It’s theme week at SB Nation, and this time we’re headed for the virtual world: video games. Over the course of the week, Pats Pulpit and the other blogs in the network are devoted to the best and the bizarre when it comes to gaming. We’ll continue today by taking a trip down memory lane.
Almost as far back as I can remember, video games have been a part of my life.
Perhaps it can be expected, growing up when I did (during the 1980s), in the suburbs of Boston, in an upper middle class family and the son to a father who studied electronics and computers in college and worked for a computer company. Some of my earliest memories take place with a gaming joystick in my hand.
I first cut my gaming teeth on the original Atari. Centipede was a huge favorite in our house, as was Yars Revenge, which to this day I barely understand. The graphics and controls seem so primitive today, but for a young child it was revolutionary at the time. But the most popular game, at least in our house, was Joust. In that game the players rode flying ostriches, with the goal of eliminating your enemies not by striking them with your lance, but by sitting on their heads. For a young boy and his father, nothing could be funnier.
The next step on my gaming path came with the first family desktop computer. Again, something that seems an everyday part of life today was a mind-blowing event back in the mid-1980s. We spent weeks shopping around, with multiple trips to various stores before finally deciding on the right computer for us. I remember two games that came with that computer, which probably has the processing power of my youngest child’s knockoff FitBit. First was Shamus, a rudimentary detective game where you controlled a robot detective and had to navigate him through this maze of screens, avoiding enemies and the like. The other was Super Action Football, which, well, must have been bugged. We never got it to work.
But eventually we did get a football game to work on that computer: NFL Challenge. This game was amazing for its time, and in a way still holds up today. It was pure Xs and Os, the player simply called the plays and the game would simulate the play based on what the opponent or computer called on the other side of the football. For a young kid just starting to get into football, and strategy, this game had everything. So much of what has happened in my later life can probably be traced back to that game.
There were other games that came along on the PC, such as John Elway’s Quarterback, which in its initial PC form was an eight on eight game. It did not take long to figure out the cheat to that game: Simply call the “Hail Mary” play, roll out to your right, and throw the ball as far as you could. It was unstoppable.
Looking back on that now, I think the game’s namesake had a hand in that...
There were other PC football games that came along, such as ABC’s Monday Night Football (another game that gave me fits with how buggy it was) and Joe Montana’s Football, but the age of the console was dawning, and the landscape was about to change.
The next step in my gaming journey took me to the console world. In high school my parents got my brother and I a Sega Genesis one Christmas, and I still remember that Christmas morning, getting NHL 95, and John Madden’s Football 95. The game I wanted to play first was NHL, and I played that for hours. Eventually I convinced my dad to pick up the sticks and play me, and I was looking forward to the challenge. After all, my father both played and later coached hockey, and he probably had the advantage here.
If you remember that game, there was an almost unstoppable move for scoring goals. Simply skate past and around the opposition goalie and then cut in front of him in the crease. The goalie could never keep put with that, and it was almost an automatic goal. I drove my dad nuts with that move, and he eventually gave up. He couldn’t understand how the game would let that happen every single time.
Then there was Madden.
This game had both the scheme elements that I loved from that NFL Challenge game, combined with the ability to control the players that so many other games offered since then. It was all-consuming, and once I started playing, I never stopped.
Madden has honestly been a part of my life since those days. I’m not ashamed to admit that now, at 43, I still play video games almost every single night, and Madden remains part of the rotation. In our basement four different video game systems can be found: My original Nintendo 64, the original XBox, a PlayStation 3 and an XBox One.
There was a Madden for each system, and you can trace my life post-college through them. I still have many of them laying around:
I certainly hope someone here at SB Nation dedicated a column to Madden 12 with Peyton Hillis on the cover, but I digress...
There is the Madden 2000 for the Nintendo 64, a purchase during law school. I have not played that game in decades, but the family did dust out Mario Party 2 recently. My wife and I would play that in law school when we were dating, and playing that recently with our two children was an absolutely surreal experience.
Then when I moved to the XBox, one of my first purchases was Madden. Then various copies for the PlayStation 3. (The only reason you don’t see copies for the XBox One is because they’re on the hard drive). I would play for hours on end, spanning different generations of the game. Franchise modes galore. I remember bringing the Cincinnati Bengals to the Super Bowl riding Corey Dillon. I remember bringing the New England Patriots to the Super Bowl, with John Friesz as the quarterback in a pre-Brady world.
I remember bringing the Patriots to multiple Super Bowls in a Brady World.
