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Crazy SEGA Marketing: ESPN NFL Football

If you didn’t know, SEGA has had some pretty strange marketing campaigns for its games in the past. Just take a look at what it did with Seaman and Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games. Today, though, is about the 10th anniversary of one of SEGA’s strangest viral marketing campaigns it has ever done. It was for  ESPN NFL Football, otherwise known as NFL 2K4.

Strangely enough, you wouldn’t think a football game, especially one boasting both the National Football League and ESPN license, would need that creative of an advertising campaign, right? Well, it appears one of the features this marketing campaign was geared to showcase was Visual Concepts’ addition of the first-person mode, which put the camera inside the helmet of a player.

The basic idea of the viral marketing campaign followed the story of a young man, who lived in Orlando, Fla., and identified himself as Beta-7. He created a website where he journaled his experience as a beta tester for ESPN NFL Football. All it took was one session testing the game and strange things began to happen.

Beta-7 began to have episodes where he randomly blacked out. Friends who witnessed these episodes said that once he blacked out, he’d jump to his feet, get in a three-point stance and act like a football player, often violently crashing into walls or furniture. He even went so far as to set up video cameras in his home to record one of these episodes for evidence.

On the website, he adamantly stated he’s not a SEGA employee and everything is 100 percent legit. Of course, being on the Internet and all, meant the whole thing is fake.

“No, I don’t work for Sega, or anyone for that matter,” he wrote. “This is not a marketing campaign, it is a campaign to make a deceitful and dangerous corporation be held accountable for it’s [sic] actions. I’m sure Sega would like you to believe it’s a marketing campaign or a hoax, because then they will not have to take responsibility for what they have done.”

But hey, we’re not here to argue whether this was real or not. Reading through the website and his journal entries today, it’s fairly easy to see through the marketing ploy. The way he wrote, in an attempt to sound like a hip 20-year-old gamer, came off as forced and not too far off from those embarrassingly bad late ’80s and early ’90s TV shows where a white kid attempts to rap. Either way, though, it’s still incredibly interesting and a really fun piece of SEGA’s marketing history.

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Our story begins

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Here’s the invitation Beta-7 received from the mysterious woman.

Beta-7’s story began on March 21, 2003, when he wrote that an attractive young woman working for a company called Sunshine Survey Systems approached him and his friend while walking near a park and asked if they liked video games. After answering yes, she offered them an invitation to become a beta tester for “a groundbreaking and innovative sports game” by an unnamed company.

The next day, he followed the directions on the invitation to a “non-descript office park with like no signs anywhere.” (Starting to sound like an episode of Scare Tactics, eh?) Once inside, he and several other testers are greeted by an elderly gentleman in a lab coat who gives them their code names and explains several rules to participate in the program. Soon after, Beta-7 and Beta-8 are brought into a room that’s just “empty space with a concrete floor and unfinished drywall. There’s just a TV stand with a Xbox and a couple of crappy chairs in front of it and a camcorder and tripod off to the side.” It’s here where Beta-7 learns the game he’ll be testing is NFL 2K4.

He started off using the first-person mode, or as he calls it, the “Crash Cam.”

“The crash cam stuff is just SICK, looking out of the helmet and you see the arms and legs during passes and kicks,” he wrote. “It’s awesome. There’s a few little glitches here and there, and I feel a little dizzy during some of the tackles, but I guess thats kind of the idea. I’m thinking, ‘Screw that stuff I signed, there’s no way I CAN’T tell Rob about this game.’ Thats the last thing I remember thinking.”

This is when he experienced his first blackout.

“I open my mouth to speak, but I have trouble forming the words for a couple seconds,” he wrote. “My eyes focus a little better, and I see this big, burly rent-a-cop guy standing next to him. My head hurts and my heart starts to pound, cuz I don’t know what the hell is going on. Instinctively I try to bolt up, but the security guy sits me back down, kind of forcefully.”

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Beta-7 (left) play testing ESPN NFL Football while Beta-8 watches.

