Midway Games introduced the world to Mortal Kombat, digital gore, and the video game ratings board. Unsurprisingly, they went on to publish one of the most controversial games of all time in 2005. However, this game wouldn’t feature a single fatality or drop of blood.
Did I mention it was a football game?
Midway’s Blitz: the League was an unlicensed sports simulation that stuck a middle finger up at the National Football League. Considering the game’s torrid history, it’s shocking that its creators are surprised anybody wants to talk about it.
“For someone to contact me about Blitz is like, really? For real?” Said Trevor Snowden, who served as development director of third party for the game.
Blitz was born out of necessity when Midway lost the rights to pro football, forcing them to end their successful NFL Blitz series. EA Sports gained exclusivity to the NFL until the end of time. The move stunned everyone, except the Blitz team.
“We anticipated it,” Explained Mike Bilder, the current CEO of Jackbox Games, who was executive producer on Blitz. “I’d worked on a game called NFL Blitz Pro, which preceded Blitz: The League. It was the last licensed game we developed. We didn’t have a multi-year deal with the NFL. It was on a year to year basis. We expected, and heard that EA was likely to get an exclusive [license].”
Though they were anticipating the breakup, Midway still had a dilemma. How do you make a sports game with no pro athletes, no pro teams, and no approval from the NFL? The answer was surprisingly simple.
“There were things that the team wanted to do with the franchise that the NFL was absolutely against,” Snowden explained. “They didn’t want any of our cover athletes, who were publicly vocal about the dark side of professional football. So they [the Blitz dev team] took their stories and made a game out of it.”
Like Peyton Manning at the line of scrimmage, Midway called an audible.
“The overarching guidelines were: what if we could make the game the NFL would never let us make?” Bilder said.
Gone was the sheen of the NFL shield, replaced with broken bones and steroids. How Blitz differed from Madden was made instantly clear by its tagline: “Do anything to win.”
“There was just this idea of, what if Mortal Kombat met football, and we created this prototype,” explained Bilder.
To pitch the game, the team created a small demo for the Midway executives. This was their chance to show why this wasn’t your typical football game.
“We went down to a skeleton crew and worked for three months to create this vertical slice of what Blitz: The League could be. It was kinda dark, in both tone and visuals. It was this nighttime, rainy, muddy scene. We had a couple teams playing each other, we had personality on the teams as well as having the coaches have personalities, meaning they weren’t just animated characters on the sideline,” Bilder elaborated. “It actually had a scene where a star player broke his leg in a very graphic display, and the owner came out on the field and put a gun to his head. Basically said, ‘we have no need for you anymore.’ It was kinda like putting an injured horse down at the racetrack.”
The demo was enough to convince executives to go ahead with the game, and the team went to work, including all the injuries and foul language that never made it into Madden.
“We had a lot of fun with the extreme nature of how bad the injuries could be. We really kind of had to draw a line somewhere, because there [were] people in the company who literally couldn’t play the game ‘cause they got ill every time,” Snowden said.
This executive-rattling gameplay was a part of the plan. Unlike Madden, the game took delight in showing the effects a brutal sack had on a quarterback, highlighting injuries with medically cinematic x-rays.
“What the audio guys had to do to make those sound effects was smash meat on walls,” Snowden joked. “There were fun stories out of that development. You can’t help but think, ‘How far can we take it? Can we go killing players?’ That was never taken seriously, but it was just like, ‘Jesus Christ, this guy has a hole in his lung and his fricken organs aren’t working.’”
Another unsportsmanlike feature was the off-the-field edge players were able to give their team. Gamers could “juice” up athletes with something extra, using steroids ranging from what could generously be called “vitamins” to anabolic cocktails bought off the black market. There was something to offend everyone. Snowden made it clear that juicing was key to the game’s authenticity.
“The whole thing about juicing, it literally was removing the physical effects and limitations, to continue pushing a person to perform,” Snowden recalled. “Look at some of the top guys from ten years ago who were quarterbacks who can’t even walk today. They look good. They’re wealthy, but they can’t even do commercials anymore ‘cause they can’t walk. Their bodies are so broken.”
Needles aside, today’s sports games wouldn’t be anything without star athletes. Blitz had none, so the developers got creative.
