And it probably never can be.
It’s mid-August, the time of year when I boot up the latest Madden release and remember (this year Madden 19, my god) that I have completely forgotten how to play it. Much like I am toward the actual NFL, I am an extremely casual enjoyer of Madden. I play a few games in a season as a team I’ve met absolutely zero fans of (usually the Cincinnati Bengals) and try and steer them to an unlikely victory, made all the more unlikely because I am shit at Madden. By the time we get about three-quarters through the season, I am less shit at Madden, but I also don’t really care enough to play anymore. Fall arrives in earnest, and I move onto other things. But it’s going to be hard to move on from football this year.
The NFL, as our own Drew Magary illustrated earlier this month, is woefully unprepared for how much of a disaster football season is going to this year: there are rule changes that no one understands, and the parasitic outrage machine that has already sprung into action at the prospect of players kneeling during the national anthem.
This is a problem for Madden, because Madden does not want to be a video game. It wants to be the NFL. This is a criticism that has been true of Madden for at least ten years, but it’s only in the last five or so years that it’s become a “problem.” The list of people who have issues with the NFL is only getting longer. There’s Colin Kaepernick—and the players, fans and activists who support his protest against police brutality—who has been blacklisted from the NFL. There are the aforementioned pundits, who have turned any player who dares to kneel during the anthem into a referendum on patriotism. There is the NFL Player’s Association, the organization that represents the interests of the NFL players to management, a group that has been left out of sweeping policy decisions determining player conduct during the national anthem and rule changes supposedly meant to reduce injuries. And then there are just viewers with a conscience that forbids them from enjoying a sport that is designed to crush the bodies of the men that play it, thanks to the almost entirely superficial concern the League has for its players’ health.
But Madden, as we noted last year, takes place in a world where none of that matters, because none of that exists. It’s a game that makes you stop for a moment so it can download the very latest roster updates for immersion and realism, but also, for some reason, bleeped out Colin Kaepernick’s name on the soundtrack as if it were a curse word. EA Games quickly apologized and uncensored the track, calling it an “unfortunate mistake.” Mistake or not, it’s a pretty good metaphor for Madden. Here, realism only goes so far.
On the one hand, Madden is about as close as you can get to an idyllic version of football. You can boot it up on Sunday instead of Red Zone, play for hours alone or with friends, tinker with statistics both real and nonsensical (in Madden Ultimate Team’s strange hybrid of fantasy football and card collecting) and enjoy Football, the product and not worry about Football, the cultural event. No injuries, no politics, no problems.
Except it doesn’t really work that way—choosing to opt out is still a choice. Madden, in its quest for realism, has made itself inextricable from the real world—and in the real world people make choices. This year, I chose to play the game again, because it’s my job, because Madden still feels all-encompassing, because football is a strange and nonsensical sport and simulating it is a uniquely foolish endeavor that has made many millions of dollars. Maybe this year, the days I spend playing it may well be far fewer than they were last year. Maybe next year, I’ll stop playing entirely.
Or maybe the NFL will get better. Even if it doesn’t, Madden will be there, faithfully replicating every convoluted decision it makes to try and ensure the sport’s survival—striving to be as realistic as possible, as long as that realism doesn’t include taking a knee while the anthem plays.
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