Here at The Sports Geeks, it isn’t all just sporting news and analysis; we like to touch on how sports play a role in other aspects of daily life as well. For this article, I’m taking a look at EA Sports’ Madden NFL video game franchise and a potential opportunity for this year’s demo to help teach fans about this year’s new playoff overtime rules.
Edit: Thanks go out to PastaPadre, a leader in the sports video game community, for mentioning this story in his April 13th, 2010 write-up on the Madden NFL 11 demo.
In the video game business, few games are as sure a sale as EA Sports’ yearly incarnation of the Madden NFL series. Since an exclusivity deal was struck between the NFL and EA Sports in December of 2004, the series has been the only officially-licensed video game representation of the league. While this move angered fans of the NFL 2K Sports series of football games, sales of Madden NFL have not shown any signs of slowing down; such is the safety of being the only licensed product on the market.
With the introduction of the current console generation, the Madden NFL team has put out a downloadable game demo on the online services for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 before the retail release of the full title for the past few versions of their title. Some might argue the necessity of such a demo—given that consumers surely know from year-to-year whether or not they’ll be making a purchase—but in some ways the demo has come to serve the role of a “teaser,” satisfying the appetites of gamers waiting for the new iteration of the game as the season approaches.
Setting a Precedent
In years past, the traditional practice of demos for sports games has been to stage a rematch of the sport’s championship game. This year’s MLB 2K10 demo featured a 2009 World Series rematch between the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Yankees at the new Yankee Stadium. The NHL 10 demo (another EA Sports product) featured the third period of 2009 Stanley Cup Finals Game 7 between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings. NBA 2K10’s demo was a 2009 NBA Finals rematch between the Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Lakers at the Staples Center.
In the Madden NFL 10 demo that was made available to customers who pre-ordered the game at their local GameStop retailers, the demo re-staged Super Bowl XLIII between the Arizona Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay, Florida with the stadium decorated in Super Bowl colors. The demo for Madden NFL 09 famously tasked the player with stepping into Eli Manning’s cleats and recreating the New York Giants’ last-minute Super Bowl XLII victory over the previously-undefeated New England Patriots at University of Phoenix Stadium.
That said, there have been exceptions to this “championship rematch” rule. In last year’s Madden NFL 10 demo that was made available to customers who did not pre-order the game, the demo featured a game between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants at Giants Stadium in the snow. Also, this year’s MLB 10: The Show demo featured a match-up between last year’s World Series Champion New York Yankees and the Minnesota Twins; the reason? Besides the fact that Twins catcher Joe Mauer was the cover athlete, the developers took it as an opportunity to debut their digital version of the new home of the Twins, Target Field.
The Madden NFL 11 Demo Process
For the Madden NFL 11 demo, fans have been asked to select between the last three games of the 2009 NFL season: Super Bowl XLIV (New Orleans Saints vs. Indianapolis Colts), the AFC Championship Game (New York Jets vs. Indianapolis Colts) or the NFC Championship Game (Minnesota Vikings vs. New Orleans Saints). At the time of this story being written, the AFC Championship is ahead of the other choices with very solid lead (58% of the overall vote compared to 21% for Saints-Colts and 20% for Vikes-Saints). This is, for reasons that will be made clear, quite unfortunate.
While opening the decision of which teams will be featured in the demo makes solid sense from a public-relations standpoint—creating a situation where the consumer has a voice in the franchise’s decision-making—it clouds a perfect situation for this year’s demo in light of the recent decision at the NFL Owner’s Meetings to implement new playoff overtime rules. Speaking as somebody who has attempted to write out an explanation of the new playoff overtime rules, it can be difficult to clearly explain all of the new rules to both hardcore and casual fans alike. Chances are, there will be some fans who download the demo who have no idea that any rule changes have taken place.
A Reasoned Proposal
Consider this demo proposal: the player boots up the game demo, selects whether they want to play as the Minnesota Vikings or the New Orleans Saints, and then the game takes them directly to the start of the overtime period in the NFC Championship Game at the Louisiana Superdome; the score is tied 28-28 and if you choose to play as the Vikings, you call the toss. Whether you win or lose on the call, the game progresses into the overtime period.
Here is where the Madden NFL 11 demo can serve as an instructional tool on the behalf of the league; there is no question that thousands of players will be getting their hands on the game demo to scratch that video game football itch. By placing the gamer into a playoff overtime situation—using the new rules that will be in place for the 2010 NFL season and Madden NFL 11—there can be a clear and direct articulation of the new rules.
If you win the toss, a prompt comes up to give you the basic information about how playoff overtime rules have changed; most importantly, that a field goal on the first offensive possession no longer wins the game. With that short prompt, the player already knows that the days of a field goal winning the game in playoff overtime are over. The player can then face the tough decision that coaches will be scrutinized for making come next year’s first playoff overtime game: do you take the ball and hope that whatever you can score is good enough? Or do you kick off and hope that your defense can put your team in a position to win on a field goal?
