The Meaning of Madden

No one gives a shit about sports video games. Granted, they sell extremely well. The top franchises-Madden, FIFA, MLB The Show-all bring in plenty of money. Even games based on staged sports do well, as evidenced by the success of the yearly WWE entries and NBA 2K series.  But no one cares about sports video games. They occupy a space long-derided by serious sports fans and serious video game fans alike.

To the sports fan, a video game is a dilution of the experience. It may technically reproduce every aspect of a football or baseball game, but ultimately the simulation rings hollow. Besides, why don’t you just go outside and play the game for real, loser?

Alex Rodriguez

This image basically sums up baseball right now.

To the video game fan, sports games represent everything wrong with the medium.  They were the unoriginal, uninspired, mass-market, annualized plague on gaming even before the was a new Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed on the shelf every November.  They are regurgitated every year, with little more than a roster update and a few new features to slap on the box. Besides, why don’t you just play a real game, like Shadow of the Colossus, mouthbreather?

So despite the fact that sports games are some of the most successful titles, and have kept Electronic Arts afloat after a coke-fueled bender in which the board decided to bet the future of the company on BioWare’s writing staff, they don’t get much attention from either of their core audiences.  No matter how entertaining or technically proficient, they are not placed alongside the classics in any evaluation of video games as a medium.  Instead, they live in the ghetto of casual gaming, in a sketchy-looking apartment complex just down the street from the Candy Crush Payday Loan.

But I care about sports games. Here’s why: sports games are some of the few video games not completely lost to the hyperreal.  If Umberto Eco ever sat down with a Xbox for a few hours, he’d probably update Faith in Fakes with a new final essay that just read “Fuck you, I’m out” and run screaming into the woods never to be seen again.

To become a Model Reader of this text we must first choose no items, Fox only, Final Destination.

To become a Model Reader of this text we must first choose no items, Fox only, Final Destination.

An example: the most recent two releases in the Medal of Honor series purported to be based upon the actual details of modern military operations. The questionable ethics of this aside, these games were nothing of the sort.  They were imitations with no original, copies of copies of copies, so removed from any representation of reality that they became grotesque parody. The new MoH aped almost everything from the Call of Duty single player campaigns, which as linear parades of over-the-top set pieces, do nothing but try and continually reproduce the Invasion of Normandy sequence from, naturally, Medal of Honor: Allied Assault.  As if this wasn’t bad enough, Allied Assault was just a pastiche of the battle as portrayed in the film Saving Private Ryan.

That is just an example, and while there is plenty more to say about how modern military shooters affect our view of war, that’s another story. This is about sports video games, which is clearly more important on both a personal and global scale.

Actual screenshot from The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct

Most video games are basically power fantasies, and sports games are no exception. Even if your arm topped out at 70 mph in high school, you can rack up strikeouts in MLB The Show. No matter your concussion history, you can make tackle after tackle in Madden 13. And while the most you accomplished in theatre was getting cast as the understudy of a chorus member in your high school musical, you can still lead your team to the Finals in NBA 2K13.

However, unlike most games, the fantasy that the sports game is attempting to provide is, theoretically, achievable in real life.  No one has killed a dragon, or saved a princess from a horde of sentient lizards and fungi, or single-handedly defeated Russia in a global war.  None of those things have ever happened.  Despite what the Heritage Foundation would like you to believe about Ronald Reagan, those lizards were not sentient.

But the events depicted in sports games are real.  Someone has thrown a touchdown pass, hit a home run, or done whatever it is that’s supposed to be cool in soccer. All those things are possible, but exceedingly difficult. The challenge in accomplishing those goals is in overcoming real world obstacles, and a big part of a sports video game is reproducing those obstacles.

And this is where sports games get interesting. Unlike Medal of Honor, in which developers are trying to make the experience more like Call of Duty’s take on two decades of the shooter genre, the creators of Madden are trying to make their games more reflective of reality. The closer the game gets to the actual sport, in theory, the more fans will enjoy it. But the physical inputs they are working with-the timing (sometimes intensity) of button presses and the movement of two control sticks-simply don’t have the margin for error associated with the corresponding physical activity triggered by those inputs. It’s way easier to press a button and aim a stick than it is to throw a ball. So they rely on tricks to increase the difficulty.

This is the reason MLB The Show added pressure sensitive throwing buttons to the fielding controls and pulse pitching. It’s the reason Madden implemented the ill-advised “vision cone” for quarterbacks. It’s why FIFA debuted a physics engine that led to some rather shocking images and video.

WHY DID WE PLAY AT BEING GODS?

WHY DID WE PLAY AT BEING GODS?

Not all of these developments work.  Some, like the vision cone, end up adding a layer of ugly, cumbersome game bullshit that put an additional barrier between the player and the desired results.  Some people still swear by the cone as a way to engage player skill and differentiate quarterbacks, but for the most part it was a failure.  Other developments, like the analog pitching in the otherwise properly-maligned MLB 2K series, have fared better.

This is also why sports games have ever more elaborate systems of evaluating players, and applying those evaluations to gameplay.  How do you give the user full control of the game, while also making it easier to play as Miguel Cabrera than it is to play as Rob Johnson?  This is a huge challenge that largely goes unappreciated.

Because the goal is to recreate reality, or at least provide the player with an experience that feels true to the sport, the decisions and care that go into a sports game is actually far more interesting than what goes into the next Halo or Elder Scrolls or whatever near-future third person shooter Ubisoft wants to make into the next big franchise this year.

So because I can’t think of any better ideas for this blog, I’m going to go back and play some old sports video games. And write about them.  It may be the dumbest idea ever, but at the very least it will set a nice baseline for other dumb ideas I might have in the future, like cat-sized Cardinals jerseys stitched with the name “Meowjica” or cheering for the St. Louis Rams.

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