Experiences in Old Sports Games: Pete Sampras Tennis

The George Foreman Grill launched in the year 1994, when I was only nine years old.  We had one early on in my home, and then when I moved out to go to college it was relatively quick purchase.  As such, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve either owned a George Foreman Grill, or lived in home containing a George Foreman Grill, for at least half of my life.

I’ve used the George Foreman Grill–either the one we had growing up or the one I purchased later on–maybe twenty times.  On its face, the George Foreman Grill seems like  fantastic idea.  A simple way to cook lean meat dishes?  Easy toasted sandwiches?  Sign me up.  But the reality of the product isn’t nearly as glamorous as its promise.  Burn anything and it’s a hassle to clean.  There’s no way to adjust the temperature, so it’s a crapshoot whether you can fully cook anything thick before the outside sears onto the “non-stick” surface. And that fat that’s draining out of your chicken or hamburger?  Turns out that wasn’t all that bad for you anyway.

I don’t know why I bought my own George Foreman Grill.  At that point, I should have known that it wasn’t really my thing.   I was aware that I preferred a cast iron skillet.  So why did I get one?  It was probably hope.  Hope, and this man’s smiling face:

Note how one hand is touching the hot surface of the grill, and yet the other hand is wearing a protective mitt.

Note how one hand is almost touching the hot surface of the grill, and yet the other hand is wearing a protective mitt.

Celebrity endorsement is a transformative act in which the celebrity allows a product to take on some of the qualities generally ascribed to the celebrity.  When I use the word “celebrity”, I do not mean it to refer to the person George Foreman, but the symbol George Foreman.  The nature of fame and exposure is that certain facets of personality and identity are either expressed, suppressed, or made up out of whole cloth.  George Foreman the celebrity has qualities that are not wholly representative of George Foreman the person.  In 1994, he symbolized toughness, longevity, and athleticism.  Now, after almost two decades of peddling grills, he is probably better known for his salesmanship.

When George Foreman allowed his name to be put on the grill, he loaned the grill some of his meaning as a celebrity.   Subconsciously, people associated it with the same significance they associated with George Foreman.  In turn, competitors have sought out similar endorsements over the years, leading to the Hulk Hogan Ultimate Grill, the Evander Holyfield Real Deal Grill, and the Paul Wall Fast Life Grill.

WITH THIS PATENTED TECHNOLOGY, THE FAT AND GREASE JUST DRAINS INTO MY MOUTH.

WITH THIS PATENTED TECHNOLOGY, THE FAT AND GREASE JUST DRAINS INTO MY MOUTH.

For a long time, sports video games traded on the power of the celebrity endorsement.  Of course, they didn’t just use any celebrities. They used players or managers from their respective sports.  There are tons of examples: Ken Griffey Jr. presents Major League Baseball, named after the Seattle CF phenom in 1994.  Wayne Gretzky 3d Hockey, the arcade (and later N64) game that endorsed by the Great One.  Nester’s Funky Bowling, named after Nestor Carbonell from LOST, for the Virtual Boy.

You don’t see it so much these days, with almost all sports titles being as minimalist as to only include the league and the year.  The exception, of course, is the grandaddy of them all, Madden Football, but for a long time every other sports title bore the name of a famous figure.  This brings us to today’s old sports game:

Momma Sampras warned you your face would stick like that.

Momma Sampras warned you your face would stick like that.

Tennis has appeared in some form on just about every video game system known to man and also the Ouya. It holds a special place in the history of video games. Everyone knows about Pong, which first popularized the coin-op arcade machine and the home video console, even if it was predated by Computer Space and the Magnavox Odyssey on both fronts.  But the sport of tennis was also the inspiration for Tennis For Two, a 1958 oscilloscope device that has at least a tenuous claim to be the first video game.  If nothing else, Tennis for Two is easily the first computer game to simulate physics, specifically gravity. Unfortunately, no one could figure out how to display the Havok logo on startup of an oscilloscope, so Tennis for Two never saw the light of day outside of a laboratory.

Pete Sampras Tennis came out for the Mega Drive and Genesis in 1994 which was the same year as the George Foreman grill, and it was approximately just as useful for cooking a chicken breast evenly all the way through. Unlike the grill, which was specially formulated to appeal to the twin American desires of eating more meat and buying things from television that enable the eating of more meat, Pete Sampras Tennis was only given a limited release in the United States. Its sequels, on the Mega drive and PlayStation, didn’t even make it across the Atlantic .  It was developed by Codemastersa U.K. development house and publisher which has been around forever.

Did you know that Pete Sampras Tennis was the inspiration for the God of War series?

Did you know that Pete Sampras Tennis was the inspiration for the God of War series?

Codemasters has some decent successes in their length history-specifically the Game Genie and the Dirt series-but they could cure cancer tomorrow and to me they’d still be the monsters who allowed Leisure Suit Larry: Box Office Bust to exist. Many Codemasters games never made it to the United States and stayed in Europe forever. Sometimes this was a good thing. Be sure to call up your grandparents and thank them for their sacrifices, because without them we’d all be speaking German and waxing nostalgic about Dizzy Kart for the ZX 64.