If the player gets the ball first and has to punt or turns the ball over, another prompt will come up to let them know that because each team is now guaranteed to have had an overtime possession, sudden death is back in play with the next team to score points of any kind winning the game. This will help them realize the need to play strong team defense on the coming possession.
If you lose the toss and have to kick off, a prompt will come up informing you that the opposing team has to score a touchdown to win the game outright. This lets the player know that a strong defensive effort—being sure to prevent a touchdown at all costs—will allow them the opportunity to answer on offense.
While a demo that only features an overtime period might face criticism for being too short—though, for comparison’s sake, the Cowboys-Giants demo for Madden NFL 10 only featured minute-long quarters in a “full” game and the Madden NFL 09 demo put 1:30 on the clock for the “Madden Moment” in the 4th quarter of Super Bowl XLII—this seems like a no-brainer in terms of making a clear connection between the NFL as a league and Madden NFL as the official video game representation of the sport. Through such a situation, the league and EA Sports would no longer just be business partners; they would be digital ambassadors towards this “brave new world” of revised playoff overtime rules. The only way, as a writer, that I could put together my article explaining the new rules was to posit specific situations; by putting the video game player into the situation, the game would teach these rules and situations in an organic manner.
What’s (Nearly) Done is Done
The issue now is that this fan vote has been publicized and countless fans have made their voices heard; such a demo setup as I’ve suggested here, though it would succeed at the goal of informing the NFL fan-base of these new rules, would also ignore the votes of 79% of the Madden NFL community who have voted for either Super Bowl XLIV or the AFC Championship Game to be featured in the demo instead of seeing the Vikings and Saints.
As a member of the “voting community,” my personal choice was the NFC Championship Game, even before the thoughts I’ve put into writing here came to mind. Of the three games up for the vote, it was the closest in terms of final point-spread and featured the drama of sudden-death playoff overtime. The finish was so emotional that the league is even considering having a Vikings-Saints rematch at the Superdome to open the 2010 season. Once the Jets allowed the Colts to drive for a late 2nd-quarter touchdown in the AFC Championship Game, most fans got the sense that the momentum had irreversibly shifted, despite the strong showing New York had in the first half otherwise. And while Saints fans would argue that Super Bowl XLIV should be the focus game of the demo—an argument hard to oppose, given the appearance of Super Bowls XLII and XLIII in the past two demos—the way the game played out does not lend itself to the potential teaching opportunity discussed here.
In the end, it may already be too late for the hard-working individuals at EA Sports to do anything about this situation. Voting is open and the teams in the demo will be announced on April 22nd, 2010—the same day that the Madden NFL 10 cover athlete is announced at the 2010 NFL Draft. If the demo voting continues in the same direction it’s trending right now, the clear winner will result in a Madden NFL 11 demo that sees the Jets and Colts doing battle in the AFC Championship Game at Lucas Oil Stadium; unless the development team decides to take a page from the MLB 10: The Show playbook and set the game at New Meadowlands Stadium to debut the digital version of the NFL’s newest home field.
The Realistic Conclusion
Should that happen, 58% of current voters will be satisfied. In a perfect world, all three games could be included as “Madden Moments” to satisfy 100% of those interested in the product.
Imagine having a demo that gives you the opportunity to…
- Take over as the Jets to start the 2nd half of the AFC Championship Game trying to change history and make it to the Super Bowl…
- Be put in the position of the Saints’ defense trying to stop Peyton Manning’s drive that was ended by Tracy Porter’s pick-6 in the real life version of Super Bowl XLIV…
- Or take control of Brett Favre (assuming he doesn’t retire for the 2010 season) and lead the Vikings to the Super Bowl with an overtime victory over the Saints.
What a value that would be for a demo; and a great way to reach out to fans of all four teams involved in the voting.
But that’s too idealistic; a demo takes a significant amount of effort while the game is still in the process of being finalized for release, and downloadable demos aim to be a certain file size to accommodate gamers of all internet connection types. Should the voters will have their say, and the Jets and Colts serve as the game for the demo, nearly 60% of the current voters will be satisfied—the remaining percentage will be mildly disgruntled, but they will still download and play the demo regardless.
However, in this situation, EA Sports and the NFL may find that they have missed a major opportunity to use the introduction of new rules to the game as an educational opportunity and a setup for their highly-publicized product demo. If the Jets-Colts match-up wins the people’s vote for inclusion in the Madden NFL 11 demo, my personal suggestion to the Madden NFL development team would be to further break from the established tradition: don’t make the Jets-Colts demo match-up a re-staging of the 2009 AFC Championship game; set it up as a 2010 Playoff Game between the Jets and Colts at New Meadowlands Stadium, taking a page from my proposal above and beginning play at the start of overtime in a tie game. This proposal would allow players to use the teams winning the majority vote on the Madden NFL website while also teaching the new playoff overtime rules.
This is a big opportunity for both EA Sports and the NFL, particularly if the new playoff overtime rules are extended to cover regular season overtime as well at the next set of owner’s meetings. It is relatively rare for a major sport like American football to have such a significant change to its rules; teaching these rules through the entertainment format of the Madden NFL 11 demo would promote a deeper synergy between the franchise and the league.