Descent Into Maddeness is a mini-series that follows football neophyte William Hughes as he attempts to understand the video game institution of Madden NFL. Every other week, William will dig into a different mode from the series’ latest iteration, Madden NFL 18, all in an effort to appreciate this chart-topping series and maybe even the sport of football itself. This week: William throws himself blindly into the game’s opening contest and gets bullied by some catty announcers.
It’s 4th and 10, I’m down by eight, and these two jackasses in the announcer booth will not stop riding my ass. “That looked like an ill-advised throw to me,” one of them comments, unnecessarily, after I panic and tell Tom Brady to hurl the football into a swarming beehive of Falcon defensive dudes. “Dangerous and poorly thought-out,” the other chimes in, when I repeat the performance a few downs later, avoiding an interception via what I can only assume is my PS4's rudimentary sense of electronic pity. I’m playing alone, but the whole experience is still vaguely mortifying, and for a second, all I want to do is plead my case to the digital dudes Mean Girls-ing my self-esteem into the dirt. This isn’t my scene; I barely know which guy I’m controlling or who the hell Sam Willis is or why I’m supposed to be running his “floating blitz.” Cut me some slack, I’d tell them: I’m not a Madden guy.
I’ve never been one, despite the fact that I’ve been playing video games since my parents first rented me an NES in 1989, the same year Madden NFL began its slow climb into the gaming spotlight. Twenty-eight years, 34 games, $4 billion in revenue, and 75 million players later, it’s now one of the biggest series in gaming, an unstoppable juggernaut that’s obsessed over by the professional football players it aims to represent and a civilian player base capable of supporting a new version every single year. And yet, somehow, I’ve played maybe five games of Madden in my entire life, and every single one has been an embarrassing, confusing mess. Missed passes. Fumbled tackles. And so many “But what does this button do?” questions that I inevitably felt like my games-hating mom the few times I coaxed her into playing anything more intense than Dr. Mario or Tetris with me when I was a kid.
Part of it has been my own football illiteracy, a shaky understanding of the games’ rules and strategy kludged together from my high-school marching band career and a ton of NFL Blitz. (Hence my legitimate shock, years later, when I found out a regulation first down is 10 yards, not 30.) But there’s also the fact that Madden itself is startlingly impenetrable for such a widely played game, a well-guarded tower built from the assumption that anyone playing it already knows everything they need to know about how Madden works. Because it’s built for fans of both the NFL and itself—and because it pushes new games out at such a relentless pace—Madden’s designers no longer seem to feel the need to fill in gaps in player understanding with a lot of explanations or tutorials. If you’re playing the game, it’s assumed that you already know the pigskin shibboleths required to succeed.
So how do you break in, if you don’t already know how to stiff-arm and juke with the best? How does someone who loves video games connect with one of the biggest, most guarded gaming series on the planet? That’s the question I’m trying to answer, as I blindly throw myself at an institution I only barely understand and that seems hostile to my efforts to do so: How does a regular video game fan make the leap and become a Madden guy?
Booting up the newest iteration of the franchise, Madden NFL 18, I’m asked a few questions about my level of experience. I pick “Beginner,” because “Occasional Humiliation” isn’t an option, and am immediately booted into a recreation of last year’s Super Bowl match-up between the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots. Dipping into the match proper, I’m treated to the game’s glossy recreation of a real televised broadcast—complete with introductions to prominent players on each team, and a lot of absolutely gorgeous tracking shots of the field—and introduced to the two digital demons who will be heckling and hectoring me at every turn: announcers Brandon Gaudin and Charles Davis.
From the jump, our relationship is a complicated one. On the one hand, Gaudin and Davis are the only authentically human element in the whole presentation, as EA Sports’ elaborate licensing deals can’t stop the vast majority of players and coaches from taking up residence squarely in the uncanny valley. By contrast, their commentary is varied enough to feel almost real, and, as I stumble through my first game, I find myself fixated on the banter and weird little anecdotes. (There’s an end-of-game run about whether Davis has been sneaking off to the concession stand mid-job that I’ll admit to being disproportionately obsessed with.)
