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How my first console lit the fuse of the modern sports video game explosion

A story of The Blue Sky Rangers, the “running man”, and the legacy of the Intellivision

Mattel’s Intellivision. It was my first console, and still my most favorite nearly 40 years later.
Blue Sky Rangers

Gaming and eSports are very popular right now, especially Call of Duty shoot-em-up games and sports-focused games like NBA 2K20 and Madden NFL 20. Outsports along with SB Nation and our sister sites have spent the last two weeks sharing stories related to video games.

Unlike my co-host in “The Trans Sporter Room,” Dawn Ennis, I love the current state of the art of video games and interactive entertainment. Being a sports writer and avid gamer, I enjoy the sophistication of an NBA 2K20 or an Assetto Corsa.

Also having been a gamer since the first coin-op games reached the corner store as a youngster, I respect and cherish history the same way my co-host does. When it comes to how we got to today’s motion-captured, near broadcast-quality experiences we see when play FIFA or NHL 20, I take a moment to remember a system that had a well-known author boost it as “the closest thing to the real thing”.

A certain Mr. George Plimpton got my attention. On my birthday in 1981, my parents got me a Mattel Intellivision.

1980: Mattel Electronics enters the game

In 1977, Atari lifted itself from the field of early system with its Video Computer System, later known as the 2600. It was the first mass-produced console that was a hit with the public just as their Pong unit was a few years before.

At the same time, Mattel, best known for Barbie and Hot Wheels, was rolling out a line of hand-held electronic games. They were also eyeing a bigger target. They had their sites on Atari and they felt they could build a better technological mouse trap.

“We had a higher step up in hardware. It was more expensive more elaborate and it could put up a better image” software engineer David Rolfe said. “I thought of myself as a toolmaker, even as a game designer. I was the person between the hardware and the guy using it.”

At the time, Rolfe worked for a small firm called APh technologies. When he joined the effort in 1978, the task was first to build the most important tool: the console’s executive control software (aka the “exec”), which would serve as the operating system to power the hardware that was on the drawing board. He also developed his first game for the system at the same time — a baseball game that had to be as good as it could be with 4 kilobytes of memory available. That’s about the size of the average gif running on a smartphone today.

“Baseball was an ideal candidate, it was going to have movement, it was going to have interaction,” Rolfe said. “It had to make the best guesses of how we were going to proceed.”

One thing that helped a unit of artists at Mattel, who give Rolfe a template that would be hardwired into the system. It was artwork of what looked to be a person running.

The “Running Man” became Intellivision’s mascot, and a memory-saving template for future software
Blue Sky Rangers/Intellivision Entertainment

The “Running Man” was actually a set of animations that would be hard-wired into the original exec and ended up defining the Intellivision look and style. “That was the first time that a person could see a human, or least humanoid representation of themselves in a game,” Intellivision programmer Bill Fisher said.

To Fisher and many of those early pioneers, Major League Baseball stood out for the graphic realism, in addition to dynamic game play. It pales in comparison to the current high-definition near broadcast-quality look of a game like MLB The Show. In 1980, this was a clear step above its more established competitor.

“That game changed the world,” Fisher exclaimed. “It had strategy. It had subtlety. With the Atari, you couldn’t do a screen like that. You couldn’t have the baseball field, the diamond with all the stuff on it technically. We were the first who were able to do that.”

MLB Baseball represented a major step forward in graphics and game play. The game is considered a classic and sold over 1 million copies
Blue Sky Rangers/Intellivision Entertainment

Major League Baseball sold more than a million copies and showed what was possible even with limited technology. Programmers such as Fisher and Rick Levine took Rolfe’s original exec code and ran with it. Mattel built an in-house team of developers operating in a secret, key-carded “skunk works” at their California headquarters. The team was dubbed “The Blue Sky Rangers”, and the name has stuck to today. Together, they pushed the infant technology to its limits as Intellivision began to seriously rival Atari.

