More than forty years of football video games have left an indelible mark on pop culture and the very history of the medium. From Football for the Atari 2600 in 1978 to Madden NFL 22 this year, the digital representation of American football has been an ever-present companion for the North American video game player. While the games themselves enjoyed varying degrees of success, some of the digital representations of real-life football players left such an impression on fans, that their legends continue to grow with time, much like that of real Hall of Fame players.
In celebration of the upcoming 2021 NFL football season and tonight’s kickoff game between the Dallas Cowboys and defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, we will take a closer look at some of the standout gridiron greats that will continue to live on in our hearts (and some vintage console cartridges with working batteries).
Video game football team Hall of Fame
Bo Jackson - Tecmo Bowl (1987)
There is no need to dance around the topic of the most dominant cyber athlete of all time — the answer is simply the original Tecmo Bowl version of Bo Jackson. Tecmo Bowl was a major hit for the NES console and one of the first games to offer licensed NFL teams and players. While the game was easy to pick up and play, it was still difficult to master and nearly impossible to win if your opponent selected Jackson’s Raiders. Jackson came with a combination of speed and strength that will likely never be matched and his video-game persona has been so etched into the fabric of pop culture that Kia even decided to hire Bo for a commercial series spoofing his 1980’s NES exploits to much fanfare.
Lawrence Taylor - Tecmo Super Bowl (1991)
If Bo Jackson was the Tecmo Bowl series’ Ying, then Lawrence Taylor was the Yang. The imposing linebacker changed the way defense was played in the real-life NFL and his virtual counterpart was every bit the wrecking ball Taylor was on Sundays. If you needed a big stop on third down, or a punt blocked, or a field goal attempt to be annihilated, Taylor was your guy. His speed cutting through the line of scrimmage is unmatched in all of video game football history.
Randy Moss - NFL 2K1 (2000)
As the cover athlete for Sega’s Dreamcast football brand, Randy Moss was the center of attention when the team at Visual Concepts provided the blueprint for the modern 3D football game. At a time when the Minnesota Vikings were basically a superteam in real life, Randy Moss still managed to look like he belonged in a higher tier of competition. This translated to his NFL2K counterpart as well. He was the fastest receiver in the game, he had the biggest catch radius, and, famously, he was always open, even when he wasn’t.
Marshall Faulk - Madden NFL 2003 (2002)
After being traded from the Indianapolis Colts to the St. Louis Rams in 1999, Faulk became the engine that drove the greatest offense in NFL history. Following his appearance in the Super Bowl in 2000 and winning the Offensive Player of the Year in 2001, Faulk was the cover star for Madden NFL 2003 and was mostly unstoppable on the virtual gridiron. Before Faulk, most NFL running backs ran into their opposition like a hammer against a brick wall, making slow, painful progress. The Hall of Famer helped to change the way offense is played in the league with his elite vision, lateral quickness, and ability to catch the ball all over the field. In Madden 2003, being able to use Faulk felt like a cheat code, at least until we learned what playing with a more powerful cheat code was like in Madden 2004…
Michael Vick - Madden NFL 2004 (2003)
Mike Vick had been a national star ever since he almost single-handedly defeated the Florida State Seminoles in the 1999 Sugar Bowl. He entered the NFL as the top overall pick in 2001 and after leading the Atlanta Falcons to a surprise win over the Green Bay Packers in the 2003 playoffs, Vick appeared poised to take over professional sports. He entered the 2003 season as the Madden cover athlete and arguably became the most overpowered virtual athlete in video game history. Madden 2004 Vick could accelerate like a cheetah and throw the ball like his arm was a railgun. In my college apartment, selecting the Falcons for a competitive match of Madden was seen as a cheese ball move because it was impossible to defend Vick. Sadly, Vick’s real-life 2004 season ended in injury and the rest of his career is a story for a different time.
Reggie Bush - NCAA Football 06 (2005)
One of the most electrifying athletes in football history, Bush and his USC Trojans were the face of college athletics in the 2000s. Bush had unmatched physical talents and was surrounded by a squad of future NFL stars. He had already won the 2004 Heisman Trophy as the nation’s top player prior to his NCAA 06 appearance. Any time the virtual Trojans took the field, all eyes were on Bush. The Trojans team depicted in this game also went on to have one of the all-time great championship battles against the Texas Longhorns, who were lead by another entry in this list.
Vince Young - NCAA Football 06 (2005)
For many of the same reasons that players flocked to Michael Vick in Madden 2004, Vince Young was an exciting choice for NCAA 06 fans. With a combination of game-breaking speed and arm strength, Young was capable of dropping points on any team he faced and could make All-American talent look foolish. Young would be the last “human joystick” we would see in the NCAA series (the franchise had already been shuttered by the time that Lamar Jackson’s Louisville Cardinals rose to prominence).
Randy Moss - Madden NFL 2009 (2008)
This is the second appearance of Mr. Moss in this feature. This should give you an idea of just how otherworldly he was as a performer on the football field in real life. Just when most folks had written off Moss as washed following a disastrous stint in Oakland, he was traded to the New England Patriots for a 4th-round pick. Maybe Tom Brady would be good enough to get something out of old Moss? The duo would go on to wreck the NFL, shattering records and rattling off an undefeated season that was abruptly cut short by the New York Giants in Super Bowl 42. For the 2008 season, cyber Moss was back to being unstoppable.
Tim Tebow - NCAA 10 (2009)
Tim Tebow went down as one of the greatest college football players of all time. He and the Florida Gators won championships, Heisman Trophies, and just about any other accolade up for the taking during his historic collegiate career. While he lacked the overall speed of others in this list, his virtual self made up for it by being even harder to tackle than the Tecmo Bowl version of Christian Okoye. Using Tebow on the virtual gridiron felt like you were piloting a man among boys. It also didn’t hurt that his surrounding cast was full of future NFL stars (and a murderer, whoops).
Lamar Jackson - Madden NFL 21 (2020)
If Michael Vick offered a glimpse of the future of the NFL quarterback, Lamar Jackson appears to be the next step in that evolution. Pairing sprinter speed with a cannon arm, Jackson has unsurprisingly become a favorite of competitive Madden players. For a franchise that hadn’t seen a game-breaking QB in more than fifteen years, Madden 21 Jackson conjures memories of the good old days for us aging cyber football nerds.
What players do you feel should be eligible for enshrinement into the Virtual Football Hall of Fame? Do you have an argument for Tecmo Bowl Jerry Rice or Randall Cunnigham (aka QB Eagles)? Is the speed of Madden NFL 11 Chris Johnson too high to overlook? How could we overlook Madden NFL 98 Barry Sanders? Let us know in the comments!