The Washington Redskins and Houston Oilers face off in an electric football demonstration at Richmond's ADA Gallery. (Photo by John Pollard)
Competitors from across the country will soon descend on Richmond for a much-touted tournament of champions.
Not the UCI races. It’s the 2015 Electric Football World Championships and Convention, slated for July 31 to Aug. 2 at the Four Points by Sheraton on South Laburnum Avenue.
Yes, that once widely popular vibrating football simulation game is back. And there are grown men who play it competitively.
“Electric football never went away,” says Doug Strohm, owner of the Sammamish, Washington-based Tudor Games, which originated the board game 68 years ago. “It just became a subculture because it was kind of out of the public eye for awhile.”
The championships (held in Philadelphia last year) are the grand finale of different tournaments from across the country, and competing players are expected to arrive from New York, Texas, Michigan and California. Tudor Games is co-sponsoring the annual tournament with a coalition of enthusiasts known as the Miniature Football Coaches Association (MFCA). There is no monetary prize at stake, just bragging rights.
“For some, it’s a fun thing to give as a gift and play for awhile, and for others it’s a hobby and a passion,” he says. “It’s like a three dimensional chess game to them.”
Strohm bought the company three years ago after a successful career in high-tech marketing. He says that Tudor Games posted its best sales in more than a decade last year. “And we got our NFL licensing back.”
That’s big news. Electric football was once the top-selling National Football League-affiliated product, but previous company owners managed to lose the license in 2007. This disconnect from pro football hurt the tabletop gridiron, which has also been overshadowed in recent years by interactive video experiences like Madden NFL.
The game also has a shaky reputation.
“Electric football was easily the most disappointing board game in the 20th century,” says longtime player Chris Bopst. “No other game let down more boy-children in America than electric football. Now these guys have transformed the game to be as close as you can get to playing football without physically playing it.”
Old-school electric football was basically a piece of sheet metal attached to a vibrating motor. You turned it on, it hummed loudly and vibrated, and your football figures shook. Things went helter-skelter.
That’s not today’s experience, says Strohm. “The mechanics and physics are somewhat the same, but we’ve reimagined and re-engineered it for today’s consumer.” Today’s playing field is made out of a hard plastic called SpeedTurf. A motion generator provides vibration and players use remote controls with a start-stop trigger and tempo control. “You can adjust the speed as the play develops,” he says.
Dru Sparks, a player from Mechanicsville who participates in several out-of-state tournaments a year (and who says his wife is very understanding), claims that electric football can be as thrilling as the real thing.
“You are actually coaching that team,” he says. “You built that team. Those figures, most were hand painted. The bases were built so specific players would do a specific thing, and you keep or trade that player.”
Sparks, 45, was an avid gamer when his mom bought him “the Cadillac of electric football games” as a kid. He got back into the game years later, discovering the same popular Internet chat room that would later spawn the MFCA. He found a whole new world.
“When I left electric football, it was only the ‘fab five’ [basic football figures]. We would burn ‘em and turn ‘em and twist them into different positions, but there was no such thing as tweaking the bases [of the figures]. But it’s amazing what can be done now.”
“Players began to manipulate the bases themselves to do what they wanted,” Bopst explains, such as using pliers to flatten the bottom prongs. “They figured out how to make sense of this otherwise chaotic game.”
As for the competitive side of electric football, Strohm says there are a variety of leagues. “In Richmond, we’ll have five separate tournaments at our convention. There’s a group of 40 or so guys who are super competitive about it and live and travel for it. But people can come and compete in all levels.”
The game has been in consistent production since Norman Sas, the founder of Tudor Games, invented it in 1947. Games range from $50 to $130, and Tudor also sells specialized figures and accessories to diehards — usually men in their 40s and 50s — but Strohm says that his target audience is kids — “mainly boys who haven’t discovered girls yet.”
Electric football has been in the public eye of late. A recent book, The Unforgettable Buzz by Earl Shores and Roddy Garcia, chronicles the history and impact of the game; it was also the subject of a recent short ESPN documentary by Errol Morris.
There’s also a new coffee table book,The Art of Electric Football, coming out soon. It was inspired by an art show that Bopst, a longtime area musician and entertainment booker, helped to curate in 2013 at Richmond’s ADA Gallery. To commemorate the championships, a sequel to that exhibit, “The Electric Football Art Show II,” will start July 31, and will focus on how dedicated players across the country modified the chaotic game into something that, well, actually works.
But what about that distinctive hum? “Electric Football does still hum,” Strohm says. “But it’s a hum, rather than a rattle.”