Year after year, Madden NFL is one of the most popular video games on store shelves. But for some fans, the sport's bleak politics and the way that it's played professionally can make football video games hard to enjoy. Rob Dubbin, game developer and former writer for The Colbert Report, is trying to create a quirky, nostalgic and blunt alternative called Football for Amateurs that anyone can like.
"The perspective that I'm going for is that you're half-coach half-fan," said Dubbin, the game's lone developer. "What I think makes it for amateurs is it's very simplified. You fire up Madden and you have 300 plays to choose from on any given down. Whereas here, it's as simple as a coin flip, or rock paper scissors—deciding if you're going to run or pass—and the defence is doing the same thing."
Football for Amateurs both plays and looks like a cross between Mattel's Electronic Football and a Cold War-era missile console. The game is mostly text-based, distilling the sport down into its most brutally basic parts. In its current build, scrolling lines of white, blue, pink, green and yellow list stats, orders, players and plays.
It looks more like you're programming a modern sports game than playing one.
A lifelong football fan raised in 1980s Miami, Dubbin grew up during the city's hottest football decade. The Hurricanes, Miami's college team, took the AP championships in 1983, 1987, 1989 and 1991. But over the years his disillusionment with the sport has grown—and he doesn't think he's the only one.
"I think there's an idea in our culture right now that football isn't great," said Dubbin. "That football has some drawbacks that we need to talk about or consider, for injury reasons or collegiate industrial complexes, all that stuff. I think I caught on earlier than some that there were elements of football that isn't ideal, and that made me question my dedication to it and how invested I was."
This year's outrage concerned cheating, the Super Bowl played amidst controversy over deflated balls. Previous scandals have ranged from brain injuries to domestic violence off the field. Even games based on the sport itself have controversies of their own, from Madden's portrayal of concussions to compensating college athletes for their likeness.
"That's the reason I started to make this game. I wanted to capture the essence of what I liked about it, sort of simulate the parts of football that I enjoyed, [and] work from there, the bottom up," he explained. It's something Dubbin has been tinkering with over two years. The build I played was made for the Independent Games Festival and for Babycastles, an art and arcade space. Dubbin hasn't set a release date, but plans to launch the game on iOS devices.
You start Football for Amateurs by choosing your home city from three randomly generated options. I was offered Old Brunswick, Pawtucket, and Newfoundland (which is a province, thank you). After you choose your franchise, you're given a basic report card on your team's skills. Even if the stats weren't flattering, Cs across the board, how could I say no to a franchise named the Newfoundland Hand-Me-Downs?
Our first match was played against the Charleston Holdovers, known for their speed and star player, Logan Golson. My team had quarterback Travis Everett, an award-winning short order chef; Thomas Hawkins, an aspiring horse thief; and "Rodney Carroll," an actor-in-hiding. We lost after my rivals had a breakaway run in the second down. If only Everett was as good at carrying the team as he is at culinary arts.
You don't actually see the players. Their formations and executions are just in your imagination. On the field, all you see is the ball, what direction it's going, and a straight line showing how it got there. It may seem a little dehumanizing to reduce each team to names and blips on a map, but via the game's roster menu you can gather more important details.
For example, linebacker Daniel Blake has an obsession with Korean Civil War memorabilia, according to a description, while running back Jake Rhodes' is capable of authentic facial expressions. It's a slight subversion of the features found in Madden NFL and other football games, which attempt to replicate an athlete's uncanny likeness with 3D modelling, but put in little effort to humanize them.
Dubbin speaks highly of football's ebbs and flows, and it's one of the sport's aspects that figures prominently in his game as well. Most of the game consists of trying to second-guess your artificial opponent—like computer chess, but with only two moves. Do you pass or do you run? Do you defend against a pass or a run? After you make your decision, a little bouncy synthetic bongo rhythm plays as two sportscasters dictate everything happening that you cannot see (which is most of the game).
You control the decision but not the outcome, and each play put me on the edge of my La-Z-Boy as if it was game day. "This is going down like the stock market in a mineshaft!" said the blue announcer of Hand-Me-Downs, as I lost to the Holdovers.
For seekers of thrill and spectacle, Football for Amateurs may be, well, too basic compared to the blockbuster Madden NFL experience. But for players who want a football game without all the baggage of the NFL, Dubbin is making a more nostalgic game about the sport he first fell in love with as a kid.
"For amateurs, I'd like to have it take a double meaning," said Dubbin. "I'd love it to become collegiate football, I want to have recruiting, dynamics of loss and reloading. But also I want it to be accessible to people who don't necessarily care about football. I'd to be able to appreciate it in those dynamics, where no one actually gets their heads bashed in, or no one's actually has their knees explodes. The good parts, a little place to have that. To get that flavour without feeling like I was contributing to a problematic enterprise."