Madden is cursed. No, not the man himself — a Super Bowl title, Hall of Fame career and the second-highest winning percentage among all NFL coaches should be enough to establish that — but rather the video game franchise that bears John Madden’s name.
Since 2000, 13 NFL stars have been featured on Madden’s iconic cover. Several have experienced a significant decline in on-field performance in the years following the honor, often hindered by season-long injuries. Because the list of cover athletes to meet their demise includes such high profile names as Daunte Culpepper, Michael Vick, Marshall Faulk and Donovan McNabb, the circumstantial evidence has quickly evolved into a supposed “curse” feared by both fans and players alike.
However, a different curse plagues sports video game fans every August. It is this curse that made me stand in line at Wal-Mart at midnight on Tuesday morning, wearing an authentic Chad Pennington Jets jersey, holding a 66-cent, 2-liter bottle of the store’s Mountain Dew rip-off (Mountain Lightning) and anxiously awaiting the release of EA Sports’ latest addition to the Madden video game franchise. The epitome of gamer nerd.
In my defense, the jersey had been put on hours earlier while watching the Jets’ preseason game against the New York Giants at Buffalo Wild Wings, the soda was in hand to ensure that I could stay up late into the night to write this column and the midnight journey to Wal-Mart was merely a desperate act of procrastination fueled by boredom.
Still, I had sacrificed homework, sleep and this column in order to get a first crack at Madden ’12 and I couldn’t quite figure out why. Hence the curse. Whether it’s EA Sports’ Madden NFL, FIFA and NHL games, or 2K Sports’ NBA series, video game companies have established loyal fan bases by offering slightly updated versions of the same games year after year. It wasn’t until my late night visit to Wal-Mart, however, that I fully understood the drastic implications of this lucrative business.
Bringing the Game to the Virtual Arena
All sports fans dream of running in the shoes of their favorite athletes, but very few get to realize that dream. The weeding out of aspiring athletes begins in secondary school and by the time people enter college, 99 percent have been removed from contention.
Enter Madden and its cross-sport counterparts. These sports video games provide a virtual arena to fans when playing in an actual arena is no longer an option. The games recreate every aspect of the leagues they represent, from player personalities and likenesses to the various intricacies of the sport itself. Ray Lewis’ pregame dance? Madden 12 has that. Violent, concussion-inducing collisions? Madden 12 has that, too.
In fact, the game looks and feels so real at times that it can be hard to separate the virtual from the actual. In my three years at Cornell, I have witnessed good friends fight, cool heads explode and property damaged — all as a result of a simple game of Madden. I have even seen someone punch himself in the groin out of frustration with the game. This passion — which is so evident in the world of competitive athletics — goes unchecked in the world of competitive gaming, in large part because no physical arena exists for the emotions of the game to be released.
To an extent, this is what game producers strive for in developing and improving each year’s addition to a particular sports franchise. Sure, EA Sports doesn’t want its users going sterile with every frustrating interception, but it certainly wants its users to feel as emotionally involved with the virtual representation of the NFL as the company does with the real thing.
Unfortunately, problems arise when EA succeeds in this venture. The more realistic the game, the less likely a user is to seek alternative means of entertainment. What is an alternative to Madden that still allows a user to fulfill his football craving? Actually playing football! Once sports video games begin substituting for the actual act of playing sports, the millions of non-professional athletes in the world have reason to worry.
Take, for instance, a conversation I have heard several times before.
Person A: “Want to ball?”
Person B (while playing a game of NBA 2K11): “I’m balling right now.”
In the most extreme case, sports video games become so realistic that they entirely fulfill every sports fan’s needs, abolishing the reason we are all fans in the first place. The extreme does not exist yet, much like the Madden cover curse does not exist as well, but the possibility is equally as scary.
Hitting Where it Hurts the Most
There is still another issue with sports video games that is already having an impact on its users. As was mentioned earlier, the sports video game industry is an extremely lucrative business. For example, EA Sports’ soccer installment, FIFA, has sold over 100 million copies since its debut in 1993. With games nowadays going for $60 apiece, it is not too hard to see how producers are faring.
Despite the huge sales numbers each year, however, the product remains largely the same. Gameplay is central to a top-selling sports video game, and once the developers have it mastered, what is there left to update? The answers appears to be not much, as is evident by the latest addition to the Madden family.
Sure, the game runs somewhat faster, looks somewhat prettier, and contains somewhat more features; but all in all it’s the same Madden that fans have grown to love, albeit with updated rosters.
So, why did I find myself in Wal-Mart late Monday night, unable to wait an extra eight hours before spending $60 on a game I have bought every August for the past half-decade? Some will say its because I’m a gamer nerd, and others who know me better may blame it on my slight obsession with Wal-Mart, but I blame it on the Madden curse. Not the curse that has Peyton Hillis shaking in his cleats before every snap, but the curse that haunts every sports fan that turns to video games to relive the glory days. The curse that keeps us glued to the couch instead of taking to the field.
Of course, there is an alternative to getting one’s football fix prior to opening day, and with intramural season set to begin, I encourage Madden enthusiasts like myself to put down the controller and pick up a ball. After all, a trophy in real life is much sweeter than its virtual replica.