What if NFL players starred in their own video games?

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  • By Grant Pardee; artwork by Scott O'Malley and Ruth Wels
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It doesn't happen as much anymore, but throughout the 1990s, athletes starring in their own video games was a common occurrence.

Generally, this was because star players on independent likeness deals licensed their image to, say, a video game company hoping for a celebrity endorsement. The downside was that usually only the star player was included, with generic substitutes for the rest of the league.

In 1991, Joe Montana Football was developed by EA around the same time as their first version of John Madden Football -- while both series lacked the NFL license until 1994, by that time, the Montana series had dropped his name from the title. Games built around star athletes was more common in other sports, like Ken Griffey Jr.'s Nintendo games or Bo Jackson Baseball, though nobody had more than the '90s NBA stars: Barkley Shut Up and Jam, Slam City with Scottie Pippen for Sega CD, and the Super Nintendo had Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City, a side-scrolling platformer where you kill spiders and demons with basketballs. It was also, unfortunately for '90s kids, the only game with a playable Michael Jordan.

Those games all involved their sport to varying degrees, but not Shaq Fu, a game that defiantly answered the question no one asked: "why doesn't Shaq have his own Mortal Kombat?"

Other celebrities starred in video games, mostly from the music world, and those were even weirder. Michael Jackson's Moonwalker involved beating up mobsters with dance moves, and the Wu-Tang Clan had a fighting game called Wu-Tang Shaolin Style on the first Playstation. None of this made any sense, really, but I'm sure it was easier for Sega to sell Michael Jackson's Moonwalker than if it were Dave Johnson's Dance Fight.

My point is these games, bizarre but ubiquitous, have all but disappeared from the marketplace. Why don't they make games like Shaq Fu anymore? Just because it was bad? Because it somehow makes less sense the more you think about it? Also, apparently somebody did make another one with crowdfunding? Well. Okay then. Nevermind. Article over.

While we're talking video games, does anyone else kinda miss NFL Blitz? It's a topic that's come up a few times at The Checkdown, since many of us apparently misspent our lives in the late '90s/early '00s playing the football equivalent of NBA Jam between sessions of Mario Kart and WWF No Mercy when we probably should have been, I dunno, exercising or something.

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In any case, since it's unlikely these types of games will ever make a comeback because why would they, we've instead imagined an alternate universe where every generation of consoles somehow had a game starring a modern NFL player. <Mario voice> Heeeere we goooooo! </Mario voice>

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Weird fact: Von Miller has a bachelor's degree in poultry science.
Weirder fact: Von Miller is using his bachelor's degree in poultry science.

Despite his day job as the best outside linebacker in the NFL, Miller also owns and oversees a chicken farm, so for this 8-bit game, equally Burger Time and Crazy Castle in style, the chickens have, how you say, "flown the coop." You play as a pixelated Von Miller running around the farm, trying to collect chickens and eggs through a wacky farm maze while loopy and irritatingly catchy music plays.

The game does have two cutscenes that bookend the Poultry Panic narrative, such as it is. When you boot up the game, right after the company logos, there's a brief animation of Von Miller coming home from work, dropping his helmet and keys on the table... he checks the mail, looks out the window -- oh no, the chickens are running away! Bam, Poultry Panic title screen. Time to catch some chickens.

At the end of the fifth level, they're all back in the barn, and... it just kind of ends. Pixelated Von Miller and the chickens jump repeatedly, the music from the title screen plays again, and that's kind of just the ending. A little disappointing, but still better than the Donkey Kong ending. Oh well, the game is fun, whatever... but then, wait! After the credits scroll, you get a close-up animation of Von Miller, although clearly reused from the opening, only this time it's accompanied by a soundbite exclaiming "Now let's play ball!" -- but it's that garbled 8-bit Nintendo voice, so it sounds like "nowlsplabawl!"

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Kareem Hunt would be a vertically-scrolling NES game, like Tecmo Bowl meets 1942 (the video game). Controlling the titular Chiefs RB, you rush upfield and dodge a stream of defenders, equipped with only your wits and Kareem's insane speed that puts even Tecmo Bo Jackson to shame.

Our social artists actually made a playable version of Kareem Hunt if you go to The Checkdown's Instagram story today.

For the full console experience, a second player could join in as fullback Anthony Sherman to help keep the defenders away, but obviously playing as Kareem is way more fun; our apologies to the little brothers of the world.

Bonus unlockable character: Lions kick returner Jamal Agnew.

