Could it go all the way? A look at Madden and esports

NFL players Teddy Bridgewater and Cam Newton compete in the "EA SPORTS Madden Bowl XX", on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014 in New York. Donald Traill/Invision/EA SPORTS/AP Images


On Tuesday, Curtis Martin donned a Denver Broncos uniform alongside Marshawn Lynch and Greg Olsen, and faced off against a Carson Palmer-led Pittsburgh Steelers. It didn't take long before Martin benefited from the halfback toss, sowing disarray into a defense that took a wild trip to pancake city. The scenario repeated itself enough times that, with two minutes left, the Broncos were up 37-0.

Suddenly, the game halted, revealing the pause menu of EA Sports' flagship NFL game, "Madden NFL 16." Soon after, two players appeared on their seats: a calm, yet jubilant, Derek "DJONES" Jones, opposite a distraught Anthony "Young Nephew" Brinson - who had far better days in 2008. After gathering himself and against all odds, Young Nephew opted to resume the game and attempt to score a touchdown before bowing out.

The game ended with a 44-7 score and allowed DJONES to send a clear message to opponents from across the U.S.: Who will be up to the challenge? Who will stop him on the way to a Madden Challenge title?

Hard to say, but the scenario above would never have happened if former Oakland Raiders coach John Madden had not collaborated with Electronic Arts in to create the franchise in 1988. The world of sport simulations changed forever when Madden brought his expertise to a team of video game developers, paving the way for a revolution in the field. Had Madden not succeeded, one would have to wonder if the FIFA video game series would have been born in 1993.

Electronic Arts, the house that Madden and FIFA built, is doubling down on promoting its flagship sports titles for esports. First, the company announced the EA Competitive Gaming Division in December of 2015, led by gaming industry vet Peter Moore, with the intention "to create highly-engaging competitive experiences with our games."

Second, they continue to cross over real life with games by supporting the annual Madden Bowl prior to the Super Bowl (this year taking place Thursday). It's a marquee event, and this year features the Madden Challenge's final round with Michael "Skimbo" Skimbo and Zackary "Serious Moe" Lane. The Madden Bowl, an NFL-player only event, will feature Green Bay Packers running back Eddie Lacy and Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry on the NFL side.

While the move to support sport sims in the growing esports ecosystem is big news, many wonder if it's a worthwhile endeavour. Can a game that emulates real life, something you can physically go and spectate or partake in, compete with the likes of League of Legends and Counter-Strike:GO?

First quarter: The history

The competitive announcement and continued support of the Madden event help to bridge sports and esports, just as sport simulations have in the past.

Scott Cole has been at the frontier between sports and esports for 18 years, from commentating to playing video games professionally. Cole can recall when sports games started becoming massive hits. "You had actual plays, actual players, real rules. It actually felt like a true simulation. Before that, everything else was very arcade-ish.

"From there, they just continued to develop their presentation, and now they have camera angles that, as a real sports broadcaster for real football, we can't even get those angles. It's virtually mind-blowing."

Madden's accent on realism, the inclusion of true-to-form playbooks, game commentary, and the focus on simulation may have driven hardware to a crawl at the start, but it sparked a revolution for EA, and for the sports video game sector at large. Twenty-seven years later, EA Sports finds itself responsible for the development of marquee franchises, namely Madden NFL and FIFA.

For a long time, EA was also on top of the basketball simulation world with the NBA Live franchise until 2K Studios overtook them. The competition in the space helped reinforce the necessity of sports games, and capturing the authenticity of the sport itself. It even helped further innovate the space, as the player rating concept introduced in the late '80s, for example, blossomed into a deeper, more complex entity.

Cole weighed in: "I think with the ratings getting deeper and deeper, and people at 2K and EA dedicated to just watching the actual sports to tweak their ratings, these live rosters, not live to the game but for any sports game, they are constantly updating the rosters based on the player's current performance."

The ties between the real world and the game are there. Budding and current football players refer to Madden NFL as a valuable knowledge base for plays and tactics, citing it as a tool for high-school players to learn to read the odd blitz or Cover 3 defense, and for rookie NFL quarterbacks to increase their understanding of the game. Former Broncos wide receiver Brandon Stokley strategically extended a touchdown play in a 2009 bout against the Cincinnati Bengals by running parallel to the goal line before stepping in - a maneuver typical of Madden players.

In addition, video game players who sample the excitement of sports in turn became fans. According to an ESPN poll conducted by Luker on Trends and released by EA in 2014, 34 percent of FIFA players became fans of pro soccer after they played the game.

Second quarter: Developers, developers, developers

It is a direct consequence of the following point: Games can deliver almost true-to-life experiences. In 2015, Madden predicted with near-pinpoint accuracy the outcome of the Super Bowl bout between the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots: 28-24 Patriots. It predicted a 14-24 third-quarter deficit (accurate), with Tom Brady throwing for four touchdowns (exactly what happened) and 321 yards (he finished with 328).

Madden may have set the stage for sports simulations to succeed, but FIFA's growth trickled into other sport sims and popularized the genre. It is the first game to feature professional women players in its latest iteration, "FIFA 16."

