No sports video game — no video game, I'd argue — is as harangued as Madden NFL. Read any forum thread, read the comments to any story, including this one, and the list of gamer demands for the upcoming release is quite long and quite detailed. "New music" doesn't appear in any of it.
Why, then, is Madden NFL 13 getting a new broadcast theme this year?
"Sure, it's a good question," Matt Bialosuknia acknowledges, before preparing an answer. "We have really pushed the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 to the highest visual fidelity that we can. Especially this year. I feel like our audio has come up short, or was sort of underinvested.
"For me," says Bialosuknia, the game's chief audio producer, "it adds the additional layer of 'wow' and overall immersion into Madden that hasn't really been there."
What he really means is that Madden's new theme, which you can hear at left, isn't necessarily a feature unto itself. I'd be shocked if a new music suite drove a single purchase decision for a title that sells in the millions at launch. It's simply a component — but a very key one — of an upgrade to the broadcast-style presentation of a game that needed it, desperately, after what was produced last year.
Following Madden NFL 12, the series required a comprehensive retrenchment in commentary and presentation. What the game had done right in 2010 was washed out by the failure to fully integrate a new commentary engine. Those pre-game runout animations touted last year were, in hindsight, a means of partially masking the dead air and repetition you then heard from Gus Johnson and Cris Collinsworth from the coin toss onward. Bialosuknia, in his second year of running the game's audio, admitted that Madden needed a broadcast overhaul, and it got it — notably in bringing CBS' real-life A-team of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms.
And if Madden is bringing them in so it may be taken more seriously, it couldn't put them on the screen with the old package of graphics and themes. I'm not sure exactly how long the current opening — which is very brief — has been around, but its opening horns are very obligatory, and hardly distinctive. It feels like the opening to a video game, not to a football game, and in simulation sports, broadcast immersion is extremely important — it's a huge component of NBA 2K's wide acceptance.
I'm not sure how I feel about the main Madden theme just yet. It is distinct, but there's a tempo change in the middle that requires you to actively listen to it. When you do follow it, the song's melody really opens up. I'm more a fan of the between-quarters transition EA Sports has shown us. But in both cases, the music strives to meet the demands of America's most telegenic sport, which carries event-quality expectations, not just something you flip on to see who's playing.
The difficulty is that four major American network have an NFL broadcast, and therefore its own theme, all of which are recognisable if not iconic to longtime football fans. Though EA Sports has a relationship with ESPN to use its broadcast package and branding, ESPN gets one game a week, on Monday. And really, picking any single network, even Nantz and Simms' native CBS, would break immersion. Football fans know the American Football Conference is on CBS, and the National is on Fox. ESPN and NBC get spotlight games. Madden has to act as a fifth network, evocative of all of them. Music plays a big role in that.
Bialosuknia tapped Colin O'Malley, a composer with experience both in video game soundtracks and in scoring a PBS documentary. He also composed the latest suite of original music in NCAA Football, made at the same studio as Madden, so he had familiarity with what video game audio producers wanted from him. Bialosuknia's team forwarded O'Malley samples of songs they wanted to inspire this fictitious broadcast. With the exception of Monday Night Football, an update of a melody used for more than 30 years, everything sounds like an action film, which is why Madden's theme does, too.
"I think we went for energy, excitement, and speed and drama," Bialosuknia said. "There's a sense of struggle. The really strong rhythmic melody really brings that across. For all of us, listening to it over and over again, it still never fails to psych people up. To me, that's what the song really needed to do."
O'Malley's first take was, substantially, what you hear in that final cut above. O'Malley was also asked to score several pieces of transitory music — going into a timeout or halftime or between quarters (as in the video at left) — and the suite of menu music that will replace the EA Trax selection of popular songs, which cost a lot of money to licence and became aggravatingly repetitive.
There were revisions and re-revisions and adjustments to O'Malley's first stab at the Madden anthem. But, Bialosuknia said, Madden had an ambition of opening to a theme that would become recognisable if hummed, like all the US networks' are. O'Malley hit the target very early, he said.
"We looked at it in the context of the Madden that we're building, but we always had an eye toward the horizon," Bialosuknia said. "W didn't want to have a theme and have it change every year. Our idea was to create this theme and hope that it stuck, and is embraced, and that it carries forward. I think from what we've read so far, it has.
"The comments on it," he adds, "seem quite pleased."
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's weekly column on sports video games.