Behind the Design Features

Behind the Design: Joe Montana Football

Football is a touchy issue when it comes to video games. It seems like Electronic Arts’ ever-present Madden series has never had to worry about giving up its crown, despite years of competition from Sega. While most modern gamers remember the grueling battle between Madden and Visual Concepts’ stellar (and in my mind, superior, NFL series), the rivalry actually dates back almost a decade before the first NFL title exploded onto the Dreamcast. Long before Sega decided to stick to initials to name its signature football franchise, it sought the endorsement of one of the biggest sports stars of the early ’90s: Joe Montana.

One of the key parts of then-Sega president Michael Katz’s strategy to make the fledgling Genesis into a viable console contender was to bring in big name endorsements. Since sports were a major part of Sega’s strategy, famous players were signed on for just about every game in the genre. Arnold Palmer came onboard for golf, Dodger manager and legend Tommy Lasorda for baseball, flash-in-the-pan champ Buster Douglas for boxing, Mario Lemieux for hockey, Lakers coach Pat Riley for basketball, and famed 49er quarterback Joe Montana for football.

Unlike any of the other sports games, however, Montana’s outing suffered from a bevy of problems from the get-go that almost resulted in its cancellation. Thanks to some quick thinking and last minute help from — of all companies — Electronic Arts, the title made its targeted release window and spawned a series that competed with Madden for the next five years.

Joe Cool Signs On

During the heyday of the NES, Nintendo held third parties in an iron grip. Strict licensing agreements prevented them from releasing software on competing platforms, and this had a major impact on the libraries of both the Atari 7800 and Sega’s own Master System. Upon releasing the Genesis, Sega knew that its new 16-bit machine would suffer the same problem unless it changed its marketing strategy. Even with its high volume of arcade hits, the company knew that more would be needed to entice gamers away from Nintendo. Knowing that the arcade well would eventually run dry and determined to establish original properties, Sega felt that such high profile endorsements would make its games instantly recognizable. The need for a major football game came at a vital time for Sega, as the future of the Genesis – and quite possibly the company – rested on how quickly a large and attractive library of games could be established. It’s been said that Sega was ready to pull the plug on the console if it was unable to secure a football game in time for the ’90 Christmas season, and despite coming dangerously close to the dark precipice of a second failed console in less than five years, Sega was able to sign the biggest names in sports at the time and continue on with its 16-bit plans.

It turns out that its attempts to contract famous personalities wasn’t lost on the competition. Even as Sega snapped up sports names, rival Nintendo was seeking a few of its own. An offer was made by the House of Mario to Montana, which was quickly countered by Sega. Katz fought with Sega of Japan president Hayao Nakayama to make a better offer, and he eventually convinced his boss to green light a five-year $1.7 million deal. Montana signed with Sega and agreed to lend his name and likeness to its new football title.

Now All We Need Is A Game!

Getting Montana to sign was the easy part. Since Sega of America didn’t have a game production facility at the time, and Japan hadn’t done a football game of its own, an outside firm had to be contracted to develop the game. To this end, Sega turned to Mediagenic (formally and presently known as Activision), which had been working on a game of its own that sounded more like Mutant League Football than anything else. Producer Tim Sloper had joined the company in 1988 and was tapped to head its internal development studio a year later. The football game was just one of several titles in development, and things were pretty unorganized, so Sloper was brought in to get things in order. According to him, the desire to make the game simple was something that was part of the design philosophy from the beginning. “That game was originally supposed to be fantastic monsters playing football against each other,” he told Sega-16, “with the monsters having different abilities and moves not seen in human football. I made the team members focus their attentions on the user interface, since I’m a huge believer that a friendly and intuitive interface has to go in first, because it’s difficult if not impossible to tack it on later.” When Sega came calling, Mediagenic said it could convert the game into a standard football title in order to expedite the development process.

When Sega bought the rights to the game, it was about 30% complete, but Mediagenic told Sega that it could be completed by November. Sega wanted it for Christmas, but weeks turned into months, and Mediagenic failed to produce even a demo. Sega began looking elsewhere, and in all, three different projects, including Mediagenic’s, were in development simultaneously. Senior Sega producer Jim Huether oversaw each one and knew that the Christmas deadline was in jeopardy. He had initially wanted a horizontal engine that would show more of the field and emphasize the passing game (Montana’s specialty), but none of the teams were able to create something workable. One of them had no experience working on Genesis hardware and had trouble with the console’s memory restrictions, another had a vertical engine under construction, and the third had a detailed concept and some graphics, but nothing actually produced.

