Experiences In Old Sports Games: Madden 2003

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was seated in my junior year English class, listening to someone struggle to read a portion of The Scarlet Letter. I look back on that moment and I wonder two things. First, how much has the world changed  because of what happened in New York, Washington DC, and the skies above Pennsylvania that morning? Second, why in God’s name were we wasting time by reading aloud in a high school level English class?

Since the events of that morning, we have lived in what Op-Ed columnists call a “Post-9/11 World”. They use this phrase to denote a loss of innocence, or perhaps an abandonment of naïveté, brought about by a vicious attack carried out in a method that only Tom Clancy saw coming.

My first day in the Post-9/11 World was not my proudest. I deal with tragedy the same way I deal with everything else, by making jokes, and my sixteen year-old self didn’t possess nearly enough tact to handle this properly. Just hours after the collapse of the twin towers, I pitched an updated version of the classic cartoon “Rocky and Bullwinkle” which would reflect a new geopolitial era. Boris and Natasha were replaced by Bashir and Nadirah. They hailed not from Pottsylvania, but the middle-eastern nation of Pottistan. Their nefarious plans to destroy American monuments were foiled by the heroic moose and squirrel as well as their own ineptitude, like when they failed to blow up the St. Louis riverfront because their twin-engine biplane kept flying through the Arch rather than into it.

For his next trick, Rocky is going to turn Bullwinkle into an open-ended authorization for use of military force.

For his next trick, Rocky is going to turn Bullwinkle into an open-ended authorization for use of military force.

Never mind that I predicted a decades-spanning, open ended conflict with an ill-defined religion and culture, this wasn’t something I should have been discussing openly. But I wasn’t alone in my poor judgment. A lot of bad decisions were made on that day, and in the coming weeks, such as the passage of the Patriot Act and the institution of God Bless America during the seventh inning stretch.

Everything changed on that day.  Al-Qaeda became a household name.  The United States entered two wars, one of which didn’t really have anything to do with 9/11 other than geography.  Immigration to the United States plummeted. The climactic scene of every romantic comedy, in which the protagonist rushes through the airport to stop their one true love from boarding a plane to the other side of the country, had to be awkwardly rewritten.

Released just three weeks before 9/11, the film Summer Catch ends with a climactic airport scene in which Freddie Prinze Jr. dashes to an airport gate and stops Jessica Biel from leaving by impressing her with a home-made box cutter.

Released just three weeks before 9/11, the film Summer Catch ends with a climactic airport scene in which Freddie Prinze Jr. dashes to an airport gate and stops Jessica Biel from leaving by giving her four ounces of perfume and his lucky box cutter.

This brings me to the topic of this week’s piece: Madden 2003, the first post-9/11 entry in sports gaming’s biggest franchise. Now, I know what those of you who do not play Madden are saying: how the hell is Madden 2003 the first game in the series to release after September 11, 2001?  With the exception of Madden II, which did not release in 1 A.D., and this week’s Madden 25, which I sure hope did not release in 2024, games in the series have always been named with the year following release.  The reason for this is that John Madden suffers from a strange physical disorder that affects how he perceives time. He rarely speaks of it, because the nature of the disorder leads him to believe that he has already spoken about it at length and, as a consummate professional, he never wishes to bore people by telling the same story twice.

Imagine four turkeys stuffed inside one another.  Say a direct copy of the smallest turkey materialized around the table.  The outer turkey becomes the inner turkey.  Time works the same way.

Imagine four turkeys stuffed inside one another. Say a direct copy of the smallest turkey materialized on the outside. The exterior turkey becomes the interior turkey. Time works the same way.

Madden is, by its nature, an iterative series. That is the criticism most often levied against it, that each new title offers little more than a roster update and a few tweaks on the same game.  In many ways, Madden 2003 was a particularly incremental installment. It built heavily off of the version released two years prior, 2001, which was the first in the series to be developed for the PS2 generation. But there were some significant changes, and ultimately Madden 2003 is a reaction to the loss of control felt by millions of Americans following the events of September 11, 2001.

More than ever, Madden 2003 was a pure power fantasy for the typical American football fan. It allowed players to exert control over the sport that they love, filling the void left by the control they no longer believed they had over their own lives. The standard customization options from 2002 remain intact, with create-a-player and create-a-team modes giving football fans the ability to reinterpret the fabric of the league, and build a new universe free from the cold, harsh truths of reality forced upon them by the actions of terrorist and governmental actor alike.

Create-a-player allowed you to put anyone you wanted in the game.

Create-a-player allowed you to put anyone you wanted in the game.

2003 expanded this customization to playbooks. For the first time, fans could build their own formations and plays. For Americans who felt that the rest of their lives were suddenly being directed by the brutal playbook of Osama bin Laden, this was a welcome relief. Players could map out receivers’ routes, and then test them on the fly before implementing them in a real game, which appealed to the cautious nature of a country still reeling from a national tragedy.

