Oklahoma State football recreates signing day recruits in 'Tecmo Bowl' Nintendo game
STILLWATER — For most of the last six weeks, Heath Vessels’ life has been consumed by sprites.
No, not the drink.
“Sprite” is the graphic designer term for each of those little Tecmo Bowl football players Vessels recreated for Oklahoma State’s signing day social media campaign that was a huge hit with players and gained national attention for its creativity on a day when every college is trying to top everyone else.
Each school tries to do something creative to recognize their new signees, often tying into popular culture.
In case you weren't surfing social media on Wednesday, OSU released a video for each of its signees that opened with some 1980s-style graphics, biographical information on the player, then a mock-up play from Tecmo bowl — the Nintendo football game that was wildly popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s — that morphed into the player’s actual highlight video.
At the end of the clip, an image of Barry Sanders welcomes the player to the Cowboy family. Twitter views for the videos, in total, were climbing into the hundreds of thousands by Wednesday afternoon.
OSU had been promoting the 2021 signing class by using imagery of Sanders, the school’s greatest No. 21 — and greatest player — of all time.
In sticking with that throwback theme, Vessels came up with the idea of recreating plays from Tecmo Bowl back in early November.
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“Basically in a day, I came up with how to make cutouts of the old 8-bit, 16-bit look to help sell the idea,” Vessels said. “And I actually ended up making a Tecmo Bowl version of Boone Pickens Stadium, with the logo at midfield, the end zones, everything.
“It was a fun idea that I thought was pretty cool, and then it became, ‘Oh, hey, we’re gonna make this our whole theme.’”
That’s when Vessels went to work on the sprites and the rest of the animation needed to pull off the Tecmo Bowl Cowboys. He had to cut them out, provide color — black helmets, orange jerseys, black pants — and create the animation.
“It was pretty much nonstop,” Vessels said. “But it was fun. I would come home from work, pull out my laptop, hang out with my dog on my couch, watch some sports and leisurely go at it. Before I knew it, I had 200-plus different Photoshop files that I had to then turn into animation.
“It didn’t even feel like work at all. This would be something I would normally do with my off time, just playing around with that kind of stuff.”
As for the plays he designed for the sprites to run, he based them off actual plays the Cowboys ran this season.
The videos were a hit with players, even though most of them had never played Tecmo Bowl before. The game was at least popular enough that they’d seen videos of it or recalled the recent Bo Jackson television commercials that used the Tecmo Bowl graphics.
“That was something crazy. I definitely enjoyed that,” said running back signee Jaden Nixon from Frisco, Texas. “I love throwback stuff like that, and then to be a part of it, that was amazing. I loved how they did that.”
And it was a surprise the players didn’t see coming.
“It was a shock,” said Edmond Santa Fe defensive end Collin Oliver. “I didn't know what they were going to pull out, but they pulled a trick out of their sleeve, for sure.”
Another of OSU’s graphic designers, Jordan Smith, built web pages for each player like the bio pages used on the Cowboys’ online roster. Except in place of the headshot, he created video game covers in mock-up styles of 1980s games with the player’s face in block animation.
“Heath had all the head shots of everybody, and he passed those along to me,” Smith said. “I went in and did the box-art look for everybody, so everybody has their own unique video game cover art to go along with everything.
“I’m old enough that I played these games growing up. Being able to go back and explore some of those styles and relive a little bit of that, that was pretty cool.”
For as much as the designers enjoyed the work, the goal was to make it special for the newest group of Cowboys, because the players are the stars of signing day.
“It’s just a really fun way to make it stand out for these guys,” Vessels said. “It’s probably the biggest day of their lives up to this point and we want to make it really special for them, and do something that will stand out and draw attention to them.
“We wanted to make them have a memorable signing day.”