As the release window dwindled, Katz became more and more agitated with Mediagenic’s lack of progress. Like most people, he was unaware of the turmoil that had engulfed the company since 1988, when it had expanded its operations to include all types of software beyond video games. According to Sloper, Mediagenic’s failure to complete the project could be directly attributed to its lack of a coherent and dedicated game design document. “I was producing numerous games at the time,” he recalls, “and was never a football fan. So I could not write a design doc for the project myself. There was nobody else on staff to write one, either. The team believed that they could manage it with only a basic list of features, despite my belief that a design doc was vital.”

By 1992, things were so bad at Mediagenic that it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. None of this had been explained to Sega at the time the deal for Joe Montana Football had been made. After being told by Mediagenic’s president, Bruce Davis, that the game would not be ready on time, the company’s Director of Software Development, Tom Reuterdahl, called Sega and informed Huether. Davis was unaware that Huether and Katz were friends, so he did not know that Huether had passed along the information. The deception was widespread at Mediagenic, a fact Katz learned firsthand. He became aware of the situation with Joe Montana Football during a phone call with Mediagenic Producer Mike Suarez. Unbeknownst to Suarez, Huether was in the room with Katz, who put the call on speaker phone. The story Suarez told regarding the delays was quite different from what Huether had been told, and when it all exploded, Katz was livid about the delays. “Basically,” he once said, “they deceived us over a period of four or five months that the game was proceeding on schedule. We – Sega – were naïve and irresponsible. We should have known.” He was also surprised to find out how little had been done. “The game wasn’t very far along at all, but we didn’t discover that until about September or October. By the time we found out, the only way we were gonna get a game out near Christmas would be to find another game that was mostly finished or completely finished and convert it.”

Electronic Arts to the Rescue

This left Sega in a bad position. With the holidays quickly approaching, it still needed its football game to cover a much-needed spot in the Genesis library. None of the other third party projects panned out, and something had to be done – fast. Electronic Arts was busy porting John Madden Football to the Genesis, and Sega was sent an early version for approval. Seeing an opportunity to meet its release deadline, Sega contacted EA president Trip Hawkins about licensing the Madden engine for Joe Montana. Jim Huether was deeply involved in the negotiations. “They agreed to let Sega use it under a specific licensing deal, and between both Sega and EA, we came up with a set of things that would get changed to turn the John Madden engine into the Joe Montana game. Things such as graphics, passing algorithms, player/team strengths and attributes, and more. So we at Sega supplied the specifics of what needed to be changed, some video clips of Joe Montana and some different player graphics. The team at EA made the programming and art changes in the game, and then we tested the product as it was being developed and completed.”

The team responsible for development was Michael Knox’s Park Place Productions. Founded in 1989, Park Place was a small company that would soon go on to become one of the largest independent software design and development software houses in the industry. In addition to Joe Montana Football, the group was also developing the first Genesis installment of John Madden Football, which became a monster franchise in its own right. Park Place had gained its gridiron prestige with its first product, ABC Monday Night Football for computers, which sold over a hundred thousand copies, and so the company was tapped by Electronic Arts to port the latest edition of Madden to the Genesis, which was released in 1990. Due to the quality of its work on Madden up until that point, as well as its previous success in the genre, it was believed that Park Place would be a perfect choice for Montana, and Electronic Arts assigned them the task of modifying the engine for Sega’s game. The entire negotiation was handled by Trip Hawkins, and Park Place never had any involvement with Katz or anyone else at Sega. The group was more or less given free rein in its work, so long as the specifications required by Sega were met. Communication between Electronic Arts and Sega were largely handled by Electronic Arts’ Producer Rich Hilleman and Huether. Both remained in regular contact on issues such as gameplay, graphics, and features as Joe Montana Football progressed from the alpha version to the final release.

