All screenshots from 'Madden 15'
As an Englishman, I get a lot of confused looks when I tell people that my favourite sport is American football. This hasn't always been the case though. Of course I love our football (soccer, if you're weird and/or simply raised in North America), even though consistent problems constantly attempt to break down my unwavering love of Newcastle United. I'm also a big fan of cricket, with England's 2005 Ashes victory an obvious high point. Back then, I thought American football was just rugby where the players wore padding and helmets because they didn't want to get hurt. I called it American hand-egg. Actually I still do because, come on, they barely ever touch the ball with their feet.
I didn't know what I was missing until my first year of university. In February 2010 there was an event in the student union building that lasted well into the early hours of the morning. Instead of the usual Jägerbombs and dubstep, there were chicken wings and The Who. Hundreds of us turned up to watch the New Orleans Saints defeat the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV, making them National Football League (NFL) champions for that season. And while I barely knew what was going on, I felt like there might be something to all of this.
However, the Super Bowl marks the end of the American football season, so I figured I'd have to wait until September to get my next taste. But I didn't have to wait quite that long, because in August Madden NFL 11 came out. I was hesitant at first. Did I really want to spend 40 quid on a game I might not even like? Then I remembered I had a student loan, so later that day I was booting up my PS3 to see what I could learn.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees was on the game's cover, the man I had seen lift the Super Bowl trophy a few months ago. Dressed in gold and black, captured in the middle of his throwing action, he almost looked like he was part of a poster for Marvel's next superhero movie. I was excited to start playing and learn what this game was all about. But instantly I hit a snag.
Sports games these days all do that thing where it asks you to select your favourite team when you first load the game. I didn't even know the rules of American football, let alone who my favourite team was. The Saints were the obvious choice. They were the champions, and their quarterback was on the cover of the game. But I didn't want to make it that easy. I wanted to learn the game, and I didn't think I'd do that by having the best team and winning every matchup. I flicked through all the teams, 32 in all, each of their logos further suggesting to me that the players are seen as superheroes. Big cats, lightning bolts, pirate flags, birds of prey... this was a daunting choice.
I ruled out the top teams. I also ruled out the bottom teams – I didn't want the experience to be too hard. So I was left with the mid-tablers, the Evertons and Southamptons of the NFL. A friend of mine was studying at Washington State University at the time, I like a lot of bands from Seattle, and birds are pretty cool, so I ended up picking the Seahawks. Back in the 2009 season, the Seahawks only won five of their 16 games. In this new instalment of Madden, their rating was 75, compared to the Saints' 92. I was interested to discover how important this statistical difference was.
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Jumping into my first game with the Seahawks, I was immediately struck by how deep American football really is. I knew that the team on offense have four "downs" to move the ball ten yards down the field. If they get past that mark, they get another four opportunities to go another ten. The team defending has the simple task of stopping them. But watching on TV hadn't given me the right idea about just how many plays a team can run on each down. I flipped through page after page of different formations for runs and throws, not knowing what any of the words meant. Shotgun formation? Maybe they really do need those helmets after all.
Thankfully, gridiron legend and playbook genius John Madden was on hand to help out – having leant his name to EA's series since 1988 (just look at this cover art, seriously), he sees it as being educational, and a place for simulating plays before attempting them for real. For every play, you get a recommended action. The Seahawks have a strong running back, a player occupying the offensive backfield that can rush the opposition, so I was often told to hand the ball off to him rather than throw it through the air. Arrows on the screen before the play began gave me a rough idea of where I was trying to get the ball. It was still complicated, but it was being presented to me in a relatively understandable manner. I was fascinated by the depth and variety, something I probably wouldn't have gotten a grasp of outside of a video game interpretation of the sport.
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Madden taught me that American football is very much about discipline. You have to do exactly what you're told, at exactly the right time, or the entire thing breaks down. This is especially true when you're defending. If you're supposed to be covering a guy, and you're not, then the attacking team will exploit that instantly. Just like when you're attacking, Madden will suggest a defensive formation for you when the opposition has the ball. In this situation you have no idea where the opposing players are going to be running, so the arrows aren't as much help. The other team would throw the ball to players I was supposed to be covering nearly every play. I took to controlling players on the defensive line – the huge guys who are there to combat the huge guys on the other team – until I could learn the game a bit more.
It was slow progress at first, but as matches went by I began to gather more knowledge. Time management was a big step. I noticed the clock stopped at the end of the play sometimes, but not all the time. Why was that? It turns out that if a player has possession of the ball and they are brought down within bounds, then the clock keeps running. Each team gets three timeouts per half that they can use to stop the clock at strategic intervals, but I soon learned that the two-minute warning that comes before half time and the end of the game acted as an extra timeout. As the team on offense, you want to eat up as much of the clock as possible if you're in the lead. This equates to using a lot of runs rather than throws, because these are more likely to result in the clock continuing to run at the end of the play. The defending team often use timeouts to prevent this.
The Madden games also taught me about irrational hatred. The NFL is split up into divisions, and you play each team in your division twice over the course of a season. I lost both my games to the San Francisco 49ers in my first season, and even began coming up with vicious names for the opposing players, which I won't share here. Little did I know at the time that this is a hatred shared by actual Seahawks fans, which made me feel a little better when I started watching the real thing – I was doing American football right!
The next thing I learned about was the pageantry. Obviously, watching the Super Bowl is often just as much about the spectacle as the game's result, with the halftime show in particular being a multi-million-dollar performance. But even in regular season games, the teams run out to booming music and the crowd roars as their favourite players emerge from the tunnel. I'm used to football – as in, soccer – teams walking out, standing in a line and then participating in a reserved hand-shaking ritual. So this was all very exciting. It got better when I won the Super Bowl in my first season (despite those losses to the 49ers, I wasn't playing on a very hard difficulty setting). I was treated to a hilarious cutscene that ended in a visit to the White House where an animated Barack Obama congratulated me on my victory. Five years later, I'm a huge Seahawks fan, and we've reached the Super Bowl two years in a row. The first ended in a huge win against the Denver Broncos, and a few months ago the second ended in a bitter defeat in the dying moments of the game to the New England Patriots.
It was lucky that I decided to purchase Madden NFL 11 when I did. If I had waited a month for the season to start, I probably would've been clueless while watching on television. I may have even given up right then. Even if I had continued, I probably would've ended up on the Saints bandwagon, and would've been disappointed a few months later when the Seahawks ended their playoff run, in part thanks to Marshawn Lynch's famous "Beastquake" run. Instead, the Beastquake just cemented my love of Seattle, and, thanks to Madden, American football became my favourite sport. Roll on the new Madden, and the new season.
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