Immensely popular and ridiculously lucrative, the Madden NFL series of video games is an entertainment behemoth. It is also forever and inextricably tied to its source material: the real, live version of the sport it simulates. It is the Christopher Reeve of video games, never really discussed on its own merits, but in light of how it represents its even more popular counterpart.
So if Madden is, ultimately, a video game, is it possible to enjoy it as such?
I like to consider myself a passive appreciator of football. If I’m with people watching a game, I’ll watch it, and have a good time. I think I know most of the rules. I’m a bit fuzzy on positions, and really don’t know a thing about strategy. Most of what I know regarding the reputations of players and teams comes from overheard conversations among friends and the first two seasons of The League.
But I love video games of all stripes, and wanted to know if I could play Madden cold through an entire football season. Make a campaign of sorts, where I start as an ignorant scrub and end as a strategic genius and marketing mogul. That sort of thing.
Here’s what happened:
For my season-long experiment, I elected to play Madden NFL 12. I’m not sure how well regarded that particular vintage of Madden is, but it’s the one I’m using because it’s the only one my little brother has and I really don’t want to pay for another. I could have used Madden 08—which I’ve had ever since my cousin forgot it at my house and I refused to return to him until he gave back my copy of Resistance—but newer is better, right?
The first thing that needs to be said about Madden is that it is confusing as hell.
The first thing that actually needs to be said about Madden 12 is that it uses the music from the Inception trailers for it's intro. Which is so hilariously pretentious. Look at it:
Okay, now that we've gotten that out of the way, we can move on to the second thing that needs to be said about Madden 12. Which is that it's confusing as hell.
There are way too many options, and you’re supposed to just know what they all mean. What’s Ultimate Team? I’m not sure, but I think it’s a card game? The intro mentions lots of cards and coins, but never outright says “This is a Card Game,” which I find troublesome. It is sponsored by Chevrolet, though I’m not sure why.
What I’m trying to look for is some kind of career mode or campaign, something with a beginning and an end that will give me some sort of path to follow. I think the closest one can get to that is Franchise mode. There’s also a Superstar mode, but I’m not sure it’s what I want. Right now I’m scared and confused and want a safe space with clear rules and boundaries and stuff. Basically anything but the main menu.
Speaking of menus, I hope you like them. If you got rid of the actual sports, Madden would still have enough content for a solid thirty-hour spinoff called NFL Menu Hydra. For every menu you clear out of, three more take its place. It’s pretty itense.
So, Franchise Mode it is. Franchise Mode starts at the team select screen, which I think is pretty logical. What team do I pick? I try to look at the overall rankings, but no team outright sucks. Every one of them is ranked eighty plus. So I decide that I would play as the Cincinnati Bengals, because I have never met a Bengals fan in my life and the home team Jets/Giants combo have ruined enough commutes for me to harbor a grudge.
Now I have a team. Should I fantasy draft? Yeah, why not? It always looks fun on The League. I’ll have a team that’s uniquely mine. I’ll win at Madden on my own terms.
Not once was I told that the draft was fifty rounds long. That’s obscene. That’s almost a full hour of gameplay. Sometimes, an hour is all I have to play. I began to wonder if I would have any actual football to write about this week. And then, noticing the wealth of positions that I do not know and feeling overwhelmed once more, I draft Adrian Peterson and set that sucker to sim.
I should note that I am not having fun yet. As the number of draft rounds grows larger and larger I start to regret this idea of mine more and more. The fantasy draft is a pit of hopelessness and despair from which there is no exit. I begin to kind of regret setting it to sim. I could have made this more fun if I had just drafted kickers for all 50 positions. Or safeties. I could have the safest team in the NFL. We’d have pads with extra padding and helmets with extra…I don’t know, helm. I should have brought a book.
Thankfully, a simulated fantasy draft doesn’t take as long as the real thing (Which is what, a weekend? Man it must be so boring), and as soon as it’s wrapped up I have a team! I’m not sure how good this team is or what it means for my prospects, but it’s better than not having a team. Perspective!
Now the preseason begins, which means I finally get to play! I’m beyond excited but also terrified (again) because I don’t know any of the controls. There are so many controls. And you have to learn them all at once. It’s overwhelming, which is a feeling I’m quickly getting tired of. For once, I’d like to just feel whelmed in this game. Just a good, steady stream of stuff I can handle.
Instead, I get the Detroit Lions. I don’t know how good the Lions are (or how good they were in 2011, when the game was released), but that doesn’t change the fact that I have the equivalent technique and and strategy of a two year old:
JOSHUA: “Give me the ball! I want it!”
THE LIONS: “No.”
THE LIONS: “GO TO YOUR ROOM!” *scores touchdown*
So I was really surprised when I won by twenty-two points (28-6). I double checked the difficulty, which was at “Pro,” and the controls, which I still didn’t understand because there was no “WIN” button. I decided not to investigate any further and just enjoy my victory.
I did understand one thing, though. When you’re winning and playing offense, Madden is fun as hell. Pass plays are scary because I don’t know any plays and pretty much don’t know where any receivers are going to be until they’re there, and run plays are exhilarating because you’re in control the entire time. Run plays are when Madden most feels like a game.
I don’t know what the hell to do when playing defense. Everyone seems to know where to be except the guy I’m controlling. I feel like I’m in the way or something.
I decide not to play again during the preseason. After all, it could be really long, and I actually want to catch up to the actual real-life football season and play one game a week, learning more about Madden as I go. So I sim the rest, and I’m ready to begin the regular season with a 3-1 record. My one loss was against the Indianapolis Colts, 14-12, at the very end. Great. I now had a nemesis. And a question:
What if I finish this thing and it turns out I really like football?