Pete Sampras Tennis doesn’t necessarily take any risks, and the AI is terrible, but it generally succeeds in representing the game about as well as any other title at the time. The control pad moves your player around the screen, and the three Mega Drive/Genesis buttons each give different strengths for a swing, letting you choose to lob the ball, shoot it, or try and nail it with some topspin.  Basic stuff, but a step above, say, Jimmy Connors Tennis for the NES, released the year before.

F U

Several characters are available, both male and female, but the only real tennis player featured is, naturally, Pete Sampras.  What, did you expect he would let Andre Agassi into his game?  It’s a well known fact that Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi had a long-standing rivalry.  In 1994, it was so bad that Pete Sampras visited the set of the children’s film Andre during post-production and literally murdered half of the crew before he discovered that it was about a friendly sea lion and not Agassi.  The only reason that Sampras didn’t go to prison was because the judge’s kids made him see Andre in the theaters and the killings were dismissed as justifiable.

Pete Sampras is an American.  This is a game developed in Europe, for a European audience, and yet it trades on the celebrity of a man halfway around the world.  It–or its Europe only sequels–could have been Stefan Edberg Tennis or Boris Becker Tennis. Yet an American was chosen, despite the target demographic being almost entirely from other countries. The simple reason is that Sampras transcended nationality. He was the best player of his time, and 1994 was hardly a time of great anti-American animosity.

This fundamentally conservative game portrays most of the USA with lady liberty, a symbol of freedom, but assigns to California a picture of a government-funded bridge.

This fundamentally conservative game portrays most of the USA with lady liberty, a symbol of freedom, but assigns to California a picture of a government-funded bridge.

But why wasn’t Pete Sampras Tennis, a game featuring one of the biggest American athletes in the world, successful in the United States of America? Codemasters making poor decisions aside, tennis simply didn’t rate in the USA during the mid-90s. Americans simply didn’t care about the game, and generally haven’t with the exception of the careers of John McEnroe during the 80s and the Williams sisters in the late 90s/early 00s.

Why is this? Ultimately, tennis is perceived as a high class sport. Matches are silent, players are expected to act respectfully, everyone is wearing white, and no one would dare sew a Pennzoil patch onto their jacket. It’s generally accepted that talent and hard work alone are insufficient to succeed, and that the teachings of a highly paid professional are required to even be a decent amateur player. While this is true of many sports, Americans hate this shit. They want to believe the story of the poor kid from Montana who fine-tuned his baseball swing chopping wood or the quarterback who kept his arm fresh chucking toilet paper roles as a stocker at the grocery store.

Americans hate to be reminded that class exists. A key part of the American national mythology is that everyone is born equal and has the same opportunities to succeed. It’s bullshit, and all it takes to know that it’s bullshit is the the fact that George W. Bush of all people was elected to the highest office in the country on two separate occasions, but all the popular spectator sports in the United States feed into this mythology.

Pete Sampras approved every single pixel in this representation of his hair.

Pete Sampras approved every single pixel in this representation of his hair.

Not tennis. Professional tennis embraces its status as a privileged sport for privileged people. It has adopted the trappings of an aristocratic duel, rather than the brawls and street fights that Americans prefer to see. See my last post on hockey, and try to imagine how Tony Twist would fare on the courts of Wimbledon. Americans don’t want to see that shit. They don’t want to watch a man named Federer (only two letters away from Federal, so he’s probably trying to take your guns away) who speaks multiple languages fluently, and was coached at age 10 by a man named Adolf at The Old Boys Tennis Club in Switzerland.

Ultimately, unlike George Foreman, Pete Sampras wasn’t the kind of celebrity that would be embraced by Americans enough to lead to a successful product. Sampras was, like Federer, a symbol of privilege. He represented country club training and the luck of a prodigy. He wasn’t like Foreman, a poor kid from Houston who dropped out of school and made it big throwing punches then became a Baptist minister. Sampras was known for taking up tennis before he could read. That’s genetics. Foreman was known for battling the odds to make a comeback at age 38. That’s hard work, and Americans love hard work up until the point when it tries to unionize.

It’s a shame, because if Codemasters does anything right, its simulation/arcade hybrid sports titles. Their F1 series is quite beloved, though F1 is ignored in America for largely the exact same reasons as tennis [citation: Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Dir. Adam McKay. Perf. Will Ferrell, Sacha Baron Cohen. Sony Pictures. 2006. Film.] They hitched their hopes of American success to the wrong American. If only they’d found the right celebrity endorsement, maybe we’d still be buying Codemasters tennis games.

Next time, think about who Americans admires. I suggest going out of the box and shocking the states with the one thing they can’t get enough of: those guys on Duck Dynasty.

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2 thoughts on “Experiences in Old Sports Games: Pete Sampras Tennis

  1. I love Pete Sampras. I have been a fan of his for a long time. I have played tennis since I was little. I was always disappointed in the tennis facilities at most colleges. I was so excited to hear that Mark Hurd f is working hard to revitalize tennis at the collegiate level but he is also trying to improve American tennis overall. He has plans to sponsor collegiate tournaments, create a new American tennis circuit, and possibly start a junior academy in California. I think that Mark Hurd is really going to turn this sport around.

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