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It's Christmas morning, and the little kid version of you excitedly unwraps your gift -- it's shaped like a video game box, should be good -- only to discover... a punting game?? Gee thanks. You'd feel worse than Bart opening up Lee Carvallo's Putting Challenge.

Ah, but child, Marquette King is not your ordinary punter, and this is not your ordinary punting game (lol "ordinary punting game" -- what, you don't remember Chris Mohr NFL Punting 98?) Besides being the best at his position in the NFL, King is a skilled pianist, he's funny online, and he can kick anything.

Kickin' It would be a side-scrolling action game, basically just like Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City, the game where Michael Jordan used basketballs to kill spiders and eyeball demons, except in this case, Marquette King is destroying skeleton monsters by kicking things at them. Not just footballs, either. Sometimes rocks and skulls and rotisserie chickens. You can eat the rotisserie chickens for health if you'd rather not kick it, because eating strange floor chicken is a reasonable and healthy choice in video games.

With his ability to kick anything and take down anyone, you'd guide Marquette through a variety of levels in a castle setting. Why a castle? No real reason is given, frankly the whole thing seems almost randomly chosen and based on easily recyclable art assets, although the game's instruction manual does provide the plot description which, not to get too into it, but basically Marquette King is summoned by a wizard to defeat an evil king. The final boss is the evil king's son, Terry. You beat him by kicking things at him. It's satisfying.

At the end of the game, the 16-bit version of Marquette King would find a piano in the castle and play a victory tune, bringing harmony to a kingdom once ruled by a Terry.

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This Sunday, two of the league's most well-traveled quarterbacks are set to square off, as Harvard graduate Ryan Fitzpatrick (did you know he went to Harvard?) leads the Buccaneers against one of his many former teams, the New York Jets, now quarterbacked by renowned McCown, Josh McCown (did you know his brother plays QB too?)

<Sam Elliott voice> Yep, Fitzy and McCown have lived in a lot of cities, played for a lot of teams. Won some games, lost some games. They've been starters and backups, back to starter then back to backup. They've thrown a lot of passes and a lot of interceptions, worked with a lot of different receivers and a lot of different coaches. Lions. Panthers. Bears. Jets. Bills. Browns. Titans. Texans. Buccaneers. Aw hell, that ain't even all of 'em, but you get the point here. Yep, these two cowboys (one of the few teams they haven't played for) sure have seen a lot in the National Football League... an' now it's time to hit the trail.

The game is essentially Oregon Trail, except for Fitzy and McCown, the destination is simply, vaguely "west" -- they done covered the eastern clubs, it's time to see if there's opportunity past the Mississippi and the ol' Mason-Dixon Line. Along the way, these rugged travelers battle dysentery, fjord rivers, an' fight to live off the land. But then sometimes... well, sometimes they're just buildin' fires an' watchin' the stars. Sittin' around, talkin' Todd Bowles, dreamin' of the Super Bowl, an' tellin' tales of ol' Chan Gailey. </Sam Elliott voice>

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Le'Veon Bell is the best running back in the league, but he's not just that. The multi-talented All-Pro also happens to be a successful rapper on the side.

Earlier this year, under the name Juice, he released his debut album, Post Interview, which became a huge hit on streaming. The first song is a diss track about Skip Bayless. It's amazing. But it's not unexpected: Bell has been a musician as long as he's been an athlete. "I recorded my first song when I was 13, 14 years old," he told told Billboard. "I've been running with it ever since."

Obviously he doesn't have as much time during the football season to make music, but he still has some time, and it's frequently dedicated toward his other craft. "Just over the course of the season, if I make one song a week, that's at least 17 songs, and that's an album," he told Billboard in a separate interview. "That's all that matters to me: If I can still do my football thing and still make music."

Bell of the Ball would be a rhythm game, not quite like Rock Band or the karaoke titles, more like a slightly less cartoony version of PaRappa the Rappa from the first Playstation. Your goal is to help Bell build his career as Juice the rapper, starting from small shows around Pittsburgh all the way to the ultimate stage -- halftime of the Super Bowl, where the Steelers face the Eagles in the epic "Battle for Pennsylvania."

After you beat the final stage, you get the triumphant ending that you usually see in music shows or movies, like, your performance was so good, it moved the soul of a greedy developer so he changed his mind about closing down the orphanage.

Then, as the game rolls credits, you're treated to a montage of Bell suiting up in his Steelers uniform and leading the team to a Super Bowl victory over a medley of all the songs you successfully performed in the game. Good job, player, youuuuu did it!