But after my first game ends in a 56-7 routing of my opponents—“Beginner” apparently translating to “Your guys are superhuman football monsters capable of catching all but the worst passes and outrunning the less impressive kinds of train”—I dipped back into the match-up for a second and third time, trying to find a difficulty setting and game mode that would give me a little bit of a push back. Stepping things up gradually and moving from Arcade into the Simulation mode only produced the same result, but slower, so I eventually decided to switch into Competitive, which the game bills as its preferred multiplayer mode where “stick skills are king.” Goosing up the difficulty (and switching to the Patriots for contrast), I rapidly discovered that Gaudin and Davis’ friendliness toward me declined at the same rapid pace as the realization I had no idea how the hell to play this video game began to grow.
To its credit, Madden takes the most terrifyingly incomprehensible aspect of video game football—play selection, with all its lines and zones and meandering arrows—largely out of the neophyte’s hands. As long as I was able to grasp the basic differences between “pass,” “run,” and “punt,” the game was happy to offer up plenty of reasonable suggestions, based off of its analysis of my opponent’s play-calling tendencies. (Meanwhile, it was presumably doing the same analysis of me for the CPU; this wouldn’t be the first time it would feel like the game was playing itself.) There’s even a little meter to tell you how many yards the average Madden player achieves with a given play in a given situation, but since I was playing a pre-release review copy, and since most of the other people playing the game at the moment presumably weren’t doing so as part of an odd sociological/psychological experiment about gaming culture, it mostly just served to make me feel inadequate. (As did Gaudin and Davis, the few times I went off script with my play-calling; I swear, nobody these days appreciates a good fake punt or three.)
Things got more murky once my guys were on the field. Tutorial pop-ups—“Press R1 to attempt a strip sack when chasing a QB in the pocket”—cropped up apparently at random, and every push of the bumpers seemed to offer up more camera or control options to fiddle with or (potentially) destroy me. I did my best to ignore them, focusing on my duties as a quarterback or a defensive lineman, but I couldn’t help but feel like a kid in the cockpit of a fighter jet, complete with a bunch of dangerous, poorly labeled buttons just waiting to ruin some poor taxpayer’s day. That confusion doubled down after the snap, as briefly glimpsed context buttons and half-remembered plays gave way to chaos. (In the game’s parlance, my stick skills drastically failed to be the king.) In the easier difficulty modes, the game had given me enough time to at least vaguely work out what I was doing, but once I stepped things up, the sacks and incompletions started rolling. I threw bad passes, spun at inappropriate times, and applied my “hit sticks” with all the force of a gently blowing breeze. That being said, I did get to experience a moment of real sportsman’s emotion, as I came to quietly loathe 25-year-old Atlanta steam engine Devonta Freeman, he of the relentless speed and apparent immunity to tackles. It’s easily the strongest emotion I’ve ever felt toward a professional athlete who wasn’t Shaq.
The overwhelming feeling that started to build up was how unnecessary I was to the proceedings, especially on defense. Sure, I’d pull off the occasional sack—the thrill of adrenaline spiking as I button-mashed my way over some poor fellow’s bones—but more often than not, my inability to read the plays meant I was leaving some all-powerful man-train entirely unprotected. Things went better when I simply let go, allowing the computer to tucker itself out while fighting against itself. But as someone whose rare sporting tastes run to individual efforts like racquetball—or at least basketball, where the team composition is a little more fluid—there was something strangely distasteful about realizing that I was largely superfluous to what was happening on the screen. Madden is a well-polished effort to do something incredibly tricky, capturing a sport that combines the simultaneous mental and physical efforts of dozens of people. But it was still kind of a bummer to get shoved to the sidelines while playing a video game that was ostensibly running for my benefit. (We’ll see how that feeling translates into Madden 18's character-focused story mode, “Longshot,” when I tackle it in our next installment.)
At the same time (and despite Davis’ relentless virtual shit-talking every time I tried to chuck the ball), I could still feel traces of “the game”—not football, but the actual, meaty video game—embedded in Madden, picking at the part of my brain that’s been playing video games for literally as long as I’ve been able to read: identifying optimal passing routes; sneaking around offensive linesmen to score a sack; the tactical considerations of what to do when it’s third down, and you’ve only got inches left to cover. Recognizing the thrill and strategy of these moments won’t be anywhere near enough to let me qualify as “a Madden guy,” not with only a handful of semi-enjoyable games to my name. But it does give me something to work with as my descent into Maddenness begins.