Levine came to Mattel in 1978 to build their handheld games. As part of the Intellivision team in 1981, he wrote the console’s PBA Bowling game.

Being an avid bowler, Levine wanted his game to mimic his real-life experience on the lanes. Even with only 4 kilobyte to work with, he put in details such as ball weight, ball placement and lane conditions. He also built a sharp graphic link that featured a look similar to a PBA tour telecast, right down a multiple camera angles for the approach and effects of the approach on the results.

The strategic and visual elements are practically essential in a sports-related title today. In 1981, they were light years ahead. “We didn’t leave out too much in terms of what you could with the ball or lane choices, “ Levine remembered. “That was the reputation that Intellivision was gathering. We did more than just regular games.”

In 1981, that reputation and the work behind it was showing up at the cash register. Mattel put up a $6 million ad campaign and the result was both the memorable use of Plimpton and over 850,000 consoles sold (one ended up in the room of a future Outsports writer/contributor). In 1982, the Intellivision racked up over 1 million consoles sold and Mattel made over $100 million profit, powered by the Blue Sky Rangers creating some of their most legendary titles such as Tron Deadly Discs, Night Stalker and Snafu.

Fisher was a part of a team that built one of the most innovative titles of that watershed year, B-17 Bomber. The action-strategy hybrid stretched the Intellivision’s capabilities further and created an early ancestor to the modern aerial combat simulators we see on platforms now.

“We saw the game as a set of interesting decisions,” Fisher recalled. “Our mission was to do what no other game console could do. That was our strength.”

As the calendar flipped to 1983, the bottom fell out for the video game boom. The glut of new systems and titles, and the lack of quality control, led to what was called “The Crash of ‘84”. Mattel Electronics lost over $300 million as the industry drowned in red ink. In January 1984, Mattel Electronics shut down.

Later that year, two marketing executives from Mattel bought out the rights to the Intellivision and started a venture called INTV Corporation. They continued building the latest derivative of the console and selling the remain inventory.

They also committed to making new content. That meant finding the new laid-off remnants of the Blue Sky Rangers and getting them creating and innovating again.

1986-1991: Going above, beyond, and ahead their time

INTV Corporation was perhaps the only player on the game grid in 1985. In 1986, the field changed. Nintendo was seeking to revive the home video game by bringing the new legendary Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) to the U.S. Market.

With the original inventories tapped out, INTV Corporation and the reenlisted Blue Sky Rangers scrambled to get new content into the hands of gamers and reworked some older content that was previously unreleased.

In the sports realm, many of the original games of the Mattel era were reworked and expanded. Leading up that effort were David Warhol and Steve Ettinger. Both came to Mattel Electronics at the high-water mark in 1982, and saw the boom go bust.

In his quest to rebuild the vaulted sports lineup, Warhol began with Super Pro Football. The game took the original football cart and gave it the feel of a network NFL telecast.

“We used every byte that we could.” Warhol said. “I would be surprised if there many games we’d release were there were 100 bytes or 200 bytes free.

“Where we made the quantum leap forward was in the game play features. All of the innovations where in game design and game play.”

When the heads of INTV were given a cameo on the revamped Super Pro Football, they were sold on Warhol’s vision for their sports games
Blue Sky Rangers/Intellivision Productions

Those features included added programmable pass route concepts, updated stats, and an added touch of two commentators who showed up in a cinema screen between quarters, and at halftime. The likenesses were familiar faces around INTV.

“We managed to get two headshots of the two executives who were running the companies,” Warhol explained. “Our artist, Connie Goldman, made the caricatures of the two businessmen. When they saw it one of them busted out laughing saying ‘LOOK THAT’S US.’”

“The executives were like, ‘OK, you’re hired’.”

The innovations progressed to the entire lineup. The revamped Super Pro Basketball made the gamer a player on the court, actively changing strategy as a coach, and even working through a salary cap and assessing talent, based on the stats of active NBA players, as the team owner/general manager.

