The Evolution of Video Game Football and How Best Buy Is an Enabler

I remember the first time I played a football video game. It was Troy Aikman NFL Football for the Sega Genesis and it literally blew my seven-year-old mind. I could call any play imaginable (from a generic playbook with about 30 options), I could control everything my ball-carrier did (four cardinal directions on the D-pad and three different “moves” I could do to elude defenders) and even spread the offense out and run routes with up to three (!) available receivers. The possibilities were endless. It was 1994 and with Aikman’s game, NBA JAM and the stampede level of the Lion King (a 3D level built for a 2D system), I was in video game heaven. It could never get better than this.

Screen Shot 2013-12-06 at 1.48.40 PMLast Monday, I was invited to Best Buy to witness San Francisco’s leg of the Ultimate Gamers Showdown, a Madden 25 tournament. I’ve never been to a video game tournament before and had 0.00 expectations regarding how serious it would be. I mean, I went to college and I’m a male, so I know the importance of the game and I’ve seen people play it who I assumed knew what they were doing. Here’s what I found out Monday night: Madden 25 is clear evidence that video game football has evolved into something beautifully complex that demands a serious amount of attention and skill. There are playbooks designed specifically for each coach on each team. In fact, before UGS games, each player is allowed three minutes of pre-game roster/playbook tweaking. The games are played with three-minute quarters, so if each player takes the fully allotted roster setup time, it could be as long as half the game.

Remember when Peyton Manning transformed the NFL by lining the offense up and then changing the play based on his read of the defense? It fundamentally changed football. Remember when Madden introduced a load of new in-formation audibles? Same effect for video game football. In short, the game is so advanced now that it necessitated a proper event. And that’s exactly what I walked into at Best Buy.

Madden 25 Tournament SFThe tournament was legit. Professional hype man legit. Capital-G Gamer legit. Professional athlete legit (Mario Manningham was there to sign autographs and shake hands). The winner took home a $1000 Best Buy gift card and gets to fly to Dallas next weekend to play the seven other city winners to determine superiority. Here’s the kicker: the Ultimate Gamers Showdown Elite 8 games aren’t played in some hotel conference room or weekend convention center, they’re played in HD on the Dallas Cowboys video screen. The one that’s so big it blocks punts. The one that’s so big they had to re-write NFL rules to account for it.

This thing wasn’t a couple of college guys wasting time in a dorm room, it was an actual group of talented Gamers competing against in each other in actual weight-carrying games with something on the line; Gamers that don’t play Madden, they practice Madden. I was amazed at how conversational these players were in advanced football play-calling language.

The Ultimate Gamers Showcase is proof of how fundamentally huge the Madden franchise has gotten and how the video game sports industry has taken off. It was exciting to be around a bunch of people who honestly, genuinely knew about football, and the learned from the game. It makes me happy to know that virtual football can escalate the amount of information involved in sports fandom and I’m glad that the UGS can show me this world.

For everyone wondering what actually happens at a Madden tournament, here are some observations I made at the event:

  • All but one of the contestants was male — What did you expect?
  • One contestant (the one highlighted in the previous point) played as the Jaguars — I was really hoping that someone would have the balls to do this. A more accurate representation of reality is that someone didn’t have the balls to play as the Jaguars. I watched her game pretty closely because there are only two reasons someone comes to a serious gaming tournament with a serious prize and plays as the Jags: 1) They’re so insanely confident in their skills that they’ll play as the worst team and still win every game 40-0 or 2) They don’t know what they’re doing. Unfortunately, it was that one.
  • The most surprisingly represented team? Kansas City for sure.

    The most surprisingly represented team? Kansas City for sure.

    There wasn’t nearly as much smack talk as I was expecting — I don’t know why I thought this, but I pictured the event as being rife with the foulest kind of smacktalk imaginable. It was extremely humane, with players frequently complimenting each other. Game recognize Game, I guess.

  • Most of the Gamers played with the 49ers — That’s probably because I’m in SF, but also because the Niners are the perfect video game football team. The defense is outstanding, the quarterback is fast and the running back is tough to tackle. In fact, the championship game was 49ers vs. 49ers (an aspect of video game football that cannot be matched by real football). It’s fitting that the SF representative played with the Niners. After the Niners, the most-played teams were the Broncos, Seahawks, Chiefs and Cowboys. One person played with each of the the Saints, Packers, Eagles, Panthers and Jags.
  • The most serious local Gamers wore Navorro Bowman jerseys — I was expecting Kaep or Willis or Gore or McFadden or even Pryor. Apparently, in SF, the jersey that you wear to showcase your dedication, authenticity and overall OG-ness is Bowman. And not screen printed, I’m talking sewn-on, game-ready jerseys. It really surprised me.
  • From what I saw, the Madden game is transforming to a very pass-heavy style, just like the real NFL — The difference is that NFL rule changes have made it virtually impossible to cover wide receivers. The virtual game is like that because the player controlling the quarterback has a ridiculously good view of the defense and can simultaneously escape the pass rush while eyeing the downfield receivers. I don’t know why I thought this, but I always assumed that professional Madden Gamers would run a lot, but that wasn’t the case.
  • Fake field goals and punts were illegal  — I was expecting to see how the trick plays were handled, but the UGS took take of that by outlawing every trick play except onside kicks for losing teams in the fourth quarter. Also, manual blocking of field goals, punts and extra points was disallowed, because I imagine legit Gamers can block at a rate absurd enough to seriously jeopardize the fidelity of the games.

If you’re curious about anything specifically that did or didn’t go on at the event, let me know in the comments and I’ll tell you what I can.