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Madden 18 includes a lot of interesting firsts: It's the first Madden to include a story mode (Longshot); the first Madden to appear 4K, and interestingly enough, the first Madden to feature women as prominent figures.
Four women play roles of varying importance in Madden 18's new story mode: A hotel clerk who appears at the beginning of the game (and loves Elvis); Julia, the executive producer of the reality show Longshot; Colt's mother, and a soldier who takes part in one of Devin's games.
Their appearances mark the first instance in which women have appeared in Madden as more than sideline reporters or silent spectators. Indeed, in 30 years of Madden, only one woman has ever had a speaking role: Danielle Bellini, the sideline reporter who was represented by a static headshot between Madden 25 and Madden 16. She would give injury updates, but her role was otherwise so minimal that it was easy to forget she was even in the game.
That women have been invisible in Madden to this point is a function of both technical limitations and the hard gender lines that tend to define the NFL. Unlike in soccer and basketball, there's no women's football league to include (unless you count the Lingerie League, which is a whole other ball of wax). When women come up in conversation around the NFL, it's usually in a horrifying case of domestic abuse, Ezekiel Elliott being only the latest example.
Even the women who manage break through in the NFL quickly run into the institutionalized sexism of the culture. Witness The Washington Post's story about Kathryn Smith, the first female coach in the league history.
Kathryn Smith, the first woman to be hired as a full-time assistant coach in the NFL, is the Bills' special teams quality control coach and—as she trotted off the field after Buffalo's loss—a Seahawks fans in CenturyLink Stadium hollered: "Hey waitress! Waitress! Waitress! Can I have a Pepsi, please? Waitress!"
Amy Trask, the legendary executive who spent three decades with the Oakland Raiders, has dozens of such stories. In her recent book, she relates the story of her first league meeting, where she was almost immediately asked to bring coffee for one of the owners.
When the meeting was called to order, I followed Al to our seats. As we walked to our seats, the room became very quiet and I was able to hear some of the comments. Some people were using hushed tones; others were speaking conversationally.
Is she staying in the room? Looks like she’s with Al. Is she coming to the meeting? I think she’s coming to the meeting. Figures it would be Al. She’s not leaving. Who is she? Why is she here?
I was later told by quite a few people in and around the league that many people begrudged Al for bringing a woman into that room. I suspect that many of the men who resented Al for bringing a woman into that room were the same men who resented him for being the first to hire a Latino head coach and later the first African-American head coach of the modern era.
Those are the barriers you face when you're a woman in football.
In Madden NFL, women have been even more invisible, mostly because there hasn't been room for anything but the gameplay on the field. EA's previous engine struggled to even render people who weren't in pads, Longshot director Mike Young told us. "There are more than 45 actors in [Longshot] of all races, shapes, genders.... padded, unpadded," he said. "And that was the stuff that was always so difficult. I used to be an art director in Madden, and any time we wanted to do something like the NFL Combine, we were usually blocked by how hard it is to create convincing-looking players without pads. That's why I think we were held back from doing something of this quality."
Longshot is the first time Madden has been able to include women in any kind of meaningful role; and to the credit of Young and his team, it seizes the opportunity.
While Longshot is still the story of Devin and Colt, Julia is one of its most sympathetic figures. She is initially trapped under the shadow of a coked up, frankly insane executive, but later breaks out and manages to lead. She subsequently becomes one of Devin's closest advisors while being powerful and independent in her own right.
Marem Hassler, who voices Julia, told me that she was unaware that she was the first woman to appear in Madden as a fully animated character, but that it made an "awesome experience even sweeter." She also talked about the preparation it took to bring her character to life, "Julia—the character I played—has a strong vision and truly cares about the players," she said. "In a male-driven arena, she manages to stand her ground and takes on her challenges with a good mixture of heart and fire. My fellow actors were just a crazy talented bunch and helped me bring Julia to life tremendously."
She added, "Some might say it's a just video game, but I think it's even more important in a video game to offer characters that are flawed, beautiful, formidable, and vulnerable.
Less prominent, but still important, is Colt's mother, played by actress Mandy Turpin. In addition to taking care of Colt, she is a surrogate mother for Devin, who has lost both of his parents by the time the story starts. Turpin told us, "When I booked the Madden gig, I wasn't aware I was going to be one of the first women to be fully animated in the Madden series. I'm such a huge football fan, I was just so excited to be a part of it. Mike and the gang at EA SPORTS did such a great job with the story, it was fun to bring the character to life."
When it came to portraying her character, she said, "With my role in Madden, I’ve read and watched a lot about the players transitioning from college to the pros. Not to mention, I wanted to try and wrap my head around just how much stress is placed on the families of players trying to make it to the NFL. Again, I couldn't be more pleased with the story Mike and the gang at EA sports created. It really gives the viewers a real behind the scene story about friendship, family and how the sacrifices made to achieve ones goals."
Finally, there's Sgt. Keret—the mysterious but awesome patrol captain who plays for Dan Marino's team in Dubai. You don't know much of anything about her, only that she's an amazing athlete who is "someone to watch out for" on the field. Colt ends up beating her for an interception return for a touchdown, but that's more on Marino than Keret. Despite being a woman of few words (okay, no words, since she doesn't have a speaking role), she manages to stand out in two ways: she actually plays football and she's in the military—two of the most male-dominated institutions still remaining.
While these characters aren't directly associated with the league, they are nevertheless important. They show that women have a place in the culture of football. More importantly, they are a reminder for football fans that women exist as more than cheerleaders and pop singers and sideline reporters—something that's easy to forget when you play Madden or watch your average NFL telecast.
Indeed, it's a reminder to the intensely male culture that plays these games that women exist at all.
Women are too often invisible in in the world of team sports, and that goes double for sports video games. FIFA, NHL, and NBA Live have started to turn the tide. Now, finally, Madden is doing its part as well.