Jets vs. Washington if you know what I mean

Jets vs. Washington if you know what I mean

Mini-camp and “Football 101” modes were added to the game, evidencing early attempts to improve the accessibility of the Madden franchise. One of the most common critiques of the series is its high barrier of entry. Iteration upon iteration has led Madden to become one of the most complicated video games outside of strange ASCII-based PC RPGs. These modes eased players into the complexity. The mini-camp games in particular, which picked out one very specific part of the game and called on players to repeat it for a higher score, were very helpful in teaching the mechanics of early 2000 era Madden. They also spoke to a strong need for preparedness that emerged after a deadly terrorist attack caught the entire nation off guard. On September 10, the entire country was like a rookie pounding the “Ask Madden” button on defense and we never saw the tight end streak coming. No one wanted to see that happen again.

Football 101 demonstrates that players with red/green colorblindness are subhuman and unworthy of instruction on the game of football.

Football 101 demonstrates that players with red/green colorblindness are subhuman and unworthy of instruction on the game of football.

While the aforementioned features appealed to our need for greater control, modifications to the Franchise mode reflected the stark awareness of an unpredictable world. The draft was now coupled with scouting reports that offered only a window into the potential of upcoming rookies. Player progression was now dynamic, rather than dictated by a single “potential” rating assigned to each player upon creation. This allowed for draft steals and busts, and acknowledged that if it was impossible to predict that foreign nationals could take control of multiple jetliners and steer them into otherwise well-guarded buildings, it was unrealistic to be able to predict the development of virtual footballers.

Ah yes I will draft this 6'6" quarterback in the first round that is exactly what I will do.

Ah yes I will draft this 6’6″ quarterback in the first round that is exactly what I will do.

With Madden 2003, EA introduced a new feature that would eventually be used throughout its sports and racing titles “EA Trax”. This was just a fancy name for a partnership with a number of music labels, allowing EA to use licensed songs in its products, and labels to advertise bands in popular EA games. Generally, EA Trax were a mixture of well known artists with up and coming bands sprinkled in. In Madden 2003, popular mainstream artist Bon Jovi headlined, but the game was used to promote a number of bands that (at least in 2002) were less known, including the Nappy Roots and OK Go. But anyone who played a lot of Madden 2003 probably remembers only one song:

Madden cards were the gamification of games before Steam trading cards were even a twisted seed in Gabe Newell's mind.

Madden cards were the gamification of games before Steam trading cards were even a twisted seed in Gabe Newell’s mind.

The immaculate blond coif of Jon Bon Jovi aside, the real coup of EA Trax was Andrew W.K.’s 2001 hit “Party Hard.” It was the first song that played every time the game booted up, and set a frenetic pace for everything that would follow, even if it was often the somewhat dull task of roster management.

Now, I could write an entire blog post about Andrew W.K., who is a classically trained pianist, new age hippy, and the son of the law professor who wrote my Property casebook but made his name playing head-banging hard rock anthems. Everything about him, from the calculated formulaic nature of all his songs to the bizarre hoax/controversy claiming he was an actor playing a part, makes Andrew W.K.’s career almost feel like a satirical performance art piece. Some people pore over the 9/11 Commission report and say that there is a cover up because jet fuel can’t melt steel girders. I look at Andrew W.K. and assume something is wrong because no one man could ever party that hard.

If you examine the pixels, it is clear that one of these Cheetos is actually the wreckage of a cruise missile.

If you examine the pixels, it is clear that one of these Cheetos is actually the wreckage of a cruise missile.

The biggest change to Madden, however was online play.  For the first time in the history of the franchise, players could hook up their consoles to the internet and challenge each other.  This was provided, of course, that they were some of the few who owned the PS2 network adapter.  This wasn’t a surprising development.  While the internet and internet gaming had been around for years, it was only around this time that broadband connections were becoming available and affordable to most Americans.  The adoption of internet play by Madden, the most mainstream of mainstream video games (despite its complexity) was indicative of the penetration of the internet into our everyday lives.

Whatever you do, do not image search "internet penetration" on the internet.

Whatever you do, do not image search “internet penetration” on the internet.

The internet as we know it–the fast, mostly reliable internet that provides us with streaming video and games that aren’t lagged to hell and web-based e-mail and bronies–is largely a product of the post-9/11 world. Its development from the days of AOL free trial CDs to device the size of a pack of playing cards streaming video through the air coincided with the rise of an era of paranoia, war, and fear. This is something that most people had forgotten until recently, and we were only reminded by the revelations about the extent to which the government was monitoring internet communications.

Now, of course the NSA isn’t watching you play Madden, and if they are, there certainly aren’t several agents laughing about your decision to go with that slant route on third down, falling just short of the marker even though you had to squeeze the pass into tight coverage. That’s absurd. They are watching people play FIFA because under the minimization procedures approved by the Court, enthusiasm for soccer is sufficient to determine that a communication is not based in the United States.

pw2

While it’s easy to write off Madden as a piece of cultural detritus consumed only by the popped-collar bottom feeders between downing bottles of Smirnoff Ice “ironically”, there is always something to learn about society from examining its most popular entertainment products. Whether it is EA Tiburon using the QB vision cone in 06 to comment on how media focuses the attention of the masses away from class conflict, or the glitchy, sensitive Infinity Engine in 13 and now 25 serving as an artistic representation of the damage caused to players’ bodies by the everyday contact of football, Madden can teach us about the the way we perceive the world.

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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.