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: We wrap things up with wings, Franchise mode, and failure.
The central paradox of my life is that I love sports-bar food, but don’t really care about sports. It’s led to a lot of uncomfortable but delicious dinners over the years, as I post up in the corner of a rowdy Buffalo Wild Wings with my earbuds in my ears and a book on the table, trying to get my standard lunch order (four breaded tenders, spicy garlic sauce, wedges with shredded cheese melted on top, and a side of ranch) down before the sports fans around me start screaming again about some on-field victory or defeat. In a way, those moments of chicken-based alienation were the genesis for this series: If I could figure out how to work my way mentally into the sports fan tribe—preferably via video games, the same mechanisms that have already taught me everything I know about construction, warfare, and Prince Ludwig II of Bavaria—it would probably make my solitary dinners go down a whole lot easier.
Which is, in a roundabout way, how I found myself sitting at a B-Dubs two weeks ago, at a time when I usually avoid the place like the plague: Sunday afternoon, during football season. I was there with my friend Matt, an avowed NFL fan, and we were there, at my request, to watch a football game. Actually, we were there to watch a lot of games; I’d asked Matt to give me an authentic “football watching experience,” and he’d decided the best way to do that was with appetizers and a half-dozen different games blaring on the overhead screens. My goal was to see whether two months of Madden immersion would make a game I’ve always struggled to enjoy watching actually comprehensible and fun to view; Matt’s was to see how many different sauce orders he could talk the waitress into giving him on the minimum number of wings.
The results: A mixed success. As we got arrived, the Week 4 Jaguars-Jets game had just kicked into overtime, and I’ve always been good at setting my antipathy for watching sports aside when things get legitimately high-stakes. We even clapped along, later, when a strong Chargers kick return elicited cheers from the people sitting near us. (Why were there Los Angeles fans in a Portland, Oregon Buffalo Wild Wings at lunchtime? I have no idea.)
Meanwhile, though, I was finding it hard to invest in any particular game in that crowded setting, especially because I didn’t have a team I was inherently rooting for. (I have never been especially good at “rooting,” anyway; one of the reasons I play video games is that my control freak tendencies reject any past-times where my enjoyment is solely dependent on other people doing well.) On a visceral level, the physical violence of the real-world game repulsed me, as it always had. And despite my best efforts, I didn’t feel like my fumbling Madden skills necessarily translated to an understanding of what I was seeing. After months of play, I still barely grasp the intricacies of clock management, let alone the complicated calculus a team’s coaching staff is running as they prepare for the next down. I also found myself wishing I could hear the games’ commentary, just so I could find out if the real coaches were getting the same hateful shit from actual announcers that I was still getting on the reg from Madden’s Brandon Gaudin and Charles Davis, every time I fucked up a play.
That brings us inevitably back to my personal video game football crucible, Madden NFL 18. And for our last descent into Maddeness, we’ll be exploring the tragic tale of Champs Honkstreet, and the worst season of football fake Seattle has ever seen.
As promised, I had every intention of finishing out this series with a full dive into Madden 18's Franchise mode, where I’d successfully manage a team to victory, using my newly acquired stick skills and gridiron wisdom to guide them to a Super Bowl ring. I figured I might hit a few false starts along the way, but that the skills of someone who’d been playing video games for his entire life would, after two months of coming to terms with Madden’s strategies and controls, ultimately triumph. It would be the perfect culmination of this series, as I found a way—my way—to enjoy a franchise and a sport whose Byzantine rules and team-based nature had always clashed badly with my need to be in control of every single aspect of a win.
It didn’t turn out that way.
Instead, by the time four virtual weeks had played out, my Seattle Seahawks were rendered a smoldering, gutted ruin of their former selves, and my self-created owner—mogul-turned-sports-investor Champs Honkstreet—had been reduced to angrily spite-trading his best players for shitty draft picks from enemy teams and devising maniacal schemes to piss off his most devoted fans via borderline-criminal concession-stand pricing.
