There’s an elephant in the room of broadcast sports, and we’ve only just begun to talk about it. I call it The Madden Effect. Video games have fundamentally changed the way society views football. I don’t mean that existentially — Madden has not somehow altered the collective consciousness of society — I mean it quite literally. The angles of sports video games are significantly better than the ones commonly found in the real world.
Hahahahaha, Ned, that picture is wack.
Laugh all you want, intrepid reader, but your 80s slang is definitely accepted for this article, because the above picture was the first step in a revolution that started in 1988 and has redefined the National Football League forever. Don’t believe me? Allow me a slideshow of 35 pictures to prove it to you.
MouseOver to Pause
If you don’t play Madden, you might notice something different from what you’re used to. Do you see something similar between all these pictures? Madden NFL created a new way of watching football. How do I mean? Look at the broadcast from Super Bowl 50.
This is the standard angle for watching football on television. It is a high side angle, designed to show as much of the field where the wide receivers will be running as possible. It’s also neutral, it allows the announcers a visual that makes them feel free of bias. Which, for journalism, is obviously a very good thing. There’s just one problem.
The Madden angle is sexier.
There is literally no drama in the broadcast angle, and what are sports if not dramatic? By placing the camera behind the offense the viewer watches the play unfold in the same mental place as the quarterback, allowing us to feel like the quarterback. Now we’re not just watching Aaron Rodgers pick apart a defense, we’re seeing the same windows he is. We are, at least in our brains, quarterbacking along with him.
Ned, that is absurd.
Is it? Think about it. When you’re watching a high side angle, you might see Jordy Nelson streaking across the middle, looking for all the world like he’s open. Rodgers checks down the pass and dumps off to Ty Montgomery. [Author’s Note: Yes, I know Montgomery’s injured. Really, that’s what you’re taking away from this article? The current impossibility of the example?] You stand and yell at the screen, “Come on! Throw it to Jordy! What are you doing, A-A-Ron?!”
On replay they move to the SkyCam, and you can see that actually, the underneath Linebacker was in the way of Nelson, there was no window, Rodgers made the correct choice. That’s how football is generally watched currently. We have an emotional reaction, and then an analytical view that either confirms or denies that reaction.
Now imagine that we were watching the SkyCam in the first place. The ball is snapped towards the camera and Rodgers drops back towards us, we feel the defense sprinting straight at the lens, straight at US as we see Aaron turn his head to the left. Our eyes move left and we see–nope, the Corner is covering that. Aaron’s head swings to the right to find–nope, great coverage over there as well. What is that? Oh man they’re in a Cover 2 and that’s Devonte Adams on a post route, two steps ahead of the Safety. Rodgers steps into the throw as the Linebacker gets through and catches him. He goes to the ground but the ball is up and…….Adams has it! A 27 yard beauty from you, the viewer–I mean, from Rodgers.
But do you see what I mean? We were with Aaron the entire time, we got to see what he saw, as he checked down, we were confirming his feelings, we were invested in the play in an entirely new way. And after 29 years of John Madden-branded video games, this is how a significant portion of multiple generations has come to understand Football.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Every year, just like the car companies, EA Sports trots out a “new and improved” version of their flagship product with a sequential number tacked on. It doesn’t matter that you spent $59 on last year’s offering, the new one has better graphics! This is the marketing, and it works. Madden is a ticking clock of rapid depreciation. The resale value is nonexistent. Your copy is 2 years old? You might get $10 for it. And mostly the games are the same year to year. No matter what console you’re playing on (Desktop excepted), the far right button is still the right most receiver, the bottom button still hikes the ball, and the left button still delivers the hits. They add new features like more in-depth franchise options for managing a team. But the gameplay? See the above header.
Cool. So the Madden games have had consistency, so what?
