The first football video game

Published in issue 4 of Late Tackle.

Each new instalment of FIFA and PES, EA Sports’ and Konami’s respective football video game franchises, brings much talk of “player impact engines”, “updated facial representations” and “true-to-life active AI”. Whatever that actually means, there’s no doubt both games are thoroughly impressive technological achievements, presenting frighteningly realistic football simulations with all the bells and whistles a fan could want. But football games have much humbler origins.

The first football video game was a variation on the primitive Pong “bat-and-ball” game, and was bundled with TV games systems like the ubiquitous Binatone TV Master in the 1970s. Binatone Football bore very little resemblance to today’s console games, with no colour, rudimentary sound, and no graphics to speak of. Nevertheless, it was revolutionary, allowing fans to play an electronic version of their favourite sport in their front rooms, and kick-starting the rapid development of football video games over the next 30-plus years.

Binatone TV Master Football, photo by Mikel Ortega (Flickr)

You’ll be familiar with Pong: two rectangular bats, one square ball, a dotted line down the centre of the screen to represent the net, and score numbers at the top. Binatone Football expanded on this, giving players two bats each, and adding a boundary line around the screen to mark out the pitch, with gaps for goals at each end. Players moved their bats up and down in an attempt to hit the ball back and forth, and deflect it into their opponents’ goal. Incredibly basic stuff, of course, but nevertheless thoroughly engrossing at the time.

Binatone didn’t invent the football video game, although it did much to popularise it in the UK. Electronic bat-and-ball games were actually created by US electronics manufacturer Magnavox, and the football variation first appeared in the UK in 1973 on the Magnavox Odyssey – the first home video game system. Magnavox subsequently licensed the microchip that ran its games to scores of other manufacturers, including Grandstand, Ingersoll, and Binatone, who produced more affordable mass-market systems.

When the Binatone TV Master arrived in 1977, its marketing claimed it to be the ‘most exciting and fascinating home video game ever built for your family’. It was a bright orange plastic box that plugged into your telly via the aerial socket. There were no wireless controllers, d-pads or trigger buttons. Instead, players controlled the game using a wired paddle with a single left/right knob on it. Chunky buttons on the main console allowed you to start new games and change the ball speed and the bat size. There was a built-in speaker in the middle of the console, which emitted occasional beeps and blips. No realistic crowd noises or Alan Smith co-commentary to be found here. Oh, and of course the game was black and white, although a later version did offer less-than-thrilling colourisation.

Football was one of four games incorporated in the first Binatone TV Master, along with tennis, squash and ‘squash practice’. (Later models added a couple of other games, including a target shooter complete with plug-in ‘lightgun’.) Game selection was made via a sliding switch, with football represented by a graphic reminiscent of a men-at-work road sign, apparently depicting a player scooping up a ball with an invisible shovel. The reason for this seems to be that the football game was marketed as hockey in some regions, with the invisible shovel presumably substituted for a hockey stick.

So Binatone Football’s relationship to actual football was tenuous to say the least, requiring no little imagination on behalf of the player. But what the video game did share with the real sport was a beautiful simplicity. Plugging in the Binatone TV Master was the electronic equivalent of throwing down jumpers for goalposts, and the game was so instantly playable that anyone could join in. It was undeniably entertaining and addictive, and in fact remains a surprisingly enjoyable diversion today.

Having said that, in these days of life-like graphics, in-game commentary, and licensed strips and stadiums, it’s unlikely that the latest generation of gamers would embrace Binatone Football. In truth, the game was rendered pretty much obsolete as early as 1979 by the release of Intellivision Soccer (‘so realistic you’ll feel as if you’re playing on the field’), which introduced a dash of colour, basic sound effects, and actual graphics, albeit of the stick-man variety.

The arrival of home computers launched a cavalcade of football games, with 1983’s International Soccer on the Commodore 64 being a notable pioneer, followed by the likes of Match Day, Kick Off, Emlyn Hughes International Soccer and the still-beloved Sensible Soccer. Then came FIFA and PES, consigning all that came before them to history. But for many of us it all started with rectangular bats and a square ball, a bleep and a blip, and the far simpler pleasures of Binatone Football.

Published by Paul Brown

Writes about football and history. Four Four Two, When Saturday Comes, The Blizzard, The Guardian etc. Latest book: The Ruhleben Football Association. Twitter: @paulbrownUK

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