My plans hit their first hiccup during the Seahawks’ pre-season games, where I first encountered Franchise mode’s training portion. Every week, coaches pick—deliberately, if they’re smart, or randomly, if they’re me—an offensive and defensive exercise for their players to run, offering up benefits when the same plays are chosen on the field in the following game. From an objective point of view, it’s a pretty deft extension of the game’s tutorials, designed to familiarize you with new play concepts bit by bit.
The growth of your team’s stats is determined through success in the exercises, and you can repeat the scenarios as many times as you want to get a better result—or maybe that should be “as many times as you desperately, painfully need,” since the thought of not maximizing my players’ performance ate at the anxiety places in my brain, causing me to repeat the drills over and over. (“What if their stats aren’t high enough when I get to the post-season?!” I thought, in a burst of disastrous naivety.) Coming up for air from the frustration haze, I eventually realized that I’d wasted a literal hour on the very first set of training exercises, hunting for the perfect Gold rating that would confer maximum benefits to my guys.
Having finally triumphed in that ominous opening battle with myself, I then headed into my first game, a pre-season face-off with the Chargers. This is where I was introduced to Madden 18's “Moments” mode, which allows you to fast-forward games to only the most critical of junctures, dropping you onto the field to keep a rough drive alive or get the big stop that will ensure your team’s victory. In other words, it’s a constantly evolving catalog of opportunities to choke, a challenge I found myself accepting over and over again. My Seahawks did not win that game, mostly thanks to bad throws and “key moments” in which the defense suddenly, suspiciously fell apart. It was kind of close, at least, and, as I told myself, it was only the pre-season. Didn’t really count.
In the meantime, I decided to dig into Franchise mode’s other myriad complexities, excited to see what sorts of bells and whistles they had to offer. And lo, but did the game deliver. Systems for player development. Scouting reports for college talent. Media questions. Contract negotiations. Merchandise pricing. Headaches. Numbers. Symbols. Headaches. Salary cap? Salary cap. Skill ratings. Trade deadlines. Blinding, insistent headaches.
There’s a reason this stuff amounts to an actual high-paying job for a very select few individuals and a life-consuming amateur hobby for so many more. Madden doesn’t necessarily make matters easier when it reduces all your players down to a big, simple Overall number, making it hard for neophytes like me to grasp players’ individual weaknesses and strengths without digging through menus. I’ll admit, at least, that I should have known this level of information density would be all but incomprehensible to me, a guy with no grasp of most of the rules of football, let alone how contract negotiations work. Beaten by spreadsheets, I decided to functionally resign from most of my ownership duties.
Instead, I dove back into training and the actual games. These continued to go poorly, well into the real season, but I didn’t hit my actual breaking point until Week 4—the same week of games I’d watched in real life with Matt, a bowl of chili queso at my side—when the game pitted the Seahawks against my native Indiana’s Indianapolis Colts.
I was only trailing by a bit when the interception that finally broke my resolve came. And here’s the thing: For once, it wasn’t a pick I’d thrown. Instead, it was a Seahawks interception, one that netted us a rare touchdown as we ran it back into the opposing endzone. Or, rather, it netted them a rare touchdown. I’d been busy rushing the QB when my defender pulled the ball out of the air, and I had no impact whatsoever on the actual play. That’s what did it. The realization that I’d been entirely superfluous to the most successful moment “my” team had all year.
It’s worth drilling into this because it contains a lot of why I can finally admit that Madden and I are just wrong for each other on what is probably a fundamental level. Part of it is simply that I’m a famously shitty loser. My brain reacts badly to feeling trapped in no-win situations, and that’s exactly what most of my time with Madden ended up being. There’s also the team aspect to contend with; a lot of times, when you fail (or even succeed!) in Madden, as in real football, it’s because some other, uncontrollable-by-you aspect of the game intervened. A receiver missed an easy catch. A lineman failed to block, leaving the quarterback exposed for the sack. Something went wrong and the hole the running back was planning on exploiting never actually opened up. If nothing else, Madden’s taught me a lot about the things that can go wrong in an ill-fated football play.
