Interception: Gaming on the Gridiron

The jock. He’s six and a half feet tall, 300 pounds marinated in Coors Light, blue and white greasepaint covering two halves of his face respectively. The thought conjures up gut level revulsion from a majority of geeks, gamers and nerds, and so by extension the rise of sports gaming is regarded by much of the Mario set as a mysterious irritant, an emblem of the commercial aspect of the gaming world that is more comfortably forgotten.

But I am here to tell you it’s all right. It’s all right to like football. Because, as a form of play, it synthesizes key elements of hardcore game design ethic and exemplifies the drives that reach back through human history to the heart of recreation itself.

The Gridiron
Although its status as cultural phenomenon is undeniable – even college games can attract hundreds of thousands of fans – significant buy-in from the game industry was regarded in its early days as a business risk, even though much of the history of game development itself retains a deep connection with sports sims. Even Pong (and its predecessor, Tennis for Two), at its core, is a sports game, and more directly, Electric Football in 1949 – nearly 10 years before Tennis for Two – became the first game to incorporate electricity into its design.

In basic design, football is a well-oiled machine. Its rules, incorporating play length, number of plays, number of exchanges, areas required to advance and variations that disrupt a natural rhythm, combine to form a fast-paced action adventure that hits its audience with regular but unpredictable shots of adrenaline at edge-of-your-seat intervals. And from a physical action standpoint, football incorporates nearly every track and field discipline. Small wonder it was one of the earliest game sims.

Compared to many other sports, football is carefully balanced in terms of pacing and score. This comes down to numbers (the literal score) that regulate the adrenaline distribution of a game’s phases; hockey is intense but an average game will generally not gross more than a limp five points, while basketball is high-speed but so quick to score that any individual goal lacks the dramatic impact of a rarer victory (or one with a greater potential to be game-altering). Time figures in, as well, and there football separates itself from America’s No. 2 sport, baseball, a game that can literally be never-ending. Mainstream “golden ticket” football is also largely kept more dynamic through its salary caps and distributed draft process, resulting in a season-long narrative progression toward finding out which two teams will reach the Superbowl.

Although football itself did not rise to ascendancy until the early ’70s, fantasy football was born in the early ’60s and still thrives today, while Parker Brothers introduced board-based football simulation even earlier, in 1925. The Strat-O-Matic games that influenced thousands of young players – and many future game designers – are living proof that sports simulation needs no graphical input to engage the mind and imagination.

In terms of modern football viewing and discussion (a truly remarkable phenomenon involving, as far as I can tell, a language entirely separate from English), fans primarily engage in complex cognitive speculation about manager strategy, fantasy team-building, long term seasonal team trajectory and the potential outcomes of player chemistry and skill interaction on the field. This is a version of what James Paul Gee refers to as the “probe, hypothesize, reprobe, rethink” process – otherwise known as the scientific method, and key to the cognitive engagement that drives game passion.

Tell Me A Story
But it isn’t all numbers. Despite the success of stat-based sports simulations – and from a game history standpoint it is necessary to note the RPG itself owes its existence to these predecessor simulations – the progression of a sports season, and the progression of a given player’s career trajectory, ultimately tells a story. And with football making it onto the silver screen nearly every year since its rise in the ’70s, it becomes difficult to argue against the dramatic tension that emerges from the carefully balanced mechanics of the game. This is a keystone to the role of storytelling in interactive media: Mechanics create tension, and tension creates drama, the heart of compelling narrative.

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That’s right. Football is the guy’s soap opera. Listening to an enthusiast talk about his engagement with a modern football simulator makes this abundantly clear. He’s engaging in the exploration of possibility in variations through time, starting with a core interest point through which they have an emotional connection – usually a hometown. And the “home” effect on football is huge; most fans feel a family connection to teams from their hometowns, or even vicariously explore a loyalty to a desired living place through support of its sports teams. When a player picks up ESPN NFL 2K5, is he cognitively engaging to determine the most intellectually interesting possibilities among the options available? No. He’s moving immediately to select a favorite team; that has a lot more in common with selecting a Second Life avatar than a golf club.

Bottom line, electronic football enthusiasts are engaging in narrative play. It may not involve expansive voiceovers or branching dialogue, and that is exactly why it is the form of narrative most unique to video gaming: the kind of narrative that emerges from mechanical complexity.

But it isn’t just about relationships or Tiki Barber thumbing his nose at the city of San Diego, only to get traded for a defensive lineman that nearly took the Chargers to Super Bowl XLI. It’s a rags-to-riches story, too.

The American Dream
It goes without saying that football’s dominance is unique to the U.S., and some readers may only recently have realized I’m talking about the sport with the spandex and leather, not the shorts and the sphere. It is no coincidence, and American football will never be a truly international sport purely by dint of the expense of its maintenance; soccer requires a ball and a big field, while football involves a good 20 pounds of equipment per player, if not more, to say nothing of the rules complexities currently mediated in large part through technology.

But as can be seen in many traditional narrative interpretations of the sport, the story of football is one of team achievement and individual achievement. A football celebrity is unique among all other American celebrities for his origins (rarely are they glamorous) and his skill. The rise of an individual star athlete is inherently a story of will, talent, achievement, hardship and, in many cases, temptation. It is a story of carving a life of humble beginnings into one of obscene wealth: the American Dream.

First And 10, Do It Again
While it’s easy to dismiss the popular, it is often of greater benefit to analyze its popularity, since so often its roots are in elements central to human behavior that games so uniquely access and ignite. But the question remains, is there uncharted territory in this oldest of ludological franchises? A compelling game element is a compelling game element, but is there room for competition? Are there wells of compelling narrative, gameplay and strategy into which we haven’t yet dipped? Ultimately, the power of a license or franchise is it is palpable economic acknowledgment of a compelling idea – and the roots of that idea rarely require permission for execution.

The gaming world, like any other, is an ecosystem, and the presence or even profusion of one game type does not threaten others; the game ecosystem is not zero-sum. The success of one game type creates further demand for that same genre, allowing other games to flourish and new competitors to arise. And one thing that games have always shown us is that wherever there’s a big tree, there’s always room to grow.

Erin Hoffman is a professional game designer, freelance writer, and hobbyist troublemaker. She moderates and fights crime on the streets by night.

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