|Electric Football: Tabletop Touchdowns
WRITTEN BY CHUCK MILLER
SUNDAY, 02 NOVEMBER 2008 17:32
Electric football, also known as “miniature football” or “tabletop football,” has returned from the attics and toyboxes of yesteryear to reclaim its position as one of top sports simulation games of all time. Sixty years after its original introduction into the marketplace, the game is now the focus of national tournaments, where grandparents and grandkids can compete on an equal level. Its players can now be found at the craft table of hobbyists, who painstakingly repaint the tiny figurines to resemble the greatest squads in football history.
“Electric football has seen a renaissance of attention today,” said Ira Silverman, whose Silverman Media&Marketing Group promotes the game for Miggle Toys, the company who currently manufactures electric football boards and games. “I think that the people who played the game as kids in the 1960s and 1970s, and those playing today, like the ability to actually control each and every one of your 11 players who are on the field, and I think they like the idea of playing against and hopefully beating another human being, rather than defeating an electronic team on a video game.”
Electric football operates with the same rules as its live-action counterpart – your team must carry a football to your opponent’s goal line, thereby scoring points. But in electric football, two “coaches” (the real-life flesh-and-blood competitors) set up their “team” (a collection of plastic figurines) on a flat steel gridiron. The coach on offense activates a power switch and the metal gridiron vibrates, propelling the players forward into the line of scrimmage. Once the player designated as the ball carrier has its base touched by the base of a defensive player, that player is “tackled,” the play ends, and both coaches set their players at a new line of scrimmage.
Electric football was one of several games manufactured by Tudor Metal Products in 1947 as a component to its line of toy banks and other novelties. After obtaining a patent for a “vibrating propelling device” (US Patent No. 2,167,985) that would allow toy racecars to navigate an electrically vibrating obstacle course, Tudor built several tabletop vibrating games, including tabletop baseball, basketball and horse racing games. Although most of those games are forgotten today, Tudor’s biggest and most enduring success came with the release of its “Tudor Tru-Action Electric Football Game.”
This original “No. 500” electric football game, complete with two metallic teams and its miniature felt-tufted footballs, became a major hit. Eventually the metal linebackers and blockers were replaced by less expensive plastic tacklers and runners, and Tudor’s popular product started to draw competition from other toy manufacturers.
Tudor’s biggest rival in the electric football world was Gotham Pressed Steel, who also manufactured a similar electric football game with attached fiberboard lithographed stadium seating, to more closely replicate the outdoor football experience. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Tudor and Gotham tried to one-up each other, adding everything from bleachers to scoreboards to their base products. In 1958, Gotham produced the first NFL-endorsed electric football game, a board decorated with NFL team logos. By the mid-1970s, Gotham added bigger and larger fiberboard stadia to its vibrating playing fields, including building a rare 1969 “Super Dome” arena that closely resembled the Houston Astrodome.
Meanwhile, Tudor concentrated on developing more realistic action figures to play on the vibrating bases. By 1967, Tudor acquired its own NFL license, and was able to produce miniature football figures, in home and away jerseys, for all 16 NFL franchises existing at that time (and, as an added bonus, Tudor also made available nine teams from the rival American Football League). These players, known by collectors as “67 Big Men,” became the gold standard in electric football figures.
A third toy company, Coleco, got into the mix with a licensed ABC Monday Night Football board and endorsements from several NFL players, including Joe Namath and O.J. Simpson. Coleco also added a special magnetic control device to its bases (U.S. Patent No. 3,866,915). In Coleco’s games, one electric football player would be affixed to a magnetic base, which could be controlled by the coach using a special “below-the-table” armature. With that armature, a running back could tear through a defensive line in a matter of seconds – unless he got tackled by a defensive player that was “magnetized” by the opposing coach, who also operated an armature on his side of the table!
But by the 1980s, electric football lost its appeal to the home video game market, as it was easier to plug in a video game cartridge to an Atari 2600 video game console than it was to set up 22 tiny plastic men on a steel gridiron. By 1989, the sale of electronic football games had dropped to a trickle.
Then came Michael Landsman. Landsman, the head of Illinois-based Miggle Toys, purchased the dormant Tudor product line in 1992, and immediately secured an NFL license so that Miggle could produce an NFL Super Bowl electric football game. “I had such wonderful memories of what a great and exciting game electric football was,” said Landsman. “When I found out in 1992 that Tudor Games was up for sale, I jumped at the opportunity. Today, so many electric football ‘coaches,’ who once felt for years they were the only ones playing the game, now realize they are not alone in their love and loyalty for the game.”
And that loyalty has spread to the Internet, as Web sites now exist promoting regional electric football leagues and national electric football tournaments. Many of these leagues are organized and operate either through Miggle Toys’ own Web site (http://www.miggle.com), or through the Miniature Football Coaches Association (http://www.miniaturefootball.org), a Web site devoted to promoting the sport. Nearly every region of the United States has its own league and teams – San Antonio has the Alamo City Electric Football League (www.acefl.net), while Detroit-area fans can play in the Great Lakes Electric Football League (www.glefl.com).
