Writing last August about the release of Madden NFL 2006 in his column, “The Daily Quickie,” former ESPN.com contributor Dan Shanoff made a stirring declaration: “Virtual is the new reality.” A postmodern statement if ever there was one, Shanoff explained this remark by explaining that in today’s football environment, the action in Madden’s reality meant as much to some fans as the plays that transpired around the country between Sunday and Tuesday.

As tended to be his modus operandi, Shanoff was challenging “the purists who think the only thing that matters is the one on the TV screen on Sundays.” Fandom, he quipped, was a full-time job, the burden of which fell to football-centric activities throughout the NFL’s week-long droughts: Videogames and fantasy leagues carried fan interest from week to week, and in the case of games, over the seemingly interminable off season.

Videogames have altered the football landscape in ways that could not have been predicted when 10-Yard Fight hit arcades in 1983. Over the past five years, Electronic Arts, the NFL and ESPN have leveraged Madden, football’s flagship game series, to solidify a sports entertainment empire that encompasses what is one of the premier examples of media convergence. And in so doing, they created a new breed of NFL fan, one that seeks to know and consume football entertainment beyond his own market; a fan that devours up-to-the-minute stats and injury reports, competes in six fantasy leagues and dies a little inside when his team loses the Super Bowl.

Shanoff is a writer who likes to paint with a broad brush and speak in absolutes. In this case, however, his seemingly pithy comment contained depth beyond what most game critics have collectively said about the best-selling series in gaming history – he just might not have realized it. Accepting his axiom as truth, the question we might ask is why? Was the stirring loyalty and emotion that fans felt for their videogame teams merely the result of a few overzealous gamers, or were their reactions, and indeed interactions, rooted in something much deeper?

Madden 07 as Convergence
In December 2004, EA signed what may go down as one of the most profitable development deals in history when it came to terms on a five-year contract with the NFL and NFL Players’ Association (NFLPA). By signing this agreement, EA secured exclusive rights to include the NFL’s teams, stadiums and players in its games. This strategic move meant that EA no longer needed to worry about competitors, and left them to focus on building out their NFL-related offerings. Likewise, the deal gave the NFL a measure of security, as they knew their brand would be attached to a popular, established franchise.

A month later, EA followed up the NFL deal with an even larger one: a 15-year exclusivity deal with the ESPN media brand. Since its first telecast on September 7, 1979, ESPN has permeated virtually every possible media platform from print to the web and most recently, mobile phones. Just as Madden NFL has come to be synonymous with football gaming, ESPN defines sports journalism and entertainment for an entire generation of fans.

By bringing together all three parties, Madden 07 provides a penetrating look at media convergence at work. In his recent book Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins, director of MIT’s Program in Comparative Media Studies, defined media convergence as “the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries and the migratory behavior of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want.”

Convergence can work in many directions and can be spurred by many different parties, but in the case of Madden, the NFL, ESPN and EA had constructed a holy grail, an irresistible package that would draw droves of football fans into the franchise. As Jenkins states, “convergence represents a cultural shift as consumers are encouraged to seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content.” Madden provides the blueprint to that search.

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.

In Superstar mode, you take control of a player from the very beginning of his career – even going so far as to choose the DNA pool that most adequately fits your vision for your new player. Run him through drills, participate in some interviews and take an I.Q. test before heading to the draft. Perform well and you might work your way into a high selection and a potential role in your team’s game plan – otherwise, enjoy your time on the bench.

Superstar mode represents a massive step in the move toward media convergence. In the game space, you inhabit your new player’s apartment. Check your cell phone, surf the web for stats and even manipulate your appearance in the mirror – it’s all part of the day-to-day life of an NFL player. There are also milestones to achieve, and unlike the goals of traditional season or franchise modes, the goals in Superstar mode are of a personal nature. Sign with an agent, meet specific performance goals, earn playing time. The overall success of the team becomes less important in this regard.

This subjection of the team’s performance in favor of the individual marks an important distinction in the grand scheme of the NFL as sports entertainment. If each fan, viewed from the perspective of the NFL and ESPN, is a potential consumer, a major goal of both organizations is to broaden the consumer’s interest in the product. Die-hard team loyalists, those most hardcore of the hardcore fans, aren’t necessarily the best consumers. If his hometown team tanks over the course of a long season, there’s a strong chance that consumer’s interest will fade, not to say anything of what could happen if an entire fan base was to become disenchanted over the course of several seasons (I’m looking at you, Cardinal fans). Instead, it is beneficial to create greater market opportunities for football in general.

