UPDATE: I just received an email response from Cam Weber, GM of American Football for EA Sports. He writes: “In order to depict the seriousness of concussions, when a player is injured in a Madden NFL game, they will be tended to by the medical staff and then escorted off the field. If the injury is determined to be a possible concussion, the player will not be permitted back into the game. Madden NFL has been used to help teach the sport of football to several generations in regards to the rules and complexities of the sport. This is an opportunity to drive awareness to the serious nature of head injuries.”
“If it’s in the game, it’s in the game.” — original EA Sports motto
Every day we seem to find out more about what a costly game football can be to play.
Unless, of course, it’s from the safety of your living room.
As far as ancillary properties go, the “Madden” series is more pervasive than even the other huge trickle-down enterprises of the NFL; gambling and fantasy sports. “Madden” will reach single digit-aged kids as it will grizzled dads who first picked up “John Madden Football” when in 1990. As the result of EA Sports’ exclusive license, it’s the only game of its kind that can legally exist and include real teams and players.
With this kind of reach and exposure, “Madden” ultimately dictates in large part the official answer to the annual question “what is the NFL?” With EA Sports' mantra for crafting fun and realistic depictions of America’s most beloved sport, one would think the digital NFL would look a lot like the real one.
However, in the most glaring area of controversy the league and the sport faces, the “Madden” series has been largely silent. It’s not surprising, and isn’t necessarily an omission out of malice, but it’s one that’s worth examining.
Last season, there was a token nod in the game to the growing problem of players suffering in-game concussions. If a player suffered a serious head injury in the middle of a game, that player couldn’t return to action, just like the real sport.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this was a depiction of how things really went down? Sure, if you’re playing franchise mode, your player might miss a few more games, a season or, in rare instances, the rest of his career. But the game moves on, and head injuries are treated just like any other malady. Wait out the appropriate amount of time, and return to action.
Another notable feature of the real 2011 NFL season was the fact that the league’s commissioner Roger Goodell decided it was time to curtail brutality through justice. More players missed more games for suspensions related to on-field activity than any season in the league’s history. Players who went head-hunting lost money and playing time. On a week-to-week basis, these controversial plays and penalties were an inescapable part of being an NFL fan ... unless you picked up "Madden," which makes no mention of suspensions or even penalties for head-on collisions.
In some ways, “Madden Football 64” addressed player health in a more direct way 15 years ago. When a player was hurt in that game, two things would happen. First, a robotic Pat Summerall would declare, "Oh no, there’s a man down." Next, an ambulance would come out and cart the player off the field. It wasn’t necessarily realistic or meaningful, but it made you stop and notice something bad happened to a player on the field. There was a real 10-15 second break in the gameplay where the player literally had no other option but to recognize that someone got hurt playing football.
In the age of fluid user-interface design and simultaneous information, nothing is stopped and acknowledged in a modern “Madden” game. While you’re picking plays, players are subbing out and regrouping on the field. While you’re changing strategy, you’re prompted about an earlier injury that went by too quickly to see. Maybe the in-game commentators mentioned that a player was hurt and wouldn’t be returning, or maybe something else happened too quickly and drew their attention away.
EA Sports did not respond to a request for comment, but There are three likely key reasons why we won’t see a truly “realistic” NFL-licensed game tackling the complex issue of football head injuries.
One is that the issue is new and complex. For centuries, humans have known smashing your head repeatedly isn’t a healthy activity. But the specific action of playing a sport such as football is one that has been painfully understudied in the game’s brief history. This is a problem, but nobody seems to have the first idea how to prevent the tragic path that could have contributed to the deaths of Junior Seau and many other former players. Even if the game’s developers had the technical ability to weave in meaningful depictions and dialog around head injuries, what would we tell them to say?
Omitting the issue is also largely technical. EA has a limited budget of disc space to pack in as much football into 7 gigabytes and change as they can. If something is added, something needs to go. On such a short development cycle, sweeping changes to the game need to be decided almost as soon as the prior year’s game comes out. The best-selling game also needs to cater to casual players, hardcore dynasty aficionados and dedicated online competitors, leaving little area to play around within a given year.
The No. 1 reason this isn’t going to be EA’s big reveal at June's E3 Expo is that it’s a damning, ugly problem for the NFL. While “Madden” proudly, vocally strives to be a realistic depiction of the NFL, it’s more closely a carefully controlled version of how the NFL wants to be perceived. If EA decided to take a moral stand and include the game's harsh, repugnant side, one can imagine what effect that would have on the business of selling “Madden.” Just look at what happened to the ill-fated ESPN original series “Playmakers,” a fictional show about the seedy underbelly of football. As an NFL broadcast licensee, ESPN folded to the NFL’s wishes and canned the show after only 11 episodes.
It’s interesting to note that the Players Association and the league dole out licenses separately. It’s happened before, where games have had licensed teams but not players, and vice versa. If “Madden” continues to gloss over players' health and safety concerns to cater to the league, it’s not impossible to envision the NFLPA pulling their license and forcing EA to use real teams with generic players. Much like the 2011 NFL labor dispute, it seems there’s too much money involved for it to come to that. But with the avalanche of lawsuits from ex-players mounting, one would assume the NFLPA will do what it takes to protect its laborers.
It’s unclear how the makers of “Madden” should react to what's happening in football right now. Something is very wrong, and with recently retired players dropping like discarded chattel, it’s hard for anyone to deny it. There’s no clear mode or feature that “Madden” is omitting, but for a simulation, it’s doing a poor job of reflecting the brutal reality of head trauma. It is undeniably and painfully in the game, but it is certainly not “in the game.”