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If you've played Red Dead Redemption, you know it's one of the best video games ever made. If you haven't, it's essentially Grand Theft Auto in the wild west. Players assume the role of John Marston, an ex-con with a heart of gold, on a mission to hunt down a band of outlaws across endless terrain and frontier towns in order to redeem his criminal past and save his family from the clutches of crooked FBI agents.

Tyrod Taylor doesn't have it quite as tough as Marston, but he is similarly a gunslinger in a compromised situation.

In his three seasons as the Buffalo Bills' QB, Tyrod has worked under three different offensive coordinators and two different head coaches (three if you count Anthony Lynn who briefly served as HC after the team fired Rex Ryan last season). Through this, though, the offensive scheme has always been designed to play conservatively in the passing game, and Tyrod has filled this role exceptionally well, sporting one of the best touchdown-to-interception ratios in the NFL.

Whereas John Marston found help unreliable in his quest, Tyrod has been similarly beseeched by inconsistency at the receiver position. In his first two years, his top wideouts Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods, and Marquise Goodwin all struggled with injuries that rarely had all three on the field at the same time. The Bills' new regime of HC Sean McDermott and GM Brandon Beane opted to overhaul the WR group in Buffalo, bringing in new players like Jordan Matthews and Zay Jones. Kelvin Benjamin was recently acquired at the trade deadline and will debut as the Bills' new No. 1 receiver in this weekend's game against the New Orleans Saints, with only a handful of opportunities to practice with his new QB.

Perhaps the toughest thing on Tyrod Taylor, though, is the weight that comes with playing for the Bills. At this point, the team is defined by their 17-year playoff drought, the longest active drought of any professional American sports team. Tyrod came to the Bills as an unheralded free agent, after spending the first part of his career backing up Joe Flacco in Baltimore, and won the starting job away from first-round pick EJ Manuel. These factors may be why, despite his winning record as a starter, some Bills fans are still reluctant to embrace Tyrod Taylor as their franchise quarterback.

In Tyrod Led Redemption, the game would feature an open world like RDR, but instead of the wild west, you'd play as Tyrod in 2017, traveling to different stadiums to outduel opposing defenses on the field. Just as you'd return to settings but each time they're a little different in Red Dead Redemption, in this game, every time you return to Buffalo, there's an extra five inches of snow on the ground. In order to unlock your final home game, the PS3-level graphics version of Tyrod also needs to operate the snow plow in the stadium, like the forklift in Shenmue.

In the end, just as John Marston fulfilled his seemingly impossible obligation, so too would the video game version of Tyrod Taylor. If the real-life Bills actually do end the drought this season, hopefully Taylor is rewarded better than Marston for his efforts.

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There aren't many video games more universally beloved than The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, a 2015 action role-playing game by Polish developers CD Projekt RED. The game's world is huge enough to seem endless; the gameplay is deep, varied, and intuitive; the characters and story are thoughtful and interesting, as they're a spin-off of a series of fantasy novels by author Andrzej Sapkowski. The game is kind of like Game of Thrones but focused on a monster hunter (called "witchers") named Geralt of Rivia.

Carson Wentz is a monster-slayer in his own way; he broke multiple records in his rookie year, and now in his second season as the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback, he has the team in Super Bowl contention; currently nesting atop the NFC with an 8-1 record.

In The Wentzler 11: MVP Hunt, you play as the Carson of Raleigh, a legendary but friendly warrior known as a Wentzler, on a quest to bring your tribe their first Lombardi Trophy and, in the process, an MVP award for yourself.

Both awards are certainly possible for the real life Wentz, and just like in The Witcher 3, this game would feature multiple different endings based on your choices and performance throughout your quest. In the best possible ending, you win everything, and fans in Philadelphia experience something close to the human emotion of happiness for the first time in their lives. In the worst possible ending, you fail spectacularly, alienate all of your allies, and get replaced by Tim Tebow.

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Antonio Gates is one of the best tight ends to ever play in the NFL, but you might not have predicted that when he entered the league in 2003. After being told that he wouldn't be allowed to play both college football and basketball, Gates chose basketball and became a star player for Kent State Golden Flashes; they even retired his jersey number. But whereas NBA scouts felt Gates was a 'tweener, NFL teams lined up to recruit the 6'4 athlete. Gates worked out with the Chargers first, then immediately signed with them. By the end of his rookie year, Gates was starting and already excelling. In the 15 years since then, the now 37-year-old Gates has played alongside other Hall-of-Famers like Drew Brees, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Philip Rivers, but he's never played for a team besides the Chargers.