Superstardom is one of the most palatable ways that happens. We see it with the overemphasis on flashy players like Chad Johnson or in the drowning buildup around certain games (The Manning Bowl, T.O. returns to Philly). These are narratives centered on characters that any fan can appreciate, and they help guarantee that even though Oakland might not win a game, Oakland fans will still tune in to Sportscenter or the NFL Network to see what happened with the story of the week. Because we buy into these stories, we then search out more information as we consume football entertainment via any number of mediums.

This type of entertainment has been evolving for years, but it is only with the proliferation of the web and the strength of end-of-life editions on current consoles that we can truly see the critical role that games like Madden play in the convergence shaping fans’ experience. In Madden‘s Superstar mode, you are challenged with writing an individual player’s narrative, always striving for that most glorious of achievements, the Hall of Fame. The feature’s very inclusion in the game points to the stake that EA, and by proxy the NFL and ESPN, has in continuing to establish this type of connection with their audience.

Fandom as Football
While the use of Superstar mode as an example may make it seem as if I’m painting these trends in a negative light, the opposite is true. The upsurge in entertainment related to professional football has meant that even the smallest of niche followings are served. Sure, we have to put up with egocentric end zone celebrations and weekly stories about Brett Favre’s possible retirement, but this new atmosphere has created new markets for creative corporate and independent content producers. It has led to the proliferation of fantasy leagues, which have brought in their wake entirely new journalism centered on statistics. For every fan, ESPN and the NFL have a story, and if they don’t, they’re working on one.

Our experiences playing the game help to shape our understanding of football more than any other single medium. As hardware has advanced, so too have the analytic tools we’re equipped with when we tune in to Sunday’s games. Madden NFL, quite literally, defines not only what we know – formations, route names, game management strategies – but what we need to know about the game. Madden doesn’t just set us on a path of discovery across new media, it shows us what exactly we should be looking for.

Superstar mode might serve as the strongest example of the convergence at work, but the Franchise mode illustrates more effectively how those convergences are working to redefine fandom. Individual players might get the headlines and help sell papers, but today’s fan knows that the real stories are in the game’s nuts and bolts. Blocking schemes, using the run to set up the pass, dropping lineman back on a zone blitz – these are concepts bantered about on pre-game shows and in beat writers’ columns, but in Madden, they are game plans and strategies to be utilized or ignored.

In Franchise mode, though, you can go beyond the depth of on the field action to micromanage every aspect of your team. Everything from the salary cap to the price of parking has now become your concern, and this is reflected in the NFL-centric coverage that we find across other media. Even the recent fetishization of the amateur draft shows up in the game. ESPN has made a star of Mel Kiper Jr., a man whose entire year is spent researching and reporting on the NFL Draft that takes place over two days in April. He’s in the game, and he’s going to help you through your team’s draft. Get familiar, because ESPN hopes that you’ll seek out his real-life contributions and analysis when draft day rolls around.

These elements are no mere sideshow to the football action, either. I often find myself allowing the AI to simulate my games so I can focus more attention on the management aspects of the game. This spotlighting of the business serves to establish yet another potential niche of football that can be marketed and sold. The NFL Network stays on the air in the off season, and ESPN senior writers Len Pasquarelli and John Clayton need something to talk about as they make their daily reports over those long spring and summer months. Madden and EA’s partnership with ESPN has also helped springboard the latter’s newest web venture, ESPN Video Games, the fruit of another partnership with 1up.com that ESPN hopes will become your one stop shop for all things sports gaming. And what might you find there? How about write-ups of simulations of this week’s games run through Madden 07?

As has been their charge ever since John Madden lent his name to Electronics Arts, the game’s developers strive for realism, and that pays off in a football simulation that now so closely approximates the true NFL experience that Dan Shanoff can declare “Virtual is the new reality,” and ESPN can use simple game simulations as content. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that many of us take our Madden Franchises or Superstars so seriously – we’re just well informed consumers getting our football fix. Besides, in the real world, when my Eagles screw up, all I can do is scream myself hoarse at Andy Reid. Madden 07 offers me the chance to send him packing. It might be virtual, but it can still be therapeutic.

Jon Schnaars is a freelance writer with interests in genre and representation in gaming. He blogs full-time about issues in psychology and mental health for Treatment Online.

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