• A new Madden ignores and confronts all the NFL’s problems
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08.28.14

A new Madden ignores and confronts all the NFL’s problems

The truth is, I’m pretty conflicted about the NFL these days. It started with the violence. Concussions are causing players’ brains to atrophy, and the explosive collisions are mauling their ligature, leading to horrific debilitation in retirement. On one hand the league says they are working to improve the safety, but they relish in the bloodsport, and aggressively market the violence that is making it the most popular sport in the United States. I used to cheer for a big hit, but I know better now. These days, the violence makes my stomach turn.

The violence makes my stomach turn. 

Then there’s the issue with the Washington Football Team. No, I will not write the team name, because it is so obviously derogatory. And yet the owner remains firmly entrenched, defending a ridiculous position while the commissioner of the league denies that the governing body has any responsibility to force a change.

And then Ray Rice, one of the top running backs in the league, is recorded on security camera knocking his fiancee unconscious, and dragging her out of a Las Vegas elevator. The video is hard to watch, to say the least.

The NFL punished Rice with an appallingly short two game suspension. Two games. To offer some contrast, wide receiver Josh Gordon failed a test for marijuana, and was suspended for a whole year, a total of 16 games. The disparity is disturbing, and the lack of accountability for a clear case of domestic violence is, to be frank, disgusting.

It’s all so much to digest, and it adds up quickly. When I think of the NFL these days, what immediately comes to mind are all the ways that I am offended or disgusted or horrified. I didn’t watch many games on television last year, and I don’t know if I’ll watch much this year.

So I really don’t know what to expect from playing Madden NFL 15 this year. I’m feeling pretty done with the NFL as a fan.

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Madden NFL 15 begins brilliantly. The opening sequence ranks among some of the best I’ve seen in sports videogames, rivaling even the Jordan themed opening sequence to NBA 2K11.

The scene fades in from black, a tracking shot running along the field and up to the defensive huddle of the Carolina Panthers and their star linebacker Luke Kuechly. We are in a speculative future, an NFC Championship game in January of 2015 between the Panthers and the reigning champion Seattle Seahawks, whose defensive star Richard Sherman graces this year’s cover.

I’m struck by the production of the cutscene. The combination of camerawork and the orchestral score, with timpani rolls and french horn blares, is the masterwork of Brian Murray, a cinematographer for NFL Films, hired to collaborate with EA. The presentation works wonderfully. It is an immediate televisual nod that people who have spent much time watching football will recognize. The same dramatic camera work is used between plays during games in Madden NFL 15, and it reinforces the relationship between the videogame and its televised counterpart. Jim Nantz is setting the stage in his silky-smooth, well-rehearsed sportscaster cadence—he’s smarmy, but comfortably familiar. My brain rushes with thoughts of the grandeur and majesty and all the other hyperbolic, triumphant bullshit that is thrown at you in NFL Films. I put the controller in my lap, then flex and contract my fingers on both hands, making my knuckles snap. I’m alone in my unfinished basement, and I cast an incredulous side-eye to nobody, or maybe to the game itself. Seriously?

The Panthers' defense shuts down the Seahawks' offense, Kuechly sacks Wilson, forcing a fumble, and just like that you are thrown into the game. Down by five points, and with only 1:23 left in the 4th quarter, you’re entreated to drive the Panthers' offense into the endzone to win the game. I pull it off, but it is not easy. Celebrations ensue on the field, and I’m pretty pleased with myself at this point.

But I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop. Madden offers a sanitized technicolor version of football—it’s glitzy and gorgeous, shiny and loud, but without the concussions and the paraplegia, without the domestic violence and hyper-masculine rage, without the victims of racism and the good-old boy network of power players. For the time being, I’m content to play in this space, knowing it’s a farce. I’m looking at a waist-up mirror reflection of the NFL. I’m gazing at Tom Brady’s beautiful torso and face, while the scarred and maimed legs—the carriage that does all the hard work—remains hidden from view.

I'm looking at a waist-up mirror reflection of the NFL. 

Madden NFL 15 is gorgeous, like no football videogame I’ve seen before. The lighting is spectacular, with the amber glow of an early autumn afternoon sunset shining on the helmets and uniforms. Player models have improved greatly too. Consider, if you will, necks.

In the real world, people have necks of varying length. Some people have a longer, slender neck, others a shorter, wider one. For years, the Madden player models all had the same short stubby neck, hidden behind tall shoulder pads, which made all the players look similar, despite different heights and builds. This year it’s amazing the difference a neck can make on a character model. Tall players look taller. Even short, lean players look more like their real life counterparts.

I run through some drills, stopping backs on their way to the end zone. This highlights the game’s defensive mechanics, which werean area of focus for this year’s title. A new, over-the-shoulder camera is introduced on the defensive side of the ball, to go along with an updated block shedding mechanic, and new tackling controls. They gel perfectly, and for the first time in a long while, I really feel a sense of agency on defense. In years past, getting off blocks as a lineman or linebacker felt indiscriminate. Now, with an ability to influence the shape of the line of scrimmage through pushing, a new jumping-the-snap mechanic keyed to the right trigger, and an effective button prompt for power or finesse moves, playing as a defensive linemen feels more significant. Even if you are not in on the tackle, filling gaps, and collapsing the pocket on a play gives you the sense that you’ve contributed to the play, which is a very important development for the Madden franchise.

As a result, however, defense might be a bit overpowered. (Remember Richard Sherman, standing imposingly on this year’s cover.) I have played many games, on varying difficulty levels, where the sack totals for a team have been pushing double digits, which would be extraordinary in a real full-length football game. There are obviously settings that can be manipulated in the games to fine-tune this, as with all sports simulation games, but at the default settings getting pressure on the quarterback feels just a bit too simple.