After the elderly man asked Beta-7 a series of questions, he finally pinpointed the reason for the blackout to his lack of sleep the night before. They escort him out of the building, telling him that he needs to go home and rest. Taking their advice, he went home, popped a few Tylenol PMs and fell asleep. The next morning, he grossly overslept and his boss was pretty pissed at him for being late for work. That’s not the worst part, though.

“As I’m talking on the phone with Pete, I realize that my whole body aches, like the day after a super-intense workout, but like 10 times as sore,” he wrote. “I can barely move my neck around. I go to scratch my leg and YOW! I look down and there’s a black bruise the size of a baseball on my right thigh. Now I’m like almost panicking.”

About a week passes, and everything began to return to normal for Beta-7; he’s back waiting tables and has even met a cute girl at work.

Until …

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Beta-7 passes out again.

“I get home, chill, kick back with a little Halo…and then it happens,” he wrote. “I hear, ‘Dude, what the hell are you doing?!?’ I open my eyes and I’m on the floor with the halogen lamp knocked over on the floor under me, and Jeremy is screaming at me, ‘Dude, what the hell, man, I just bought that lamp!'”

At this point, the website is beginning to garner readers and comments to each entry. One reader wrote,”I’ve never seen anyone put so much time into something so gay. Kinda reminds me of when Garth Brooks tried to be Chris Gaines.” Another simply commented, “This is a fraud.”

It appears that readers think the website is fake, but not really that it’s a viral marketing campaign meant to promote the game. And honestly, I can kind of understand their confusion because what company in their right mind would create a marketing campaign on a product and paint it and itself in an extremely negative light? Oh wait, this is SEGA we’re talking about, right?

Fast forward to April 17, 2003, and Beta-7 has experienced about five or six blackouts and decided to set up a camera to record what happened while he’s unconscious. “I’m going to tape myself just sitting around, watching TV, doing whatever until I have another blackout, and then maybe if I can see what I’m doing during these things or what triggers them maybe it’ll give me some clue as to what to do about them,” he wrote.

A couple weeks went by and nothing out of the ordinary happened. He sat at home most of the days going through the previous night’s tape. However, on April 27, he recorded his first episode where something strange happened.

“I’m sitting there playing NBA 2K3 when suddenly, I drop the controller, get up and crouch down into a 3 point stance,” he wrote. “I start yelling out a bunch of numbers like a NFL QB, and this is the part that really freaks me out, because it’s like I’m hearing somebody else’s voice. It’s like I’m possessed or something. I mean, like, if my voice was this deep in high school the chicks would of [sic] been all over me. Then I sprint forward, tear through the TV tray-table, and freaking tackle my CD rack. The CDs fly all over the place, and then I yell out this sort of victory cheer and then collapse on the floor for about 20 or 30 seconds, then I get up and check the tape. My right arm and wrist are all bruised.”

A new challenger arrives

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This is the list of the beta testers who were also there. He blacked out the names and addresses.

About a week later, on May 3, he received a package addressed to Beta-7. Once he opened the box, he found a VHS tape with a sticky note that tells him to check his email. The message is from someone with a “sega.com” e-mail address and calling himself Beta-X. It read, “Thought you might find this interesting. We have a lot of interesting things here. Attached PDF is of a document that has mysteriously “disappeared” from our server. Use this last copy wisely. – BETA-X ” The PDF is a listing of every beta tester involved in the program.

Afterward, he popped in the tape and watched. It was footage of his first beta test. “I see myself playing the game, then just like on my home video I drop the controller, crouch down, and tackle Beta-8 out of his chair, off camera,” he wrote. “There’s a lot of yelling, and the guy and girl with the clipboards come running across the screen after me. It’s still disturbing to watch and kind of creeps me out, but it doesn’t bother me nearly as much as the first video.”

He immediately wrote a reply to Beta-X but received a delivery failure upon hitting send. It seems like our story is taking another turn for the weird!