Everything about Antonio Gates is uncommon, which makes him an ideal hero for an action-adventure game in the style of the Uncharted series. Uncharted's protagonist, Nathan Drake, is essentially an updated version of Indiana Jones -- he's charming, full of sarcastic quips, and he's on a mission to hunt treasure.

Antonio Gates has earned many treasures throughout his career: he's been named an All-Pro five separate times, he's an eight-time Pro Bowl selection, and earlier this season, he passed Tony Gonzalez as the career leader for touchdown receptions among tight ends. There's only one prize that eludes him: a Super Bowl ring.

In this game, you'll play as Antonio Gates through 15 chapters of puzzles, action set-pieces, and exploratory adventure segments. Like many modern games, you're able to interact with practically everything in the environment, and you'll need to run, climb, and fight to make it through each chapter.

In the prologue, you begin in San Diego and need to literally fist-fight your way through traffic on Interstate 5 to make it to Los Angeles (well, Carson) before kickoff. Throughout the game, your adventure takes you to far-flung locales, from the mountains of Denver to the insanity of Kansas City, yet somehow you're always fighting to get back to the stadium on time after you defeat the boss at the Hidden Temple only to discover the mystic Super Bowl ring is still in another castle.

Toward the end of the game, Gates helps his Chargers teammates squeak into the playoffs, all the way to Super Bowl LII in Minnesota.

In the climactic moments, you're once again hustling to get to the stadium, now through the bitter February cold. As a Cali boy, you're not equipped for the harsh conditions and your health bar is slowly dropping, and when you arrive at the stadium, you're interrupted by the main villain, some guy known only as Talbot who both talks and acts like a weenie. The final battle is a bare-knuckled brawl in the snowy parking lot. After you win, a tired Gates heads into the stadium, presumably to play in and win the Super Bowl, although the game leaves that intentionally open-ended. Cliffhanger!

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One of the major appeals of Minecraft is having the ability to create your own perfect world. With five Super Bowl wins and Tom Brady playing at an MVP level until he's 65 (probably), it's entirely possible our entire universe is actually a simulation within Robert Kraft's personal Minecraft.

<crazy conspiracy theorist voice> Doesn't it seem a little, I don't know, convenient that Robert Kraft's New England Patriots just happened to find the greatest QB of all time at the same time they also hired the greatest head coach of all time? Doesn't that seem too fortunate to be coincidence?

Well, wake up, sheeple! That's because we're in The Matrix, maaaan. The version of you that plays Minecraft isn't the real "you," it's the Minecraft character version of you, and you're actually playing a less-good version of Minecraft within the real Minecraft. </crazy conspiracy theorist voice>

(Statistically, there's probably at least one reader who 100% believes all of that is real, and their comment will almost certainly involve Russia or free cable somehow).

The video game Robertkraft (working title: Kraftcraft) would play similarly to Minecraft, with a few twists. For one thing, your video game version of the Patriots owner can alternate between his blocky in-world avatar, and a realistic Bob Kraft who can oversee the entire pixelated world like it's a basement toy train set. What this means is, as a player, you have complete control and unlimited perspective on how to create the players, world, and culture for your New England Patriots exactly as you want it. Whatever you say is the Patriot Way becomes the Patriot Way. This is the closest any of us will ever come to knowing what it's like to live the life of an NFL owner.

Oh, and when you travel between "avatar Robert Kraft" and "real world Bob Kraft," you do so via the new private Patriots jet: the AirKraft. It's a neat little animation that serves as a loading screen, but it's fun.

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This is a modern MMO shooter similar to Overwatch or Destiny, but unlike those titles, you don't choose or customize your character in this game. You are the Goff, a space captain patrolling a futuristic moon colony with footballs -- an ancient yet powerful, effective weapon. The plot involves Goff discovering a secret invasion of space alien monsters and his quest to defeat them by throwing footballs at their faces.

The game's draw isn't the campaign mode, though -- it's the online multiplayer. But because Goff is the only playable character, each player sees themselves as the Goff on their screen while all the other players appear as alien monsters.

A video PSA from the real Jared Goff plays after every match to remind players of this perception flip. He then proceeds to put on a pair of glasses and patiently reads several critics' quotes from his rookie year, which he follows by listing his fantasy points for each week of the 2017 season. It takes about five minutes in total, but he ends strong by reminding us to stay aware that even cartoon simulated violence is still dehumanizing, although by that time, the next match has loaded.

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