Over the years, I’ve squared off against my brother in games ranging from the traditional (tennis) to the hastily made-up and poorly conceived (one-on-one tackle football in the basement). On Saturday, I invited him to my apartment to engage in the next generation of sibling rivalry. Yes, we settled in for a long day of Madden 07.
The afternoon began peacefully. Ellery graciously allowed me to play with our beloved Redskins; I offered him a beer. But before long, the familiar whiff of fratricide hung in the air. On the last play of the day, I completed an improbable, game-winning pass as time expired. Moments later, he was chasing me around the dining room table. In short, we loved the game. But to our surprise, we didn’t love it because of the intense brother-on-brother competition. We loved it because it taught us how to play football.
Most of my football video-game experience comes from old-school games such as 4th & Inches, 10-Yard Fight, Tecmo Bowl, and early Madden, which I played on a Super Nintendo circa 1995. In those days, video football resembled nothing so much as the kind of game you play with your friends in the park. Strategy began and ended with identifying your fastest player and giving him the ball. Playbooks were thin, ball control was unheard of, and punting was for suckers. The entire sport had been boiled down to big plays.
Madden 07 is a different beast altogether. Like pro football, it’s a game of strategic adjustments. At the start of our Saturday session, my brother came out blitzing with his Bengal linebackers. I responded by dumping the ball over the middle to Clinton Portis for big gains. On the next drive, he keyed his linebackers on my halfback and clogged the middle. I switched to play-action passes. He changed to zone coverage. I went to quick-hitting handoffs. The longer we played, the more complicated our head games became. We began running different offensive plays out of the same formation, using misdirection, running in passing situations, and passing in running situations. In the second game, Ellery began moving the ball downfield four and five yards at a time. His off-tackle runs and passes to the flat were low-risk, hard to stop, and increasingly maddening. When I pushed my safeties up to the line of scrimmage, he threw over the top to his tight end. The bastard.
Somewhere along the way, I learned to mix up my defenses. I recalled the basic difference between a cover two and a cover three and got better at recognizing when to employ which zone defense. On the other side of the ball, I developed a better sense of how to flip through an offensive progression, how to keep an eye out for blitzing defenders, and where to dump the ball when I was under pressure.
I’ve watched hundreds of football games on television and in person. But I’ve never learned as much about how the game works as I did on Saturday afternoon. When you watch a game live, the big plays usually seem inexplicable and mysterious. When you participate in a big play in Madden, the success is not a mystery. Rather, it’s the logical outcome of well-timed manipulation and execution.
After several days of Madden immersion, I rewatched the first half of the Redskins-Jets preseason game. Mistakes that had escaped my attention earlier now seemed obvious (admittedly, the old fast-forward and rewind buttons didn’t hurt). During the second quarter, the Jets sprang a wide-receiver reverse for a 61-yard touchdown. Before, I didn’t know who to blame. Now, I was cursing the weak-side linebacker for jumping out of position within the first few seconds of the play.
In the aftermath of my gaming session, I was also struck by the limitations of televised football. For starters, once you get used to seeing the field from the Madden perspective—above the quarterback’s head, up the field, over the line of scrimmage—the side view favored by the TV broadcasts becomes constricting. From that angle, the numbers on the backs of the players’ jerseys are obscured, which makes identifying the offensive and defensive packages more difficult. Sure, the side angle works well on running plays. But it’s abysmal for passing. Before the snap, you can’t see what the safeties are doing. After the snap, all of the receivers and their routes disappear off the side of the screen. How the receiver got open is a mystery.
Televised football would instantly improve by throwing a few Madden flourishes into their coverage. For starters, they should ramp up the use of the so-called SkyCam—the XFL used bird’s-eye views all the time, and it was the only reason those games were worth watching. Also, when the team on offense huddles up, a graphic should pop up noting how many tight ends, wide receivers, and running backs have entered the game. Ditto for the defense. And after the play is over, they should quickly flash a Madden-esque graphic with multicolored vectors depicting the routes that the receivers just ran across the field.
All of these spiffy additions will appeal to kids weaned on Madden. In the years to come, people who grew up learning about football via Xbox will expect broadcasters to give them more complex information. In the meantime, to keep their minds sharp, the next generation of football fans would be advised to stick to the video games. And whatever you do, don’t go to games or watch them on television with your empty-headed parents.