The game is deep as ever, as is expected of modern console sports simulations. The connected franchise mode remains the place for career modes, whether as a player, coach, or owner, and the experience system has been modified some, though it remains unsatisfying compared to the exhaustive, (but easy to understand) systems in recent installments of the MLB: The Show and NBA2K series. I decide to dig into the franchise mode by playing as the Patriots' coach, to try to bring my favorite team back to the Super Bowl.

The menus are exhaustive, as the mode is deep, and it is a reminder of the extensive literacy required to play a modern console sports simulation. Navigation through the system, and even understanding how the various elements in a franchise mode work, depends on the player having an extensive knowledge of the history of the game, and the development of the different game modes. Even the descriptive language intended to help guide the player are written for the sports game player. It’s no different than a complicated RPG system, or even the menus in an FPS, but it is a reminder that sports simulations are designed by and for a very specific kind of audience, and there are some significant barriers to entry.

Never interested in skipping through, I play through the first pre-season game, and it’s an excellent, relatively low risk way to get my bearings in the game. The televisual presentation throughout is spectacular, with a brand new opening featuring a very slick animated transition to the establishing shot of the stadium. Phil Sims and Jim Nantz are back, and as creepy as ever, and while the two-shot showing the commentators is a standard trope in sports television broadcasts, I wish Madden would give up until their models look better. There’s obviously a resemblance to the popular football duo, but their digital versions are as cold and dead, their motion as erratic as a Disney World animatronic.

Passing on the higher difficulty levels is a challenge, but a welcome one. I throw many more interceptions learning to play Madden NFL 15, but it is teaching me to be more careful, and more methodical, which resonates with how football is really played in the NFL. There’s a touch more time in the pocket than I’m used to, and that helps me to be patient and look for an opening, but I begin to panic as the pocket collapses and nobody is open. It is then when I wish Tom Brady were a more mobile quarterback.

I win my first pre-season game on a field goal, which feels great. Kicking has received a subtle change this year, and both punting and field goals are no cake walk. A disappearing trajectory marker, and a new mechanic timing the snap of the football to the release of the thumbstick make the kicking game more engaging than in years past. It’s a small change, but meaningful, as I now feel a renewed sense of purpose and agency kicking the ball. Patriots beat the Washington Football Team, 24–21.

The Washington Football Team.

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This game is mocking me, trying to test me. I’m having fun playing, enjoying football again, but Madden and the NFL want to make sure I’m buying in.

Any sports fan with a heart learns at some point to compartmentalize, for survival. How else do we continue to love something in spite of its flaws? This is true not just for sports fans, but fans of all kinds. With any media we learn to love, eventually we have a coming-of-age moment where we see the unsavory, or even disturbing side to what we enjoy, and understand that the objects of our affection are not perfect. Sometimes we box that knowledge off. We talk about it, write about it, criticize and argue for change. But then we tune in, pick up the comicbook, and turn on the console anyway.

Madden NFL 15 is an excellent football videogame, and it makes it easy to compartmentalize the ugliness of the NFL apart from the game of football itself. In Madden there is no news about domestic violence from the players in the game, or suspensions for recreational use of marijuana. In Madden, when a player retires, he simply dissolves into the digital ether of the game save, at best a memory of previous accomplishments. There’s no brain damage or crippling injury for retired Madden players, and they don’t need a pension plan. There are fake commercial breaks in Madden, but there isn’t wave after wave of gendered, sexualized beer commercials featuring a homely man on a couch mistreating his supermodel wife. Madden is highly sanitized, anesthetized football, which makes it palatable, and actually enjoyable.

Compartmentalizing media into good and bad is easy, because we can responsibly fight for change of the bad, and continue enjoying what we love. But we must all set personal thresholds—boundaries that, if crossed, change our relationship to the content. At some point, when our “bad” compartment overflows, we must consider whether our consumption and support for content makes us complicit in the harm, hurt, and offense produced.

I may take a higher moral ground, and complain here or on Twitter about how horrible the NFL has become, but to a marketer, I am simply eyeballs on a screen or hands on a controller. Wearing my Patriots shirt, I am a walking billboard for the sport.

This is not easy calculus. I cannot simply add up either side of the supposed moral ledger, and decide that I can watch football on Sunday, or play Madden, because I have done enough to support women’s rights, because I have donated to a charity, or because I have decided with my spouse that we won’t let our son ever play organized tackle football. I cannot easily decide that watching football, or following the sport, or playing Madden, which directly supports the league, has been sufficiently counterbalanced by the “good deeds” I have done. If only our ethical accounting were so simple. There are so many actors influencing the shape of the sport, from the league commissioner, to the players, to the fans, to the guy writing a review of a videogame, and power manifests in different ways to different communities.

If only our ethical accounting were so simple. 

Madden NFL 15 is beautiful and intoxicating. It presents a sanitized version of football that reminds me of what I love about the sport. I love the skill, and the balletic athleticism required to play at the top level. I love the fall weather, and the wide green rectangular field. I love the symphony of football, so present in this year’s videogame, with the oomph of horn fanfare and the thunderous rumble of timpani. I love the dirt, and the way the soiled uniforms tell the story of the game. I love that AC/DC’s “Thunderstuck” plays before kickoffs. I love the oblong ball, and the subsequent odd bounces. I love the sport.

But even Madden can’t shake the weight of the NFL. Staring at the feather-clad silhouette of a caricature of a Native American, the controller on the floor, I’m reminded that even the cleanest version of American professional football can’t shake off the residue of decades of collected filth.  

Madden NFL 15 is a truly impressive football videogame, and probably the best I’ve ever played.

But it is still the NFL, and I am still figuring out what that means to me.