For widely divergent reasons, a lot of people think neither Brett Favre nor Michael Vick should be playing in the National Football League this year. There's only one place where they can do anything about it though. Their game console.
If you find Favre's narcissism, serial retirements and scheming against his former team offensive, you can put his arse on a bus back to Mississippi yourself. For good. If Vick's crimes are so repellent to you that he should never again take the field, you can deliver a banishment that no union, contract or court can overturn. Play on, for you are the lord high commissioner of a league of your own, in a world where what should happen, does.
By no means is this a suggestion that refusing to play Favre, now of the Vikings, or Vick, he of the Eagles, is suddenly the trend among Madden NFL 10 players. Even if it was, it'd be impossible to measure.
But the capability is there, in all sports games. And they represent one more channel in which some fans can react to leagues that feel increasingly monolithic, unjust, lawyered-up, whatever. And even if titles keep adding network branding or broadcast coverage elements, the good thing about Madden NFL 10, or NBA 2K9 or MLB '09: The Show, is that most of the news does not happen off the field.
Sports simulations were not born on the consoles. APBA Baseball, a dice-and-card game, has been around for decades, and spun off sims through all team sports, plus boxing. And granted, player perception and misbehaviour—especially before free agency in all leagues—was a much different issue in the 1960s and early 1970s than now.
But 40 years ago, if a guy was suspended, "we didn't really base our teams on what was happening in the real world," said Rick Cerrone, a gamer and formerly the head of the New York Yankees' public relations office from 1996 to 2006. In a 22-year career as a PR professional in sports, Cerrone has seen the fan-team relationship morph from that of worshipful subject into something more befitting a paying customer who expects strong quality for his $US50 ticket. And when they're disappointed, today they may instantly take to talk radio, to blogs, to commenting logs—or even to their games—to make their opinion felt.
"My son now is 16, he just got his Madden, and he's updating his rosters today," Cerrone said Wednesday, when Favre and Vick arrived on Madden NFL 10. "When I was his age, if a player was suspended for a season or a month, we didn't remove him. That's up to the team owner, whether your playing on a PlayStation or whatnot."
It'd take some doing, but if you wanted anyone gone from your league in Madden, it can be done. In roster-edit mode, release the player. Then, if you're playing a franchise mode, you might want to zero out his stats so the free agency AI doesn't sign him to a bot team.
Or, for the purely spiteful, you could hamstring the guy with terrible stats and abuse him into having one of the worst seasons imaginable. Packer fans, you want to blitz Favre into Lake Michigan on his return to Lambeau? Just saddle him with across-the-board 40 ratings and see what happens.
In MVP Baseball 2005 and Major League Baseball 2K6, playing as the Red Sox, I would happily face Roger Clemens, in Houston, just so the bastard would have to bat against me. And then I would do what the Mets' Shawn Estes was too gutless to do in 2002. Drill him.
I thought my catharsis was a bit extreme until my friend Dan Z from Philadelphia visited one weekend and played against the St. Louis Cardinals. Scott Rolen, hated in Philly like few other active players, or even most retired ones, took a first-pitch fastball to the skull every at-bat.
One reason we felt entitled to do these things is because there were no consequences, which Cerrone—who went through Jason Giambi's outing as and apology for being a steroid user in 2004—points out.
"I've heard a lot of writers say, ‘I could make that play.' And one of the things I'd say a lot is, ‘This is not PlayStation,'" he said. "Of course, here, it is PlayStation. You can do what you want. You're the owner, or the commissioner. You don't have to worry about a player filing a grievance, or making negative comments about you or the team in the papers. It's up to everybody who plays to run the game as they see fit."
"I don't play these games in a season mode, and I play the college game more than the pro game," Cerrone said. "But if you play the pro game, you go by the edict of the commissioner, and you're not using Vick for six games. Or you can be like my son. He said, ‘I used Plaxico Burress all last year. He was my best player.'"
That was even after November 2008, when the Giants (to whom the Cerrones are season ticket holders) suspended Burress—now headed to prison for two years—following his arrest on weapons charges in New York City.
Sports gamers who are this heavily invested in league developments are dealing with two mentalities here. One is the pure fan—typically reactionary, quick to reduce things to simple questions and pronounce judgement that "the right thing" should be done. I wake up most days and I'm with them. Favre, I'm sick and tired of your act, not to mention the fact no one in broadcast media can ever just refer to you by your last name. So shut up and sit the hell down. Boom. Done.
But if you're playing the game as a general manager—if you're playing a season mode to win—the reasons become a little more apparent, why a team would sign a guy most of the public wouldn't piss on if he was on fire. Winning. Winning a game, or giving your team a better chance to win a game, or winning at the season simulation. It's where picking up a Vick or a Favre or a Burress becomes as obvious as pawn-takes-queen.
Still, there's one aspect of the simulation we perhaps will never have.
"I have a great respect for these owners of video game franchises, and players of the games, whether they abide by a commissioner's [eligibility]ruling, or ignore it, they will take the game very seriously," Cerrone said. "But one thing they do know, is none of their players—once they've made this decision—are going to go out and do something and make them say, ‘Wow, I made a bad decision.' You're not going to go on your screen and find out Player X has been arrested for vehicular manslaughter.
"The game is what you make it and that's the great thing about it," Cerrone said.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's weekly column on sports video games.