“We started our league in 2003,” said John Wharton, commissioner of the Connecticut New York Electric Football League, who holds tournaments in his suburban New Haven, Conn., home. “I had been playing ever since the early 1970s, and my son as well. My son and I played games against each other, and people from New York City saw our Web site devoted to our electric football teams, and so we formed a league. I’m an avid football player, and electric football gives me a chance to actually be a coach. People may call us ‘couch potatoes’ or ‘armchair quarterbacks,’ but we look at the real teams play on the TV and we say to ourselves, we can change that play, we can see something different. We get a chance to use our coaching style on electric football.”
Electric football coaches spend hours adjusting or “tweaking” the plastic bases on which their tiny teams run. Each base has special plastic comb teeth that react to the gridiron’s vibration, propelling the player in a forward motion. Using hobby pliers, nail clippers, and even a cigarette lighter flame, a skilled “tweaker” can trim and straighten and align those comb teeth to give his players direction, speed and power. Instead of aimlessly circling the playing surface like a dog chasing its tail, a “tweaked” player can speed straight down the field for a touchdown, or clobber an opposing player to force an incomplete pass. “We personally know four or five good tweakers,” said Wharton. “The owner of Buzzball, George Diamond, is one of the best tweakers. If you bend the front tongs on a base, you can get speed, but if you’ve got a good base and you tweak it the wrong way, you could ruin the base and the player is useless.”
Diamond’s “Buzzball” figurines have added a new dimension to modern electric football. While most electric football figures have the same blocking or tackling formations and positions, “Buzzball” figures come with names like “The Beast,” “Lightning,” “Gladiator” and “Hammer,” and can be modified to show a player in a running, tackling, defending – or even celebrating – formation. From his small factory in Harrisburg, Pa., Diamond has created figures that are now part of most competitive electric football squads around the country.
“I just wanted to build something different within the hobby,” said Diamond. “There were some guys that were making custom figures, so I came out with my own line of players, which could be molded to whatever specifications a person wanted. The figures come in their standard pose, and what coaches can do is take the arms off the players and then reposition them. Our line has become very popular, we even have our own tournament, BuzzFest, in Harrisburg.”
In 1995, Miggle hosted its first Electric Football convention at a Chicago steakhouse. Originally expecting to have 20 people show up, hundreds of football coaches brought their teams for a weekend of competition and camaraderie. Today, the event has grown into the Electric Football World Championships, often held at the same time the NFL hosts their own Super Bowl. Coaches gather in hotel ballrooms and conference centers, where dozens of gridirons are spread throughout for a weekend of electric football action. Coaches of all ages compete for the coveted Miggle trophy and a championship ring with the same amount of dedication and preparation that Joe Paterno or Bill Parcells might put into their own championship bowl appearances.
Player modification is important – both for “control” of the players, as well as for their aesthetics and team unity. Even though coaches can use stock figurines that came out of the wrapper for a game, many coaches customize and paint their players to more closely resemble a favorite team or era. And although the lion’s share of figurines represent the NFL or NCAA Division I college football teams, sometimes a devoted fan will paint their players to represent a football team from another professional league. With enough paint and skill, a stock team could resemble the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts, the Philadelphia Soul of the Arena League, or the USFL’s New Jersey Generals. All it takes is paint, decals and your own imagination and skill.
For Christopher Markham, an electric football enthusiast from Grand Rapids, Mich., painting figurines has become his passion in the sport. “I played electric football when I was 12, just like every other kid my age,” said Markham. “When I grew older, I put the game in my parents’ basement, and didn’t pick it up again until three years ago – and at that time, I was just selling off the game on eBay. But I got nostalgic and wanted to get some of the teams I had back. I received e-mails from people asking if I ever custom-painted teams – I tried it, starting with creating a couple of United States Football League teams.”
To make his figurines look as accurate as possible, Markham prints high-resolution photographs of game-action photographs from websites, then takes the photographs to his local art supply store and matches up his digital “swatches” with acrylic paints. “Some people like to use acrylic paints, which is what I use, because it’s an easy clean-up with water and a brush, some other people use Testors model paints. I also apply decals to my figures, I recreate the graphics on my computer with Adobe Illustrator, so that I can create tight graphics with vector images that reproduce well in miniature.”
While most vintage electric football games can be acquired for just a few dollars, collectors will pay much more for hard-to-find grandstands and accoutrements. Miggle’s current deluxe “Rose Bowl” gridiron, complete with wraparound stadium seating and tower lighting, sells for $160; the playing surface itself can sell for $50 to $80. Vintage boards are plentiful and readily available online; collectors search for vintage boards that are unscuffed and unwarped, complete with original box art, grandstands (if available) and all included pieces.
As for the original teams, a set of original 1967 Tudor “Big Men” can sell for $250 to $450; these sets often stay on shelves and avoid any game action. Original “Big Men” have black shoes, have “Hong Kong” stamped on their base, and only exist in the colors of teams that played in the NFL or AFL in the late 1960s. The combination of modern “Big Men” figures, along with home-painted teams, can cause confusion for novice collectors, and one should check with an expert in the miniature football hobby to confirm if the team you’re going to purchase is truly vintage or modern.
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