I would create game scripts for each game, making sure to construct an offensive game plan with options for every potential scenario. I would dive into the scouting and draft elements of the game. I would be ruthless with the salary cap, moving on from expensive free agents, confident in my abilities to win on the cheap. Belichickian, almost.
But then, the interest began to wane. Having kids was a part, but video games opened up so many other worlds (glaring in the direction of Skyrim and The Witcher 3) that Madden slowly started to collect dust.
There were other real world implications at play. Over the past year or so, playing Madden seemed less like a diversion from work, and more like, well, work. Now look, I freely admit that I’m a damn lucky person. I get paid to write about football full-time. I have become what I envied back when I was practicing law, someone who made a living writing about the sport I love. Most people probably read something like that and hate me more, I get it.
But when you’re spending your working hours studying and writing about football, using your free time to then play a football video game seems a bit like work. I don’t know, my mind is odd, I’ve often said this. It’s the same reason that I hated watching legal procedurals on television when I was practicing law. Why do I want to watch “The Practice” when I’m living that during the day?
The only exception was “Boston Legal.” Why? Two words:
William Shatner’s character in that show was so unbelievably absurd and over the top, that I loved it. I often dreamed of ending a closing argument or an examination of a witness during a trial with “Mark Schofield,” but I could never bring myself to actually do it.
But eventually I would need to come out of my self-imposed retirement.
I don’t know exactly when my oldest, Owen, first asked to play Madden. It was sometime during the last football season, around October or so. But once he started, he did not stop. He was driving hard to the hoop. He would leave post-it notes all over the house, on bathroom mirrors, all over my basement office, asking to play the game. One day I went downstairs to start working and there were dozens of them stuck all over my two computer screens. I knew we would have to give in, and so did my wife. We started promising him that over the Christmas break, we would let him play.
To open the door, we made sure Santa brought him his own XBox controller.
But I knew that I needed to be ready.
Around Thanksgiving, I fired up Madden again. Having not played the game in years, I wanted to be ready for that winter break. I started a new franchise, with the Arizona Cardinals. I learned how to play with Kyler Murray, and what plays worked best from Kliff Kingsbury’s offense. I started keeping a list, on the big white board next to the television in my office, of what plays to call and what the reads were against various defenses.
I knew I needed to be ready when we hopped on the sticks against each other. I had visions of my father’s frustration that Christmas night, as I scored goal after goal against him. I knew that there would be a day when Owen would just be able to destroy me on the sticks, but I wanted to stave that off as long as possible. It’s part of being a dad. Like this past weekend, we took a little trip to a camping resort in Luray, Virginia. We brought a basketball, and Owen and I played around a little and even a bit of one-on-one. He’s entering fourth grade in the fall - however that will look in this COVID-19 world - so I still have a height and athleticism advantage.
But those days are numbered. I know that.
It is the same with Madden and other games. Eventually he will pass me by, and I know that too. But I wanted to make sure that as we started out, I was able to have the upper hand.
Christmas came and Owen opened up his controller. As you might expect, he was overjoyed. We let him play immediately. I showed him how to get into Madden, the various game modes, and just let him play on his own.
Eventually, later that week, he came up the stairs.
“Dad, want to play Madden with me?”
I was ready. I had spent almost a month getting ready. He’d get me eventually, but not tonight. I followed him down the stairs, settled into the chair next to him, as he navigated the menus. “So what team do you want to be?” I asked him. “I’ll be the Cardinals.”
“I don’t know, Dad. What do you want to be. I thought we could play on the same team.”
In the weeks and months since, Owen has also started to branch out into different games. He’s been picking up FIFA, and loves playing as Lionel Messi. He’s also been fascinated by NHL ‘19, particularly NHL THREES. He was actually asking me the other night why hockey isn’t three-on-three all the time, and I can see why the league moved to that format for overtime.
Of course he still plays Madden. He loved doing the QB1 storyline, and was blown away when I came back from the Senior Bowl and told him that I had dinner with Andre Weingarten, who works on Madden. I’ve been lucky to do some pretty cool things in this new life of mine, but this was the first time Owen actually seemed impressed by my work life. He’s started new franchises, and new player careers along the way. Every so often I’ll watch him play, and it’s amazing how quickly he took to the game. And if you wanted any proof that the future of football is going to be exciting, watching Owen, and I’m sure millions of other kids, play Madden is your proof. Never punt. Go for two every single time. Never run the ball. Blitz at will. Onside kick every time you kick off. The future of football is in good hands.
We still have yet to play against each other. Watching the way he plays on his own, that day I feared, of him beating me? It’s already here.
It came fast.
Life as a parent always does.