Moving back to what LinkedIn refers to as “the greater New York City area” (read: Hoboken, New Jersey) affords one many luxuries not readily available in other parts of the country. Chief among them are actual bagels, the eternal winter and nightly concerts including bands you’ve never heard of in Brooklyn. One of the underrated aspects of the city, however, is the availability of free events featuring fairly prominent public figures at which you might learn a thing or two about a thing or two. When I learned that three of today’s most important Internet sports writers were gathering at Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village to discuss the acclaimed Madden NFL video game series, naturally I had to attend.
First, a quasi-explanation for the uninitiated: Madden NFL is, and has been for quite some time, the officially-licensed video game of the National Football League. Millions of people, 1.15 million in the first weekend of Madden NFL 15‘s release alone, buy this game every year, hoping to fill the vacancy left behind when they themselves abandoned all hope of a glorious career hurling leather followed by CTE. Each year, the game edges closer to reality while retaining just enough of its inherent virtual aesthetic to spur the imagination, and each year, the game causes scores of broken televisions and similarly broken friendships.
Le Poisson Rouge, a venue known for hosting an almost gratuitously wide variety of spectacles, hosted Neil Paine and Walt Hickey, both of FiveThirtyEight.com, as well as SBNation’s Jon Bois on Columbus Day as part of Gelf Magazine’s Varsity Letters series. Paine and Hickey spoke first, discussing the origin of the game and how it has developed since its debut in 1988. They described the culture surrounding Madden NFL, particularly in the way it has seemingly transcended the NFL and earned a place in an entirely separate, video game-centric canon of North American popular cultural pillars.
Of particular note was the insight of Paine and Hickey into the development of the ratings system, which Paine recounted as having been rudimentary on “your Sega Dreamcast or whatever.” In fact, several years ago, the ratings became too thorough, and the Madden developers at Electronic Arts had to withdraw a group of the more obscure, seemingly useless categories. The lead developer behind the game’s rating system wanted too much too quickly, EA thought, and rolling back the sprawling ratings categories was the obvious choice.
Another interesting caveat of Madden NFL‘s impact is the relationship it has with the actual players in the National Football League, many of whom pay close attention to their own ratings. Ethan Albright’s letter to John Madden upon being rated his namesake video game’s worst player in the 2007 edition went viral and has become a high watermark for player reactions to the game. Hickey and Paine relayed a story about a New York Jets player (Kerry Rhodes) who was rated lower than his teammate, Nick Mangold, in the throwing category despite having played quarterback in both high school and college. He did the sensible thing, bringing Mangold to the practice field and proving his throwing superiority:
Hickey’s intimacy with the Madden NFL ratings is, of course, warranted, after he and Paine put together a fantastic story on going to Electronic Arts in Orlando and having himself, as an average, non-professional athlete human being, rated for the game. His delight at being told he was better than 300 NFL players at catching a football, for instance, lit the slightest spark in each audience member that perhaps there was a small bit of us that could’ve been a football star, if not for the head coach that kept us out of the game, or whatever.
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As fascinating as the construction and development of the Madden series is, however, what may be better is taking it to its absolute outer limits. No man pushes the limits of football’s foremost game more than Jon Bois, whose Breaking Madden series at SBNation is this millennium’s greatest deconstruction of art. The closer Madden gets to reality, the more Bois seems to be able to exploit the gaps the developers leave. His notable exploits include attempting to throw 511 touchdown passes in a single game with Brett Favre, leaving Marshawn Lynch in the 3,000+ merciless hands of a shared Google doc and never, ever counting out Touchdown Tom, even from the one-yard line in a strictly-QB sneak offense.
Having spent thousands of hours digesting, dismantling and dealing with Madden, Bois is perhaps the foremost expert on the franchise’s intense attention to detail and the scrutiny it attracts when things don’t go according to plan. He began his discussion by recounting creating polar opposite wrestlers in a late-’90s WWF wrestling game, solidifying his destructive credentials. Bois then delved into the Madden franchise and related his own experiences with the ratings system, in particular the awareness rating: “In Madden, when you drop a guy down to a 50 in awareness, he kind of forgets where the ball is; when you drop a guy down to 20, he doesn’t seem to know what football is; and when you drop him all the way to 0, there is some of crisis of identity shit, where the character isn’t sure whether or not he actually exists.”
Bois’ overt, deliberate online persona certainly plays to a particular audience, and his immaculate sense of humor shines through in person, albeit in a slightly different way, as well. An engaging, relatable speaker, Bois discussed his inspirations and the challenge he finds in producing Breaking Madden episodes.
After last season, he thought he may have reached the end and that Madden simply couldn’t be broken any further through the creation of five-foot-tall, 400-pound running backs or teams entirely comprising people named Johnson. Yet, he touched upon a striking piece of wisdom for every would-be Internet figure: “The key to creating content is having other people do it for you.”
Eventually, I suppose, I’ll leave that to you people.