Each team in Blitz featured a team captain, most of whom were not-so-subtle homages to NFL superstars. Examples included the pious free safety Ezekiel Freeman, modeled after Ray Lewis, who quoted bible verses as he broke ankles. The funniest inclusion was pocket-scrambling QB Mike Mexico. The character was a reference to quarterback Michael Vick’s alter ego, Ron Mexico—a false name Vick allegedly used while secretly undergoing genital herpes treatment south of the border. Mexico was just one of many in-jokes made at the NFL’s expense.
The teams were also so closely modeled after their NFL counterparts that players could recreate their favorite franchise, stars and all. All this world-building was to serve a groundbreaking feature for a sports sim: a story.
“Around this same time there was a show on ESPN called, Playmakers. It was this fictitious NFL league and teams and it kinda portrayed the darker side of professional sports and athletes. It was controversial,” Bilder said, “It was showing the locker room politics, the drug abuse, the skirting around drug tests, and deliberate injuries on the field. Things along those lines. The NFL hated it, but it was very well regarded and watched. ESPN was gonna renew it, but it just abruptly got canceled. We interpreted that as the NFL using its muscle to shut down a successful show.”
Seeing the opportunity and parallels to their game, Bilder’s team recruited the writers of the canceled series.
“We reached out to some of the creatives of that television show. We ended up hiring Peter Egan, who was one of the head writers on the show. And we got him involved with our game. He helped kind of create the story of the game,” Bilder told me.
With Egan on the team, a story mode was added. The campaign dealt with the same issues that Playmakers addressed. It followed a last place team as it rose through the ranks of the league. The story was also a way to make the league feel more realistic and fully formed.
The authenticity of the league went beyond the single player campaign though. Anybody who’s attended a Raiders game can tell you that football isn’t family-friendly. The rabidity of fans was captured in Blitz with each stadium’s atmosphere. Crowds had specific chants cued up, and frustrated stadium-goers would boo their own team if they punted on fourth down.
All of these elements made the game unique, but also M(ature)-rated.
“From its inception, everyone knew it was going to be an M rating. I mean, I can say we had discussions saying, ‘is it possible?’ Those went literally something akin of asking, ‘Okay, who wants to go tell the dev team that we wanna try and get a teen rating?’” Chuckled Snowden.
With a hard M rating in tow, the game hit stores, painting a bleak but accurate portrait of life within professional football. So, naturally, it pissed everybody off. The game was banned in Australia for the inclusion of steroids, and Midway quickly realized that the in-game doping was going to be a bigger problem than the torn ACLs.
“There was no way to avoid drug use, which was worse than blood. We had problems with that. The ESRB was like, ‘You’ll never sell this in Germany. It can only be sold out of porn shops.’ Drug use [to the ESRB] is beyond sex and violence,” Snowden lamented.
All of this wasn’t helped by the wrath of pro football. The final straw was Midway using retired pros Lawrence Taylor and Bill Romanowski as cover athletes. The NFL had something to say about their inclusion, license or not.
“I do know that they didn’t appreciate our cover athletes [for the Xbox 360 port]. That was a big dramatic thing. I think there was a small campaign where they sought to discredit them, to protect their image,” Snowden remembered.
Despite its out-of-the-box tone and features, Blitz never reached Madden levels of success. Fans still wanted to play with NFL teams. Midway did port the game to the Xbox 360, even giving the franchise a sequel on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. Its sales failed to match the first’s. Backed up against the goal line and out of options, Midway punted. The publisher soon closed its doors, and Blitz hit the showers.
The average sports game has a shelf life of a year, or until the next iteration comes out. Ten years later, Blitz is as relevant as it was at launch. The idea of having a story in sports gaming is becoming common, but Blitz championed the idea. Even its gritty tone has been emulated by other games, including EA’s Fight Night Champion, which Snowden also worked on.
Snowden has been in the industry since the days of arcades. It’s telling that with all his experience, Blitz is still a touchdown to him.
“I personally would love to play Blitz again, because I’m not even a fan of football and I loved that game. That speaks to the legs it has.”
Years later, Blitz remains a digital curiosity with a lasting impact.
Author bio: Will Barboza is a writer hailing from Kansas City. His favorite things include the Chicago Blackhawks, lunch, and the third person.