BOB GARFIELD: For the lucky and talented few, there’s being drafted by an NFL team. For everyone else, there’s playing the ubiquitous virtual equivalent, the video game Madden NFL. [MADDEN NFL SOUNDS/UP AND UNDER] For more than 20 years, Madden NFL has been as close as an armchair quarterback can get to the real thing. In this month’s Wired, Chris Suellentrop observes that the video game has also had a huge impact on a generation of actual pro football players who have grown up playing hours and hours of Madden NFL. Chris, welcome back to the show.
CHRIS SUELLENTROP: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: You open with an anecdote about an early season game between the Denver Broncos and the Cincinnati Bangles this football season, 28 seconds left on the clock. In a real football game, what happened?
CHRIS SUELLENTROP: Well, the Broncos are on the 13-yard line, their own 13-yard line.
[GAME HUBBUB] The quarterback drops back to pass. He heaves this somewhat desperation toss downfield. It gets deflected into the air –
[CHEERS] - lands into the outstretched arms of a Bronco’s wide receiver, Brandon Stokley, who streaks toward the end zone for the winning touchdown.
[LOUD CHEERS] And that was an amazing play, known as the “immaculate deflection.” But more remarkable than the funny bounce is that Stokley cuts right across the field horizontally and lets about six seconds drain off the clock before meandering into the end zone, because no one was near him to tackle him. And, at that moment, for a certain brand of football fan, the video game-playing football fan, you were, like, holy cow, did he just pull off a video game move? When I asked Stokley that question directly, he said, yeah, of course that was a video game move.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Now, before we go into other examples of this kind of video game influence, let's just talk for a moment about Madden NFL, so ubiquitous and so good [LAUGHS] that it actually has the monopoly. The NFL granted it exclusivity to use its players and logos, and so forth, the point being that everyone who is currently in the NFL who played video games as a kid – and that’s probably close to everybody – played their football video game on Madden NFL.
CHRIS SUELLENTROP: That's right. I mean, if you think about it, an NFL rookie is 22 or 23 years old. They're pretty much the same age as Madden. They've been playing an extremely sophisticated football simulation their whole lives. And football is not like basketball or baseball, where you play hundreds and hundreds of games a year, or even scores of games a year. You play a handful, even in high school, college and the pros. In the pros, you play a few handfuls, right? Sixteen games. But playing Madden, you can play hundreds, thousands of simulated games, reading defenses, seeing routes, and, like Stokley did, putting you in certain unusual situations that coaches aren't going to teach you. No coach taught Brandon Stokley not to walk into the end zone. if you happen to be in the situation where you’re running toward the end zone near the end of the game and maybe you should drain some clock, so you should run around on the field for a while. That’s just something you learn from playing video game football.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, presumably, this would most benefit receivers, and especially quarterbacks, who in real game situations have to make their reads based on the defense that they see arrayed before them and then to let the play develop accordingly. And, therefore, you would think that quarterbacks, having the benefit of all of this simulation over the years, are better at their jobs than they were, say, 25 years ago. Has efficiency of quarterbacks and receivers gone up?
CHRIS SUELLENTROP: Anecdotally, it sure seems like it. I mean, you do play basically as the quarterback in these games, and it sure seems like a lot more rookie quarterbacks are succeeding at early years in the NFL, guys like Mark Sanchez of the Jets, Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers, Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons, Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens. And in college, you have a 19-year-old rookie starting for the University of Southern California Trojans. These are things that were totally unheard of, I think, even ten years ago. When Peyton Manning came into the league, he was the only rookie who started for his team at quarterback, and most quarterbacks had to go through a sort of tutelage on the bench to learn how to read NFL defenses. Nowadays, college has more passing. High school has more passing. And I think - and a lot of players think, and even high school coaches think - it’s because these kids come in familiar with offensive formations, defensive formations, play calls, terminology, jargon that just 20 years ago kids just didn't know.
BOB GARFIELD: So, pro football has some very flamboyant characters, some outsize egos. And, you know, I can't help but wonder if some of these players, knowing that their various moves and stylings on the field may end up being immortalized in Madden, whether they actually change their play on the field for their digital legacies.
CHRIS SUELLENTROP: Professional athletes certainly complain to the Madden game developers all the time about their rankings and about how they're characterized in the games. Chad Ochocinco, for the Cincinnati Bengals this year threatened to boycott the game because he thought it underrated his abilities. But whether Chad Ochocinco is performing particular moves in the hopes of being immortalized in Madden, I don't know that we've quite gotten there yet.
BOB GARFIELD: Is there any question in your mind but what —we will get there?
CHRIS SUELLENTROP: [LAUGHS] I'm certain that there are young football players for whom video games, and in particular Madden, is the primary metaphor for which they understand the sport. Once upon a time, young football players, or just young fans, when you met an athlete you would think, gosh, I saw him on TV. Nowadays, when Brett Favre, right, with the Minnesota Vikings and as a Jets player said things – you know, I used to play him in Madden. [BOB LAUGHS] It is an organizing metaphor for how fans and players alike understand the sport.
BOB GARFIELD: Thank you very much [LAUGHS] for joining us.
CHRIS SUELLENTROP: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Chris Suellentrop’s article, Game Changers: How Videogames Trained a Generation of Athletes, is in the February issue of Wired Magazine. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]