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Joe Montana Football was specifically designed to be more arcadey than Madden, as both companies wanted each title to offer a different style of play and not directly compete. Hawkins himself diagramed a few of the plays for it, and it was completed in six weeks for a total cost of $20,000. Sega had paid $2 million for the license, but there was more at stake than just the up-front costs. Millions more stood to be lost if the game didn’t ship on time, and Sega was eager to make back the cost of Montana’s endorsement. Ironically, Montana himself reportedly was not involved in the actual design, and his visibility was limited to merely hyping the game for the press. Park Place worked around the clock to get their product onto store shelves in time for the holiday rush, but even with the accelerated development time, Joe Montana Football missed the Christmas season of ’90 and was released in January of 1991.

Most interesting about the development of Montana is that the final product was actually superior to Electronic Arts’ own Madden but was trimmed down before being handed over to Sega. The original version featured four play windows as opposed to the final two, and it even had a scaling field like Madden did. Montana also sported a larger playbook. Upon seeing this, Hawkins was worried that it might be better than his company’s game and ordered that it be toned down. Park Place head Michael Knox told Sega-16 that Hawkins attitude towards the superior Montana was pretty straight-forward. According to Knox, Hawkins had no intention of giving Sega the superior product. “So we made a great game…” he recalls Hawkins saying, “… and EA said wait a minute, this is good.. too good, so scale it back a little. We don’t want to kill our John Madden Football market by releasing a game for Sega that’s going to kick our ass.”

Both Montana & Sega Score Big

Despite being less realistic than John Madden Football (it only had sixteen unlicensed teams and no real players other than Montana himself), Montana made the top five list of best-selling games for 1991 and went on to spawn a yearly franchise that netted Sega millions in profit and helped establish it as a company to look to for quality sports titles. Montana also made out well, taking home $3.5 million in royalties over the span of five years. Most importantly, the game proved to Sega of Japan that sports titles, especially football, were potential money makers in the U.S., and Nakayama become more flexible regarding future releases.

Sega’s American branch also learned its lesson, and it vowed never to find itself in the same position Mediagenic had put it in. Blue Sky Software was contracted to do future installments of the Joe Montana franchise, with Sega personally overseeing development. Jim Huether was producer on the sequel, which boasted play-by-play commentary and kicked off the Sports Talk line. “We did not approach EA for future football games,” he told Sega-16, “because we finally found a team who could do a horizontally oriented game. I drove the initial design of the second Joe Montana game and designed it such that all receivers would always be visible on the field, except for Hail Mary plays.” Huether was eventually pulled off the project before release, and it was given to another producer. By the time Joe Montana II: Sports Talk Football was released at the end of 1991, Sega was in direct competition with Madden, and even Trip Hawkins himself could see the quality of his rival’s wares, calling Montana II “true multi-media” due to its innovative commentary feature. Unfortunately for Sega, its football games would not have the same legs as Electronic Arts’, and the series came to an end in 1996.

Leaving A Sports Legacy

Though Joe Montana Football wasn’t as successful as Madden, it played an integral part in establishing Sega as a sports game powerhouse, and it would eventually go on to be the centerpiece of the company’s Sega Sports line up. The celebrity endorsement has long since joined the Hall of Fame, and Sega has left the hardware business, but football gamers everywhere remember with longing the yearly rivalry between the two biggest game makers in the sport. Perhaps someday the NFL series will return (under Take Two now), should EA ever be forced to relinquish NFL license exclusivity, but we’re already seeing how needed the competition is, with the successful release of All-Pro Football 2K8 for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Until then, we’ll always have good old Joe.


  • Horowitz, K. (2006, April 28). Interview with Michael Katz. Sega-16.
  • —. (2006, August 18). Interview with Trip Hawkins. Sega-16.
  • —. (2006, October 31). Interview with Jim Huether. Sega-16.
  • —. (2006, November 24). Interview with Ken Balthaser. Sega-16.
  • — (2007, November 23). Interview with Michael Knox. Sega-16.
  • —. (2007, November 18). Personal Communication with Tim Sloper.
  • Joe Montana Quarterbacks Another Super Game. (Winter 1990/1991). Sega Visions Magazine.
  • Kent, S. (2001). The Ultimate History of Video Games. Three Rivers Press. 1st ed.
  • Sloper, T. (2007). The Importance of Design Docs in Game Development. The Corpament.
  • Todd, B. (2005, August 14). The History of Football Games. Gamespot.


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  2. Does anyone here remember the earliest screenshots of this game being a horizontally scrolling, parallax affair? These pics may have come from one of the unused prototypes Ken referred to in the article. By the way, I found this article directly after hearing Ken on the Retronauts podcast. Good stuff!

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