Consistency is everything. For 29 years Madden has allowed football fans to play as many games a week as they want, as whoever they want, against whoever they want. Speaking from my own experience, Madden became my primary way of consuming football. I learned player names and positions and experimented with utilizing different players in different ways. These things are merely based on numerical stats built into the game, but when watching those teams live, I felt like I knew them. I got excited when a player I knew from the game had a breakout game in real life. Madden taught me about defensive formations, audibles, and line shifts; how to read a defense, interpret certain movements, and time my passes. I learned at least some of the mental mechanics of football. Or at least some of the mental mechanics of being a quarterback.
Everyone’s a QB
This is the next major effect of Madden. The game is meant to be played from the Quarterback position. Over the years they’ve tried to make other roles more attractive by allowing you to create your own player and play through their career. But as a Running Back or Linebacker you often won’t be receiving the ball, or making the tackle. Individual roles become exercises in learning button patterns. It’s not actually real life, where hand placement, slight feet position, and body placement are things to master as a Wide Receiver or a Defensive End. On a console at some point you learn the algorithm for success. As the quarterback, though. you have to track everyone, the computer may run the routes but you’re in charge of the throw. The game is built to view the field as the quarterback does. Which means multiple generations of football viewers have been learning the sport from that viewpoint.
The Fallout of Madden
It’s not surprising to me then that the league has become so pass-reliant. Essentially gone are the days of the bell-cow running back, introducing mostly run-by-committee approaches that generally are living in the ~100 yd/game world. Games used to be battles of backs grinding it out, facilitated by quarterbacks. The run worked in tandem with the pass, now it’s simply a means to play action. Is it shocking to think that might be because of society’s literal view shift? The popularity of quarterbacks has only increased, the necessity for a good one can’t be understated, and the contracts for franchise quarterbacks are through the roof. I think this can all be attributed to a certain video game that share its name with an announcer known for his cutting analysis.
If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em
“Ned,” you might be asking. “Are you saying that video games are destroying football?” As we used to know it? Yes. So here’s the million dollar question. Is that a bad thing? No. Well, not necessarily, though I think over time it will make for fewer people who want to be playing positions other than the Quarterback, and therefore less talent making it to the NFL overall. I do, however think, that the NFL needs to lean into the turn. Take, for example, what happened on the recent game between the Patriots and the Falcons. As it is wont to do in New England, fog rolled into the stadium and obscured visibility. Soon the side angles couldn’t see the far side of the field.
NBC had to improvise in order to keep the game watchable for the fans at home. So what did they do? Enter the SkyCam.
Look familiar? The reaction from fans and pundits alike was swift:
The view was so popular, the NFL tried it out on Thursday Night Football for the game between the Steelers and the Titans. I watched the game, and it was one of the most engaging games of football I have ever had the pleasure of watching (despite the Color Rush uniforms). I immediately started tracking twitter to see what the reaction was. By no means is an eyeballed survey of twitter posts a scientific study, but in my view there was a divide between those who liked the new angle and those who didn’t. What was the fulcrum upon which the pendulum swung? Roughly the age of 35. Those who had grown up playing Madden seemed to react overwhelmingly positively to the new view, and those who didn’t I found tended to have a “get off my lawn” approach. Or to use my earlier statement, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Well, In my opinion, it is “broke” and it needs fixing. The NFL has the chance to incorporate one of football viewing’s greatest innovations into the game, and in doing so, create a more emotional and connected experience for its viewers. It would be absolutely crazy to not explore doing so. The innovation of SkyCam integration can only be a good thing as a viewer experience, and as a much-needed shakeup for a game that many are complaining has gotten stale. This may be, however, the first time a game-changing innovation was created in virtual reality, and then integrated into the real sport. Video gaming has long attempted to feel as realistic as possible, especially in sports games. From the graphics, to the physics, to the emotional impact on-screen, developers are constantly looking for ways to blur the distinction between game and reality. For the first time in sports history, as technology and platforms continue to become more and more powerful, look for sports to try to blur the lines and be more and more like video games.
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