My instinct when I’m playing a game is to control all of these important moments, regardless of the infeasibility of that approach. As far as my childhood’s concerned, I played Super Mario Bros. way before I ever played teeball, and that’s the model burned into my brain: total control over my character’s fate, navigating them through danger and never relying on others. (Rest assured, I’m a real joy to shop for at Christmas time.) But Madden’s team-based nature defies that individualistic approach, and when that interception went down, it led me to think a strange, alien thought: “These players don’t need me here; I should just sit back and let these people do their jobs.” It’s as close to the actual feeling of being a football fan as I’ve ever managed to get.
Instead of embracing that feeling—maybe by putting the game in “Slow” sim mode, turning off the controls, and just watching the game play out—I snapped. If Madden didn’t need me, I definitely didn’t need it. So I decided I’d find out just how dismissive Gaudin and Davis could get toward my on-field failures, how the game would respond to an outright rejection of itself. I started turning down penalties just to hear the announcers sputter in disbelief. I tested how many different lines had been recorded for self-inflicted safeties. One time, I decided to find out what would happen if you gave yourself seven consecutive delay-of-game penalties, leaving my players backed up increasingly close to their own 1-yard line. (Answer: You hear the same two pieces of delay-of-game commentary, over and over again.) I did all of this despite the fact that I was the only person playing and that I could have walked away at any time to do something demonstrably healthier, like slamming my hand in a car door. But hey, it was fun—in a hateful tantrum sort of way, at least.
Once I had finished playing out a few of the weirdest football games in NFL history, I went back to Franchise mode to continue my assault on a more macro level. As it turned out, Champs Honkstreet made exactly one genius move in his time as the guiding hand on the Seahawks tiller: He dropped the concession prices on every salty snack CenturyLink Field had on offer, and then cranked the prices on beverages to the max. Who knows how much the organization would have made with this brilliant, semi-supervillainous financial stratagem on the books? Not me, because my next cost-cutting measure was to fire every first-string and second-string player on the team (except for 99-rated tight-end Jimmy Graham, who I traded to the Bears for a 7th round draft pick because he’d given me crap in my only stab at contract negotiations, and also just because I could). My signing cap thoroughly emptied out, I set the rest of the season to sim itself out, then watched the bloodbath unfold.
I’ll admit it: From an objective viewpoint, this final flaming burnout suggests the whole Descent Into Maddeness experiment has probably been an abject failure. Despite all my tutorializing, my Ultimate Team-development, and even my willingness to listen to heartfelt country songs, my Madden skills never rose above the level of embarrassing. All I really learned about my relationship with sports and sportsmanship is that I’m a spiteful dick when I lose, and I already knew that from an irritating lifetime of being me. And given that I ended my time with the game in what could generously be called “a furious spiral of hate,” daring it to call me out on my bullshit, I can safely declare my efforts to fall in love with Madden, and through it the sport of football, were ultimately a bust.
But I will say this: For just a second there, I got it.
Like Jean-Luc Picard at the end of Next Generation’s “All Good Things,” I had a single perfect moment of understanding of what being a sports fan could be like. I felt the urge to give up my airtight grip on the world and just let myself be dragged along for the ride, simply hoping that my guys could pull off the impossible without me and knowing I’d support them either way. In that moment, I felt the arc of that whole addictive roller coaster, commiserating at my chosen team’s losses, reveling in their wins, taking it all personally because it didn’t really matter, and because it wasn’t something I could control. It didn’t last long, but for a second or two, “sports fandom” as a concept actually clicked for me.
Maybe that epiphany and this whole endeavor don’t really amount to much. I certainly won’t be calling up Matt next week, asking for a repeat of our football field trip. But the next time I’m devouring wings at some crowded sports bar and a guy next to me starts yelling because the team he loves just executed a perfect return and put six more points on the board, maybe I won’t roll my eyes so much. Maybe I’ll even clap along.
It’s not much. But it’s something.