When you grab a few friends, crack open a few beers, and bust out the Nintendo 64 you got for Christmas in 1998, the first thing you’ll notice is how much better video game graphics have gotten in the past 15 plus years. However, if you played NFL Blitz today, you’d be even more surprised by how much the subject matter – the NFL – has changed.
The modern NFL would never sign off on NFL Blitz – originally released as a physical arcade game in 1997 – in 2017. Although every single game in the franchise somehow managed to earn an “E” rating from the ESRB, NFL Blitz is undisputably the most brutal, savage football game ever made. With its cartoonish, pro-wrestling style violence and hulking, steroidal players, Midway’s creation completely flies in the face of the image the modern NFL tries to project.
The modern NFL is self-aware. A variety of studies and a Will Smith movie have brought the NFL’s cover-up of the dangers of concussions to the forefront. With the caveat that the NFL is still the undisputed king, ratings fell off a cliff in 2016. Primetime games were by and large garbage, and the World Series pulled more viewers than the competing NFL Sunday Night game.
The NFL’s response? Blatant denial, an overt attempt to salvage its ties to youth and family with its “Football is Family” ad campaign, and targeting kids with tobacco-style marketing campaigns basically as soon as they exit the womb.
Looking at some of the video content the NFL itself used to sell, this new, docile NFL comes as a bit of a shock. This is, after all, the same NFL that shamelessly marketed DVDs with titles like “Big Blocks and King-Sized Hits” and “Crunch Masters.” That said, youth participation in football is steadily and undeniably decreasing, despite USA Football’s attempts at spin. The prospect of a decrease in future revenue – even decades away – is the one thing that can force cash-hungry NFL executives into action on the player safety front.
Today, NFL Blitz on the N64 sits on its pedestal as arguably the classic sports arcade game, a genre that’s now borderline extinct. In the early 2000s, every major sports league had its own arcade franchise – MLB Slugfest for the MLB and NBA Street for the NBA. Unfortunately for them, the popularity of the sports arcade game was fleeting.
Public relations and branding damaged the continued viability of the genre. In the 2000s, the MLB – with BALCO and “I’m not here to talk about the past” soaking up headlines – was mired in a huge Performance Enhancing Drugs scandal. Slugfest – with its cartoonish tape-measure home runs and brawls at first base serving as an almost tacit endorsement of baseball’s Steroid Era – wasn’t going to fly anymore.
As for the mid-2000s NBA, commissioner David Stern wanted to make the league more accessible to white, suburban families. He controversially (and arguably racistly) introduced the NBA Dress Code, which required players to dress in business casual attire on game days, outlawing the do-rags and baggy clothes favored by Allen Iverson.
Ultimately, the dress code had Stern’s desired effect: the NBA grew in suburban and even hipster circles and the players got really into fashion. NBA Street didn’t really fit with the NBA’s desired image.
Predictably, money also played a factor. Polygon pointed out that increasing developmental costs, mobile emerging as a viable platform, and downloadable content and game modes (like Fifa Ultimate Team) all made simulation games a more profitable investment.
Nowadays, Rocket League – a non-violent game which isn’t really based on a traditional sport and has no league affiliation – is the last bastion of the genre, a far cry from the pure, in-your-face insanity of NFL Blitz.