Screenshot: Madden NFL 18/EA

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 takes on Longshot, Madden’s first attempt at a cinematic story mode.

Sports movies are the gateway drug of real-life sports fandom, a guaranteed dose of the high-stakes drama that comes from years of pledging yourself to a team but without all the heartbreak, emotional investment, and hat purchases that real sports devotion requires. After all, it’s not like The Mighty Ducks are going to let you down five years running by getting knocked out of the playoffs before the post-season can even begin; no, when you ride with The Flying V, you’re going to get the juicy, addictive high of watching scrappy underdogs do the things that scrappy underdogs in sports movies—barring your Rockys, your Cool Runnings, or your Bad News Bears—always seem to do.

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Screenshot: Madden NFL 18

So if there’s one clear sign that Madden is trying to open itself up to outsiders—even literally fumbling football idiots like myself—it’s the inclusion of what’s basically an eight-hour sports movie, front and center, in the series’ new edition. The franchise’s new story mode, Longshot, is many things: a football-focused version of the tried-and-true Telltale adventure formula, a bizarre parody of reality TV production, a vehicle for a truly terrible country-rock song, or just an opportunity to stare in horror at the sight of veteran TV actor Barry Corbin awkwardly covered in mo-cap balls. But its primary goal is to serve up a big, super-sized meal of sports feelings directly into the player’s mouth. And maybe this is just a reflection of my own deep-seated desires to have Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali beam paternally at me, proud that I (his handsome football son) have become not just a good football player, but also a good, complete man, but damn if it doesn’t work far better than it has any real right to.

Longshot is full of problems. It’s rote. It’s predictable. It’s hyper-masculinized, silly, and occasionally outright insulting. But, like all the best sports movies, it’s also nakedly open about the ways it wants to manipulate your emotions, whether that means kicking things off with a scene of our hero, Devin Wade (played as an adult by J.R. Lemon), tossing the pigskin around with his poor, doomed, Coach-Taylor-from-Friday Night Lights-knock-off dad (Ali), or having a heartfelt reconciliation with the disgraced, redemption-seeking coach who once threatened to give up on them both. (Don’t worry: In the end, he does not end up giving up on them both.)

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“It’ll be okay, son; we’re all worried about True Detective season 3.” (Screenshot: Madden NFL 18)

That total lack of subtlety acted as a strength, not a weakness, as I played through Devin’s journey from college football drop-out to reality TV star to potential NFL quarterback. Like some sort of parasite laying its eggs on, around, and in me, I could feel my nascent “give a shit” meter slowly start to grow despite myself with each turn of the plot, buoyed along by predictable but effective plot twists, simple but meaningful-feeling dialogue choices (Do I chastise my annoying best friend or lie and tell him that he’s tolerable?) and Lemon’s quiet, engaging performance.

Strangely, Longshot expresses its message of football love while featuring shockingly little actual football; the mode’s gameplay is far more interested in dialogue and field-based Quick Time Events than it is in actually playing Madden. Sure, the challenges get more tactile as the plot progresses—including team-ups with big-name players like Chad “I Legally Changed My Last Name To My Jersey Number For A While” Johnson (née Ochocinco) and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective co-star Dan Marino—but Longshot is far less interested in your player skills than it is in testing Devin’s character or his “Football IQ.”

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“Dan Marino will remember that” (Screenshot: Madden NFL 18)

That latter pursuit also re-introduces a trend I’m worried is just going to get worse and worse as this series goes on: Madden NFL 18's apparently ceaseless drive to neg the shit out of me at every turn. This time, it comes in the form of questions—delivered by the aforementioned coach, the fictitious Jack Ford, in full-on withholding father-figure mode—testing whether I know how to successfully ID a free safety (he’s the guy in the back) or tell the difference between a 38 defense and a 46 (they have different numbers in their name). Devin-the-character is scripted to be bad at stuff like play-calling and on-field strategy anyway, but that didn’t make me feel any better when Coach Ford started rolling his eyes and sighing angrily every time I couldn’t correctly identify a tight end or a halfback on the fly.

Longshot has been very clearly set up as an on-ramp for incoming players exactly like me—including some pleasantly clear simplifications of concepts that long-time fans presumably have embedded in their DNA, like avoiding double coverage while throwing a pass—but I didn’t necessarily need that instruction to be provided in the form of yet another emotionally taciturn father substitute play-shaming me over and over again. At least the game’s full tutorials, which are pleasantly robust and include several options that are basically Football For Dummies, finally finished downloading and installing with my copy of the game, meaning I could do a little better than blindly guess on at least some of Coach Ford’s queries.

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(Screenshot: Madden NFL 18)

But I’ll give it up for Longshot, despite its tendency to rub my nose in the steaming mess of my own persistent football ignorance. For every instance where I rolled my eyes at something like “Scouting Report Updated”—the game’s equivalent to Telltale’s classic “Clementine will remember that”—or the sub-GTA comedy stylings of buffoonish TV execs (because a shockingly vast swathe of the game’s plot is based around the backroom struggles of reality TV), there were moments that made me actually care if Devin achieved his dreams and made it into the NFL. (Where we’ll hopefully see him pop up again once I dip into the game’s other modes, somewhere down the line.) Maybe it was just a solid line-read from Lemon or Ali’s smiling, digitally rendered face or the moment when Coach Ford finally opened up to me about his checkered past, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t feel my investment in this character, this story, and this game steadily start to grow.

If the goal of a good sports movie is to infect the viewer with a craving for the real-world equivalents of the feelings it provokes, then Longshot is the perfect vector for Madden. It’s not really about football, so much as it is the reasons hundreds of millions of people care about it, and it’s the perfect bait for a player like me, who’s hunting around for an emotional hook to draw them deeper into the game.

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