The potential influx of players may discover what many have discovered before: the appeal of sport simulations. "I've always felt that FIFA has been ahead of the curve, and they've set the standard for all [sports] video games, whether it's Ultimate Team, Career Mode, Pro Clubs," Cole said. "There's modes that people don't even touch. Some people just play Ultimate Team. Some people just play Career Mode."

The software maker and soccer's governing body have partnered since 2000 on the FIFA Interactive World Cup. Players from across the globe face off for a prize pool, turning unknowns into champions, like in 2015 with Saudi Arabia's Abdulaziz Alshehri. That partnership contributed to the rise of "sports esports."

However, FIFA 15's total prize pool ($143,283) pales in comparison with the highest recorded earnings for a Dota 2 (Sumail "SumaiL" Hassan's $1,730,076) or League of Legends player (Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok's $207,158, not counting salary and endorsements), or even with the prize pool available during the height of the Championship Gaming Series in 2006 and 2007 ($220,555). According to Cole, the matter is clear: Valve's and Riot Games' involvement have helped shape their current esports climate more than any other esport before them.

"The responsibility is on the developer as much as the league itself. The reason League of Legends has blown up is that ... the developer, from the beginning, has the power to decide if it's gonna be an esports game."

EA Sports and 2K Sports have taken note; the two game studios are testing different formulas to that effect, and both have merits on their own.

Third quarter: Building the esport

This year, EA Sports' Madden strayed away from FIFA's Ultimate Team and preset squad approach, or from its progamer versus player showdowns, with the introduction of its Draft Champions mode; players draft a coach (and their playbook) and shape their play around it in a draft system akin to Hearthstone's Arena mode, gradually filling key positions to facilitate their game plan. Unlike Madden Ultimate Team's focus on acquiring the strongest players at every position, players start on a level field and build strengths at key positions, therefore creating weaknesses in others.

"What Draft Champions does, like the real NFL, is that it allows you to have advantages at certain positions," Cole said. "If I draft a bunch of wide receivers and you didn't draft any good cornerbacks, now I have a 93[-rated] Herman Moore at WR, a legend player from the Detroit Lions, going against your 72[-rated] Cornerback who's not as fast, not as tall and not as quick."

With such restrictions, the abilities to build a team and execute a game plan are in full display, akin to a StarCraft player's micromanagement aptitudes and their ability to build the right army composition to counter an opponent's. Self-expression also becomes an important aspect.

"For a guy like Eric 'Problem' Wright, who's one of the best Madden players in the world and is in the Madden Challenge tournament, the NFL Live Challenge, he's a run-heavy kind of guy," Cole pointed out. "He has the opportunity to draft two running backs, when maybe someone like Skimbo [a passing type] rarely runs it."

Madden's formula appeals to the cerebral solo player, whereas NBA 2K's (and NBA Live's) approach combines the might of five players, each at a set position, to build a team. Similar to World of Warcraft, player characters would be created in advance; on NBA 2K, MyPlayer characters are the focus of the Pro-Am mode - which is similar to the Crew Mode of previous iterations. Cole thinks this is the best approach on the team-focused American market, suggesting it as a possible option for Madden competition.

"I love the fact of individual players controlling an individual person. And I think that's tough to do on Madden, but for FIFA, NBA 2K and other games, I definitely think that would work. Maybe on Madden, you have five guys and they play all the skill positions. You have quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers, and on the other side you have linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks."

Fourth quarter: Making the connection

Sport simulations benefit from the sports they emulate; some within the NFL consider Madden as the "33rd franchise" as the developers have full access to the league's video repository, helping them refine and retool. NBA players frequently advise developers on 2K Games and Electronic Arts on the state of their simulations and are avid players themselves.

However, "sports esports" faces a challenge that other esports titles don't: They contend with their real sports counterpart. Why watch someone control Peyton Manning, who in Madden amounts to just 1s and 0s, tossing a great pass when you can appreciate the actual athleticism of him doing it in real life? Fortunately, recent trends have pushed sport sim developers and leagues to provide better means for the scenes to grow, be it the Madden Live Challenge, the NBA 2K Pro-Am Challenge or the aforementioned FIWC.

"I've had so many talks with the MLS, the MLB and the NBA on how can we integrate our game to the league beyond the licensing," Cole said. "How can we leverage professional gamer competition to help grow our brand?"

The future of sport simulations still remains bright, for as long as sports inspire fans and players worldwide, so will their simulation counterparts. In sports esports, players are able to inspire and reach out to audiences, much as an Olof "olofmeister" Kajbjer would in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive through dominant performances and streaming, or as a Michael "imaqtpie" Santana would entertaining his League of Legends fan base. In the world of sport simulations, Edwin "Castro1021" Castro, Chris Smoove and Eric "Problem" Wright come as apt comparisons.

The biggest advantage sports esports has over other titles consists of the shelf lives, lest sportsmen stop playing altogether. The existence of their real world counterparts, the crossover appeal to sportsmen (who would read situations as they develop and respond accordingly were they to play the games), and their cross-generational impact across the world have kept the scenes afloat."

"The thing about sports video games, it lets us live out our imaginations," said Cole. "Everyone has been in the backyard kicking that goal in a game-winning penalty kick, or catching a touchdown pass to win it, or hitting a three-pointer in the backyard to win the world championship. We're able to take that on video games and let our imaginations run wild."