Since I’ve been old enough to fit a Genesis controller in my paw I’ve been playing four quarters of Madden against my brother on Superbowl morning, minus the handful where distance and lack of broadband made it impossible.
In 25 years, I’ve seen my digital “game before the game” morph from good, to very good, to the current incarnation best described as something North of bananas. While the quality of broadcast, sound and fury of the NFL product has risen since the Troy Aikman days, the trajectory of EA’s flagship is way, way sharper, and all the high def cameras and pushup cheerleader bras in the world ain’t slowing it down one bit. The clear goal EA inches or leaps towards every year, is an experience that’s comparable to the real thing. Maybe not photorealistic, but objectively “cool” enough that it can hold court with the genuine article.
And maybe that’s a problem. Suppose we fast-forward a few years, and the good people at Electronic Arts have hoisted their balls, pucks and pixels through the singularity of progress and come through the other side better than the real thing. There’s already a massive cadre of gamers who prefer a round of Madden to cringing through Bob Costa’s always-slightly-uncomfortable whimsy, and the same Aaron Rogers insurance commercial for hours on end. What happens when the controller becomes a better option than the remote, not just for gamers, but for everybody?
Games like Blitz, NBA Jam, and even Punch-Out toyed around with exaggerated aspects of this idea, and were successful in their own way, but what if a game designer thought up a way to deliver an experience more authentic, more engaging than the best Monday Night had to offer?
The easiest part to believe is that it’ll look better. The ways in which the human eye can appreciate the details of a live broadcast have almost hit their ceiling, but the artistry of the video game will only be limited by imagination. EA, with disappointing sales numbers that still range in the millions, have the budget for imaginations aplenty.
How about the human drama, the stories of triumph and heartbreak that give sports their color and make it more than just men dressed in advertisements kicking a ball around? Put Amy Henning from Naughty Dog in the driver’s seat and every team gets its own Rudy story sweet enough to mist up the eyes of every red-blooded man on the planet. And guess what? Tupac Shakur and Patsy Cline are playing the halftime show!
Maybe the best argument left for sports as they are is an appreciation for human achievement. Anybody can pick up a controller and score a touchdown, but it takes a life of dedication to go pro.
The gulf between a beer-leaguer and an MLB Allstar is one hell of a lot wider than that between a casual gamer and a hardcore, but the complexity for upper tier gamers is only growing, and with more disparity comes more levels of competition, more dedication required, and more drama. I can already do more with two joysticks than Sydney Crosby can with a Reebok.
In that same vein, there are limits to what the human players can do (despite what Marshawn Lynch would have you believe), where as with Dualshock in hand I can high-tackle Tony Romo play after play after play and nobody has to sit in a dark room for months on end afterwards.
At a certain point, the sports programmers replicate become the limiting factor on what the video game can or can’t do, and when we get there what’s to stop us from taking our 40-in-4.2 avatars and moving on? We certainly aren’t their yet, and the long-promised era of professional gaming has stalled again and again, but one thing’s for sure: Madden 15 is going to be better than 25, if only slightly, and we’ll be that much closer to where these questions need answers.