He decided to email SEGA, hoping that Beta-X may see it, but he received an auto-response that gave him some funny tips on how to fix his Dreamcast. After a couple more emails, he finally got something back on May 12. An email from Thomas that said that SEGA has no knowledge of the beta test, that they don’t conduct beta testing in Orlando and the videos he has sent them are fakes. Thomas then hilariously wrote that they’ll send him some free games as compensation.

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The location of the beta testing has now been deserted.

On May 13, Beta-7 convinced his friend Rob to drive him back to the site of the beta testing to get some answers. “The place was empty,” he wrote. “Walked around till I found the building manager. He said they never had a tenent [sic] called Sunshine Survey Systems, and the place I took the test had been vacant for 6 months!”

Obviously freaked out, Beta-7 went back home and emails all the other beta testers on the list he received from Beta-X. Most of the emails returned as failures, but he did get a reply from Beta-13. After a few back and forths, he finally got Beta-13 on the phone, and he confirmed that he had experienced the same blackouts as Beta-7.

“I told him we should team up and go after SEGA, strength in numbers and all,” he wrote, “but he just said he already had a plan in the works and that if he let me in on it might screw it up.”

The next day, Beta-7 received an e-mail from Beta-5, who, like himself and Beta-13, had been blacking out. Soon after, he gots a package from Beta-13. Inside is a VHS tape that showed surveillance video of him tackling an office worker while he was delivering mail.

The classic janitor job

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The first pieces of evidence Beta-13 manages to find as a night janitor at Visual Concepts.

On May 20, he received a call from Beta-13, who told him he got a job as a janitor at Visual Concepts. The plan is for him to snoop around at night in hopes of finding more information about the beta tests and the causes of their blackouts.

A couple days later, a big box arrived at his door from Beta-13. Inside was full of shredded paper, which appeared to be interoffice e-mails at Visual Concepts. “Inside the lid there’s a note taped that just says ‘Here’s your half, buddy. Grab some scotch tape.’ This is gonna be a loooong night.”

In late May, he Beta-5 called to inform him he’s working on hacking SEGA’s server in hopes of obtaining data. Beta-13 told him he was sending a box full of stuff he found while dumpster diving at Visual Concepts.

“Found a memo that says, ‘RE: BETA TEST, 3/22/03!!!’ Didn’t really give away anything specific, but said marketing would have to put the project ‘on hold’ until they ‘assess the situation,'” he wrote. “Hmm, what ‘situation’ could that be, Sega? The ‘situation’ where I went nuts and tackled the guy next to me!?!”

On June 3, he hit what he called “the jackpot.”

“An older memo that mentions not only the beta test, but SPECIFICALLY a beta test for NFL 2K4 in Orlando, to be conducted by Sunshine survey systems,” he wrote. “Also mentions that the test will study the game’s effects on “non-participating observers” which explains why the other guy wasn’t playing. We now have proof that Sega conducted the beta test in Orlando on March 22, something they specifically denied IN PRINT.”

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Beta-13 managed to steal some revision discs from Visual Concepts and send them to Beta-7 for further testing.

Weeks later, on June 19, he received a call from Beta-13 telling him he stole a box of “the 2K4 revisions from VC.” The following day, security guards were stopping each employee and searching them and their cars, so Beta-13 left before he could be checked and decided to never return. He also got the revisions from Beta-13, but they won’t play in his PlayStation 2 or Xbox. It looks like he needs a modded Xbox. A few days later, he got word that some men in suits were looking for Beta-13.

A friend brought Beta-7 the modded Xbox he was looking for, and he was finally able to give the latest version of the game a spin. “When I actually put the disc in the box, my stomach dropped and I was suddenly overcome with this feeling of…I guess you could say dread,” he wrote. “I mean, this is it. A revisit to what fucked me up in the first place. So far, no blackouts or anything out of the ordinary.”

The blackouts did come again, however, and on July 18, Beta-7 discovered a subliminal message hidden in the turf of the game that appeared to read “DESTROY.” This could be one of the reasons for the violent tackles the players exhibited while they’re unconscious.

