOOOOO YOU AREN’T FOOLING ANYBODY BILL
Now, you don’t need to be Encyclopedia Brown to figure out that the red and gray Columbus ‘82 squad isn’t referring to Ohio Dominican. Everybody knew, which would of course eventually lead to the O’Bannon lawsuit and the decade-long drought between major college video game productions. But this was 1993. It was a different time.
It was also a very different time technologically. There is no recruiting mode in Bill Walsh College Football. No conference play. No custom playbooks…virtually none of the trappings associated with even semi-modern college football video games.
It didn’t even have anywhere close to all of the teams. This version of the game had only 24 ‘modern’ squads, along with an additional 24 historical teams. I have sent emails to folks at EA, pinged people on LinkedIn, and tried my best to figure out how those teams were picked…but I don’t know the answer.
It wasn’t just the top 24 teams from 1992. Ole Miss, for example, went 9-3 in 1992 and finished 16th in the final AP Poll, but there are no Mississippi squads in the game. Squads like UNC, Fresno State, Mississippi State, and Wake Forest also cracked the final Top 25 but were not included, along with major brands like Oklahoma, Michigan State, Texas, Oregon, and Auburn.
Was this simply a technical limitation? Maybe, but the following year’s game, Bill Walsh College Football '95, included virtually every ‘power’ conference school (now with official school marks and a big ol’ CLC logo), and by the 1996 edition, everybody in FBS was part of the game (including Pacific, the year before they shut down the program). The Genesis hard drives didn’t magically get bigger, but perhaps developers figured out a more efficient way to store the data.
Those restrictions didn’t lessen the product though, in my opinion. It was hard to make a hyper-realistic football video game in 1992. A Sega cartridge could only hold what, 10 megabytes of data? There were no polygons, no physics animations, and every pass attempt looked like a noodle-armed 5th grader trying to play ‘500’ in the park after school….just duck after duck after duck. But who cares? It was fun anyway.
As best as I can tell, this wasn’t the first licensed video game. Not even close. But it was still an important landmark for college sports
From my research, I’ve found a handful of licensed sports games dating as far back as 1979 (NFL Football, for something called the Mattel Intellivision), and more in the early and mid-1980s. Tecmo Super Bowl, for the NES back in 1991, was the first, I believe, to carry licenses from both the NFL and the NFLPA, so players could actually suit up as their favorite players on their favorite teams.
But digging through the DOS game archives that I used for Athletic Director Simulator 3000 research, I can’t find any other unlicensed college football games released for any other platform before Bill Walsh. NCAA College Basketball was released for the SNES in 1992, a few months before Bill Walsh dropped in North America on the Sega, but Walsh appeared to be the first football game.
This humble game, the product of less than two dozen people, with only a handful of teams and no licenses, broke the barrier that pushed college sports even further into a new generation of fans and consumers, helped launch digital licensing, and pushed the entire industry into a new era.
I wish I knew more about the blood and guts of the development, about the early licensing agreements, and about the response on campus. If I can get the right emails back (or the right archival documents), I promise to publish a follow-up.
But for now, I’m glad it was a part of my life as a kid, and I’m glad I have it now…if only as an excuse to try and run the ball down Michigan’s throat while I wait for a few more sources to call me back.
Taking frustrations out on video game rivals, in my humble opinion, remains timeless.
Hey, what else did we publish this week?
I reached out to Fresno State to learn more about why the school is broadcasting its home football opener exclusively on Spanish-language TV.
We had a guest post published by B. David Ridpath of Ohio University and The Drake Group, where he argues that Congress can help college sports by doing something that has absolutely nothing to do with NIL regulation.
I answered your mailbag questions on everything from what goes into moving a sport from club to varsity status, to Super Leagues, to brain drain in the college sports industry
I published multiple new questions and game updates for Athletic Director Simulator 3000 and added dozens of new documents to our FOIA Database.
You can have access to everything we write on Extra Points, the video game, and the FOIA Directory with a premium subscription. It’s just eight bucks a month, or $75 for the year.
Thanks for reading. I’ve got some original reporting I think you’ll enjoy for next week. I’ll see you then.
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