The Game Of A Lifetime

To prove a point to me about Madden at E3, Peter Moore overstepped the possible and tiptoed on the unbelievable.

"When the licence is over," Moore, the EA Sports president, said regarding the much-discussed exclusive deal making Madden the only NFL video game, "chances are it's going to be wide open, and whether it's us or somebody else, somebody is going to have an exclusive licence."

That seemed to be stretching a hypothetical. "Really, can we conceive of a world without Madden?" I said, laughing. "Come on."

When he invites you to an interview, it's inadvisable, or at least impolite, to laugh at a guy of Moore's stature. But I was doing so as a Madden gamer, not a critic. My certainty that, as sure as the sun rises, on the second Tuesday in August Madden NFL will be in the tray, wasn't tied to EA's prestige, ego, or pocketbook assuring it's always a dancing partner with the most desirable sports league in this hemisphere.

My faith was built on the fact that, where where many games today are legitimate cultural phenomenons, Madden has graduated to its own cultural context, whose lifespan on consoles is close to drinking age. Forget the brand and the sales figures, if that kind of video game isn't worth going to the mattresses, for either EA Sports or the NFL, then none are.

I listen to the recording and curse myself, because I should have pursued Moore for the killer soundbite - put him on the spot, ask him if EA Sports could ever be outbid on this? The headline I could get off of that! But I didn't because my mind started wandering.

• • •

In January 1993 I broke into a fraternity brother's room and accidentally crushed his pet iguana, lurking underneath all the trash on the floor. Everyone assumed I was in there to steal money, food or porn. I never told them I was there to play Philadelphia at Green Bay in week 11 on John Madden Football ‘92.

The game and its hilarious ambulance plowed onto the Sega Genesis a year before. As soon as the passing windows came up, I was hooked. I was one of those dorks who - before franchise modes were commonplace in sports games - kept full seasons in a three-ring binder with written boxscores, and Tecmo Bowl just wasn't that kind of game. Around the house, that was more of a grudge-settler or a manhood-challenger. Madden offered weather. Madden offered a serious-length playbook that was as deep and as mystifying as it could be to someone who never played, never identified a formation on a television screen until he chose BIG, NEAR and HB TRAP LEFT.

I was a sportswriter for N.C. State's student newspaper, and suddenly I was an expert on what kind of offence the Wolfpack was running, or could at least sound like one. My senior year, we challenged North Carolina's paper to an 11-on-11, all tackle, no pads "Grudge Bowl," the Friday before the varsity played. None of us had a playbook, so we borrowed a few from Madden and won, 55-0.

One of my teammates from that game, Ted, later was my roommate while we worked for our first newspaper after graduation. God, I shudder to remember the workload. If we weren't sleeping or eating, we were at work. Unless it was a Saturday, really the only full day we had off. I would get myself out of bed at 6 a.m., go downstairs and watch cartoons and play Madden all day, trying to feel the time pass as slowly as possible.

My Saturdays in upstate New York were more cheerful. In 1998, my pal Andrew had bought something called a PlayStation. Games came on a disc. Madden NFL 99 was the only one he could afford. Andrew was a big-time Jets fan, his roommate Ryan was a Bills partisan. I played with the ‘66 Rams and Roman Gabriel. The PlayStation was up in the attic of the house they rented, and that's where I crashed most Friday nights. Saturday morning Andrew would shamble in, wearing his coke-bottle glasses, light up a Parliament and recreate Super Bowl III before the Syracuse game came on, restarting at least four times. At halftime, Ryan and I would join in with something called Halfback Toss Pass Derby. That was the only offensive play you could call; the only defence the other guy could call was prevent. A big game was 12-6 (because you couldn't kick the extra point, you had to go for two - with Halfback Toss Pass.)

In Denver, my best friend David was dating a former college basketball player who ran triathlons. He waited until she moved in with him before he bought a GameCube, Madden NFL 2004 being the only game he owned. Tonya wasn't too thrilled about dating a "video game guy" so he could only play when she wasn't around. That gave rise to Madden Football Fridays, when he, Robert and Jim would meet me at David's place during lunch, like we were laying out of school. Jim got so fired up he bought an Xbox so we could play Madden in the theatre seating of his condo building's DVD room. Since I worked the night shift, I got the Taco Bell. David always ordered some high-maintenance vegetarian item that came to be called the Fiestrogen Burrito.

David and Tonya later married. When they moved so he could take a job with the Wall Street Journal, the first of us to get a big nameplate gig, he bought himself an Xbox and Madden, and made me and Robert and Jim swear to Tonya that we'd all chipped in for the console as a going away present, so that we could stay in touch playing online. Really. I assume he was able to say the last part straightfaced.

We were, as Tonya feared, "video game guys," but only for one game, really. When we were playing on those Fridays, it was Madden. When I was at Jim's late at night, complaining about a relationship, we were playing Madden. When I walked out on my job in anger and met my friends afterward, we ate Hooters wings and we played Madden all night. In my unemployment afterwards, I still laid out the money to get Madden, at a Walmart in the middle of nowhere, on the day before it released.

• • •

Through this video game, I have an emotional identification with times good and bad, but always significant, and always with my very best friends, and I'm not the only one.

So we can argue and praise and complain about the finer points of the game, and I will in my review on Monday. Yet Madden NFL is still something that transcends that, like few other games, of any type.

It is, and always will be, the definitive sports video game of America. That's why I laughed at Peter Moore.


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