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Bill Walsh College Football’s video game logo. Logo by EA Sports. Banner Society illustration.

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All hail ‘Bill Walsh College Football,’ king of knockoff entertainment

The godfather of college football video games had no real names for anything, and that’s exactly how we liked it.

The 2000s wave of college sports video games, including EA Sports’ NCAA Football series, ripped off the likenesses of real (amateur) players to heinous degree. The company created nameless facsimiles of thousands of football and basketball players, down to skin tones, hair styles, heights, weights, jersey numbers, equipment, home states, physical abilities, and so on. EA and the NCAA settled for a total $60 million with athletes going back to the year 2003.

The legal shockwaves reverberated throughout college sports and have led to years of human anguish.

Ha! That’s nothing.

Now, granted, 1993’s Bill Walsh College Football stole the likenesses of athletes too.

Sure it did! That’s the only way to make any money around here. The most dangerous player is a 100-rated stand-in for Florida State quarterback Charlie Ward, who won the Heisman Trophy the year of the game’s release; Kansas’ best player is its kicker. Can’t get any realer than all that.

But it went several big steps further.

Whereas the NCAA series and its contemporaries were actually licensed by the NCAA’s member schools, Walsh cut the NCAA and universities out as well, subbing in a blue-and-orange Florida for Florida, maroon-and-white College Station for Texas A&M, and powder-and-gold Los Angeles for Ed O’Bannon’s UCLA. A purple-and-orange Clemson! That could be any Clemson.

There are also two-dozen historical teams, including Atlanta 90, Columbus 79, and Provo 84. See if you can guess which college football programs in cities with those names had good seasons in years that happen to include those numbers.

Somehow, EA got away with naming teams after the states and cities and regions of schools, rather than the actual schools themselves, even when those states and cities and regions shared the same names as the schools. No logos, no problem!

And think about the other things you’d want to pay to use in order to make a college football video game. EA did not pay to use any of these things, as the custom of the time favored just making stuff up. NCAA touted its ESPN deal, but in Walsh, there’s no real broadcast network — there’s just Ron Barr, who also called every other sport and whose 2010 Twitter parody account lasted five hockey tweets.

He’s actually a real person, but in digital 1993’s version of 1992, he never says anything out loud while forever looming by himself with his back to the action in diagonal press boxes over our country’s many identical college football stadiums.

There’s no Heisman Trophy, but no one really cares about that. There are kind of referees, but they don’t care about you doing all the late hits you want. There are three cheerleaders, who do the same routine forever for every team. There is an NC State-ish team, puzzlingly. There is no BCS, which didn’t exist yet. There is no AP Poll or Coaches Trophy.

But there is a 16-team playoff for the prestigious 1993 Or So EA Sports Person Statue.

A playoff 20 years before the four-team College Football Playoff, all just (a.) to avoid having to pay for real bowl games and (b.) due to not having to answer to an NCAA or Jim Delany or Bill Hancock. Impressive.

On the cover, Walsh is seen talking to one of his quarterbacks at Stanford — not Stanford University or the Stanford Cardinal, just Stanford — but did EA even pay Walsh for the right to his name and image? We have no tax documents proving Bill Walsh isn’t just a name EA made up as an alias for Gary Moeller. Actually, did EA Sports even make this game?

The 1994 sequel would enhance its bootleggedness by adding the Maple Bowl, Palm Bowl, Pecan Bowl, and Redwood Bowl as major destinations. There was a Division II Palm Bowl in the ‘80s, and part of the FCS playoffs is apparently nicknamed the Pecan Bowl after the minor ‘60s bowl of the same name, but the other two are just made up. To think nobody envisioned the Bitcoin Bowl.

Appropriately, you don’t have to pay anyone any money at all to play “Walsh” right now.

The only thing that was real was the only thing that actually mattered.

Growing up, I played Pop Warner football. My neighborhood’s kids played football in our yards and streets and one time down in the storm drains, where the possums prowl. My entire extended family watched football all weekend long, without ceasing, with criss-crossing SEC and ACC rivalries to sustain us during the offseason. Crunch Course ‘til the tape popped. Barry Sanders Starting Lineup figures. That part in Joe Gibbs’ autobiography about the symmetry of his wife’s facial features. I don’t know.

At all hours: football. I was chunky, white Deion Sanders in jean shorts and enormous, teal T-shirts.

But my first real understanding of what’s actually happening during grown-up football came from video games. This goes for a lot of people, as these days you hear pro athletes say they play games to work on their crafts or learn their new teammates. It wasn’t until the last decade that we all realized this is normal.

The idea of a game as a decent football simulator is plausible when you’re paging through the enormous playbooks in Madden. But it also calls to mind Tecmo Bowl’s four-play offenses, though of course Gus Malzahn is perfectly comfortable in either era.

That shows Walsh couldn’t have been made any earlier than it was ... without sullying the name of the coach in its title. Walsh, one of football’s greatest innovators, endorsed (or so we think) one of the first games to include multiple, coherent, real formations on both sides of the ball, meaning the ability to game plan as you see fit.

Plus it’s authentically collegiate, with option offenses nearly two decades before the NFL would really figure those out. This gave Walsh a fuller playbook than even Mutant League Football itself. Every team has access to every play, but the conscientious fan focuses on, say, the wishbone when playing as Air Force and a downfield shotgun attack when using Florida. Florida used to do that, kids!

And yeah, Walsh had a lot of made-up shit. But a lot of the stuff it cut corners on was the stuff that didn’t matter much. The Auburn logo isn’t what defines the heart and spirit of early-’90s Auburn, y’all — semi-claiming a national title 21 years later despite being bowl-banned at the time defines the heart and spirit of early-’90s Auburn. The stuff that was real was the football itself.

Sure, there are more cannonball flips than in real football, as Not 1983 Auburn’s Not Bo Jackson demonstrates here:

But that just means this is a great game.

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