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 wades into the game’s attempts to stay timely, the crowded chaos of Madden Ultimate Team, and the ego-crushing crucible of the game’s online multiplayer.
Well, hell: I take one week off from thinking critically about my relationship with video game football and the whole damn sport explodes. It’s a shame, too, because one of the most fascinating things about Madden is that it’s journalistic in a way almost few other video games are; outside of Microsoft Flight Simulator downloading and simulating real-world weather for plane-loving obsessives, I can’t think of another game that so desperately strives to reflect real-time factual events after its own release. (Usually by having my booth-based nemeses, Brandon Gaudin and Charles Davis, record fresh commentary for the game every week.) Of course, just because the NFL has become the latest rope in Donald Trump’s ongoing game of tug of war with the better angels of the American spirit, that doesn’t mean I saw any sign of bent knees or word of protests during my time in the conflict-free world of Madden NFL this week.
It’s not surprising: Madden presents itself as a platonic version of football, idealized but disinterested in ideals and welcoming to fans of all political stripes and persuasions. (In a way, it’s precisely the game that the vocal, jersey-burning “no politics, just sports” crowd is clamoring for.) I was actually shocked to learn that EA Sports had ever had plans in place to address Colin Kaepernick’s protests against police violence last year, plans that were apparently scuppered by a presumed desire to keep real-world conflict out of video game land. And, to be fair, it’s not like I don’t kind of agree with the decision: Madden is probably unequipped, on a fundamental level, to talk about the political context surrounding the game at the moment, even to the extent that real-world commentators have been forced to. Nevertheless, it’s a punch right in the verisimilitude for a game that goes out of its way to give the impression that the player is controlling their private versions of an actual NFL broadcast.
Not that Madden can keep the real world out entirely. Signing into Madden Ultimate Team (MUT)—the game’s bizarre attempt to meld card-based collectibles, Call Of Duty-style progression systems, and micro-challenge-based achievement into one unholy singleplayer melange—yesterday, I was surprised to find a message about hurricane awareness awaiting me, right between thoroughly unpleasant offers to brave a series of challenges dubbed “The Gauntlet” and a chance to spend actual, in-my-wallet money to hunt through random card packs to find the player of my choice. Clicking in to the “Hurricane Relief Challenge,” I was presented with the chance to play games against Miami and Houston, and a note about EA donating money for hurricane relief. The content itself was perfectly normal and the donation admirable, but there was something distinctly surreal about having the real world intrude quite so bluntly into my video game life.
But, then, as noted, MUT is a very weird beast. Where the game’s Longshot story mode distilled football into its stock dramatic beats, MUT instead gameifies the sport within an inch of its life, breaking it down into individual moments and drowning it in ratcheted-on systems. Never have so many tutorial pop-ups done so little for so many, as the game attempts to make some sort of coherent structure out of a hodgepodge of playing cards, objectives, challenges, multiple currency systems, and an unlock system that seems primarily designed to gate the player’s ability to buy more stuff.
At MUT’s core, the loop is actually pretty simple: build a team from a roster of acquired players, run them through a series of challenges ranging from isolated sets of downs all the way up to full games, and then use the rewards to make a better team. In practice, though, it’s a lot more complicated; I was kind of hanging in there, relying on Dan Marino, a reward from playing Longshot, and strengthening my team by sacrificing incarnations of former San Diego Charger LaDainian Tomlinson to empower some hypothetical, perfected version of himself. But then the game informed me my line-up’s “chemistry” was insufficient to take on a challenge, that I didn’t have enough “team tokens” to upgrade my best players, and that I had only minutes left to get enough sacks to Digivolve Mean Joe Green into his final form. MUT’s constantly updating nature, while great from a “game-as-living-document” point of view, doesn’t help, either, since there are always timed challenges cycling in and out, taunting those of us without four hours a day to devote to video game football.
But while the computer is still capable of giving my weak skills a serious run for their money, the real appeal of MUT is the ability to toss your hand-assembled, artisanal football squad into the gnashing maw of online multiplayer. I had actually deluded myself into thinking I’d learned something about football strategy—and, specifically, Madden’s attempts to put its execution in the player’s hands—over the last month with Madden 18, but that little lump of warmth lasted roughly one game into my dive into online competition. It died at roughly the same moment I realized I had managed to burn through Gaudin and Davis’ entire library of quotes related to probable interceptions, actual interceptions, and leaving receivers criminally open in the span of a single game.
What my brutal, efficient online opponents taught me was that despite my efforts I am tremendously, quite possibly permanently bad at Madden. I threw bad passes. I rushed directly into a blitz. At one point, I somehow managed to miss the point-after kick, a process so easy the little drinky bird Homer uses to push the buttons on his keyboard could probably do it. And you know what? I’m grateful for the knowledge. I store it gently in my heart, alongside a newfound appreciation for how much planning and strategy the sport of football requires. I apologize to you, especially, Mr. Dan Marino, for making those cracks about Ace Ventura when it’s now clear to me that successful NFL quarterbacks have one of the most stressful, mentally taxing jobs in existence. (I’m also sorry, sir, for the roughly hundred times your aging body has been brutally sacked under my command.) I’ll store these hard-earned lessons next to the memory of all the times Charles Goddamned Davis called my choices “ill-advised” and the shameful ignominy of my only online “victory,” a debacle in which I managed to get an opponent to quit in disgust after I gave in to despair and just started scoring safeties on myself, over and over again.
The fact is, I am never going to catch up to these people, and, given the fragility of my ego, and my status as a notoriously bad loser and enemy of good sportsmanship, I probably don’t deserve to. No, it’s clear now that the field isn’t where my skills lie. Luckily, Madden has a mode for fumbled-fingered idiots like me to reach the Super Bowl, too, and in our next (and final) installment, that’s what I’m going to try to do. Bringing my extensive fantasy football experience—i.e., the one time I auto-drafted into a friend’s league before getting bored and confused and quickly dropping out—to bear, I’m finishing up this journey with a trip to the one place where even hapless nerds can win on the gridiron: Franchise Mode.