Can things get weirder?

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It appears more testers had “bad experiences” with Visual Concepts’ games.

Fast forward to Aug. 25, and Beta-X mysteriously reappeared on the site’s forums and posted a link to a medical website, showing disturbing images of patients with severe bruises all over their bodies.

“It’s scans of research papers and photographs from gameplay tests done by some sort of medical research clinic in January 2003, commissioned by Visual Concepts,” Beta-7 wrote. “The site shows the files of 4 subjects who played in Crash Cam mode, and their side effects included bleeding from the eyes, symptoms similar to a stroke, seizures, foaming at the mouth, inexplicable bruising, and blackouts with memory loss.”

A couple days later, there was a video interview that Beta-13 sent Beta-7, where he “ambushes” ESPN NFL Football’s project manager Jeff Thomas. In the interview, Thomas said he had never heard anything about his game causing players to black out.

Now, here’s where things take a silly turn. The game’s cover star, Warren Sapp, has a couple videos where he provided a disclaimer for anyone playing the game, specifically saying “It will not lead you to unusual behavior, BLACKOUTS…”

On Sept. 5, the actual day ESPN NFL Football was released, Beta-7 decided to fly to San Francisco to meet with Beta-13 face to face.

However, several days went by and his friends and family hear nothing from Beta-7. Rob, who helped run the site for Beta-7, posted a couple updates asking Beta-7 to call him or his family because they’re worried.

And then on Sept. 12, the final update was published. It was by Rob again, and he explained what happened since Beta-7 left for San Francisco. He decided to go over to Beta-7’s apartment to investigate.

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This is the state of Beta-7’s apartment after he went missing.

“I rang the bell and knocked, and I could hear Lucky crying inside, but nobody answered the door,” Rob wrote. “I used my emergency spare key to get in, and saw that the apartment had been ransacked. Whoever had been there tore everything apart, looking for something. They took his CPU, a bunch of files in his desk, and his game consoles. All of his games and DVDs were tossed all over the floor. The beta discs, taped memos, and boxes of still shredded memos were all taken as well. Everything having to do with his fight against Sega was gone.”

Rob immediately called Beta-7’s mom and then the police.

“I’ve been cooperating fully with the police, I told them everything I know, showed them the site, what few files I had on my computer,” he wrote. “The airline verified that Beta-7 was on the flight to San Francisco on Friday, but not the flight back on Sunday. Since there was no sign of forced entry, I think the police believe Beta-7 did all this himself, ran away, and is hiding out somewhere. I have a feeling this is what his mother thinks as well. I told them I’ve seen him black out with my own eyes, and it’s for real, but I don’t think they believe me, either.

“I just know Sega had something to do with this, even though I can’t prove anything,” he concludes.

Farewell, Beta-7!

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The subliminal message reads “DESTROY” that Beta-7 found written in the turf.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the end to this absolutely insane marketing campaign for ESPN NFL Football. As far as we know, there has been no other information provided about Beta-7, including any admission by SEGA or Visual Concepts that they were actually behind this campaign.

Looking back, though, it’s things like this that made me love SEGA as much I as I do today. I mean, what other company out there, even outside of the video game industry, do you see doing something like this? This kind of lunacy is responsible for some of SEGA’s greatest games, like Seaman, Space Channel 5 and even Shenmue.

While we may never know Beta-7’s fate, we salute him for standing tall against the unholy juggernaut that is SEGA. If it’s any consolation to you, Beta-7, just know that EA bought the rights to the NFL and totally kicked the crap out of Visual Concepts and SEGA.

[Read below to see some of the emails and other interesting things they were able to discover.]

Chris Powell

Chris is the editor-in-chief at SEGA Nerds and Mega Visions Magazine. Over the years, he's written for publications like Joystiq, PSP Fanboy, RETRO magazine, among others. Oh yeah, he's also been a diehard SEGA Nerd his entire life.
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