Editor's Choice

Editor's Choice
Football as Madden 07

Jon Schnaars | 24 Oct 2006 08:01
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Fans of American football have enjoyed the NFL since the league was founded in 1920. And in recent years, the NFL has not been shy about its ambitions of spreading into new global markets and expanding its offerings beyond the games played between September and February. The league's own television network was established in 2003, and for the first time, the NFL began producing original content and taking greater control of their brand. Their website has also become a force on the web, with a stable of writers and former-player-commentators who churn out proprietary content to compete with the very sports journalists who had previously served as the default voice of the league.

Likewise, ESPN has firmly established itself as the "World Wide Leader" in sports coverage. After years of success with one cable channel, they've expanded to six, as well as ESPN Plus coverage, two HD simulcast channels, a pay-per-view network and an international channel. ESPN now also appears on Disney's broadcast network, ABC. The sports entertainment line now extends far beyond the reach of the cathode tube, too: The ESPN family includes one of the most highly trafficked sites on the web, a book imprint, a restaurant chain and a magazine, among other endeavors.

Through the work of both ESPN and the NFL, football fans can now look to virtually any medium in search of the pigskin-centric entertainment they crave. Videogames, however, a $10 billion dollar industry, presented a new and in many ways underutilized market for football content producers. In this new era of convergence, videogames represented a keystone that would help the NFL and ESPN create fans in their ideal image.

Convergence as Fandom
Now, I've spent months, if not years, of my life playing EA's Madden games. I very distinctly remember the edition that sent me over the edge, from a mere Madden player to Madden devotee: It was Madden 96.

To casual players, the game probably didn't seem all that different from previous years. Sure, the graphics changed slightly, giving the players a lankier look than before, and the rosters had been upgraded, but otherwise, it was just business as usual for a new edition. The one element that changed dramatically, however, was the player creation section. The ability to create a player from scratch has always been one of the features to which sports gamers are drawn. When you get bored or just need a break from standard play, you can start to mess around with different body shapes and abilities: the plodding RB, the outrageously tall QB, the wrecking ball D-end. The act of designing a character and then using him in game situations brought a new level of agency to the game; as if you were playing with part of yourself.

Madden 96 threw a monkey wrench into the works, though. Instead of designing your player by adjusting his stats as you liked, you had to run him through a batch of drills to determine his attributes. It may have seemed almost counterproductive because it forced gamers to focus a lot of attention on a non-integral part of the game, but what I saw was a whole new connection with my creations.

My fictitious players were no longer merely numbers on a slider to be adjusted at my whim. They were products of hard work and often tireless practice. If you made it through three drills, your player excelling at each, but then flubbed the pass catching drill, well, you had a piss poor receiver on your squad. Players took shape not just in your imagination; it still played its part of course, but these fictional characters were now being grown in the reality of the game.

This feature was gone by Madden 97, most likely to conserve precious memory in what were still rather puny cartridges, but we can find the ancestors of those old features in today's game. The player creation drills made possible the idea of mini-camp drills, which were added in 2003, and more recently, the Superstar mode that debuted in last year's edition. In fact, one might view Superstar mode as the direct descendent of Madden 96's player creation process.

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