“We use the code from the original NBA Basketball and it was already pretty elaborate in terms of the animations from shooting and shot blocking,” Ettinger noted. “We added the stats that drive the game, and we also added ratings for stamina for each player. You had to decide when to replace them with another player. We added a whole new level of play.”

Ettinger took an all-original approach for two other games Super Pro Wrestling and Chip Shot! Super Pro Golf. To make these new games, and the next-level graphics the creating were seeking, they dug to the console’s digital DNA. Ettinger and Warhol replaced David Rolfe’s original workhorse exec program that had powered the console from its birth in the late 70s.

“We wrote our own operating system that was capable of changing the graphics all at once, Warhol said. “We were allowed to use more optimized technology.”

The result for Super Pro Wrestling was a higher-resolution game that mixed visuals with characterization and game play that fit snugly with the ascendance of pro wrestling in the mid-80s. For Super Pro Golf, a different innovation was brought into play albeit accidentally. To help build an accurate representation of a golfer’s swing on-screen, Warhol, along with their in-house artist, turned to photos of a legendary golfer in what could be known as a primitive form of motion capture.

“We got some photography from a book on Jack Nicklaus I owned,” Ettinger recalls, “and from there Connie Goldman used the photos to model the swing of the golfer in the game.”

“I didn’t set out to do that,” Warhol chuckled. “I didn’t even know they did that until now. Good on Connie for wanting to be that accurate.”

Augusta National Archive
Some photos of Jack Nicklaus became a template for Super Pro Golf’s graphic swing
Photo by Augusta National/Getty Images

It was a shrewd, if accidental, move. The game was a sleeper hit for the fledgling firm in 1987, just a year removed from Nicklaus historic comeback win at the Masters. The other key upgrades were intentional.

“We also expanded the original 9-hole game into 99 holes and you could also create your own course,” Ettinger noted. “I wanted drastically improve on the original PGA Golf in terms of graphics and play.”

What resulted was lush experience that set the table for some next level golf simulations for PCs and consoles for the decades to follow.

Epilogue: A special place in history

INTV kept the dream alive to 1991, when it closed it doors. In 1995, the Blue Sky Rangers built a website on the history of the Intellivision and INTV. Fans of the old system, including this writer, flocked to it. Two years later, a group of ex-Mattel programmers bought the rights to the brand and the games, and began putting out Mac and PC versions of the old games and gave them a new life.

The originators holding court at a roundtable years later (left to right) Dave Warhol, Heather Edison, David Rolfe, Astrosmash creator John Sohl, Keith Robinson, and Bill Fisher
David Rolfe

David Rolfe moved on from gaming in the mid 80s. He worked on groundbreaking projects such as the Lotus management software of the early 90s. Rick Levine moved over to third-party software standout Imagic in 1982. He built two more memorable games, Microsurgeon and Truckin’. In the 1990s, he took his talents to Microsoft, where he was a part of the Windows 98 project team. Steve Ettinger kept building software up to his retirement in 2012. Bill Fisher is the vice president for technology for a firm that seeks to build a modern-day heir to the Intellivision legacy. David Warhol started his own firm in 1986, Realtime Associates, and still runs it today.

For a young kid who first put one of those cartridges in and stayed loving the hobby nearly 40 years later, just hearing these stories leaves me in awe and admiration. I’ve owned a console from every generation of video gaming and dove into PC gaming as well. I still believe that the Blue Sky Rangers coded the most enjoyable video gaming experience I’ve seen and felt.

For the team who did the work, they saw their time building the Intellivision as something special as well. “Atari had ten times the units on the field, but Mattel did some great stuff,” Fisher remembered. “The things that keeps people coming back to these games now is that they were really fun to play.”

“In certain genres were the first do some of thing we did,” Warhol said. “We inspired others after us into doing their best work and see what we did and said that they could do it bigger. That is what I like about being associated of the first generations of video games. It got people interested in them and now the industry has hundreds of thousands, if not millions of employees.”