When the Super Bowl was held in San Francisco last year, I ticked off another item on my bucket list and went to the Madden Bowl, where I was amazed to find... nothing of much interest.
As I wrote last year, it was a little bit like being in an alternate universe. Football players moved down a conveyor-like red carpet and conducted two minute interviews as microphones were shoved in their face. Wannabe stars, executives, and the odd journalist milled around the complimentary drinks. You would have never known that an eSports event was taking place on the stage, much less one of the most important Madden eSports events of the year.
This year, EA is back at it again with the Madden Championship Series, of which the Madden Bowl is one event. The series consists of four tournaments culminating in May's Madden Championship, which will offer $500,000 in prizes. EA wants to turn its sports games into legitimate eSport, but it's a tough sell to all but the most hardcore fans. The very notion of Madden as an eSport tends to be met with confusion. Why watch videogame football when the real thing is on TV?
Heading into Super Bowl week, the Madden Bowl is at best a sideshow. But what if Madden had its own Super Bowl? What if instead of watching the Pro Bowl, football fans could tune into the culmination of a season's worth of Madden games? And what if they could wager on them?
Here's the problem Madden faces as an eSport right now: There's no narrative. The players taking part are well-known members of the community, but any attempt to build a story around them rings hollow. For example, here's the blurb for Madden Bowl contender Carlos "Los" Yancey: "Los has reemerged from the underground scene to make his first appearance at a big time Madden NFL event in years. Will this veteran be ready against all the young talent that is on display at Madden Bowl?" It's a capsule summary that begs the question, "Who exactly is this guy and why should I be invested in his success?"
Compare attempts to build a narrative to the League of Legend Championship Series. Teams play pretty much every week and steadily establish a story. Last year had the Immortals, a seemingly unbeatable team that was shocked by TSM in the LCS Spring Split. We cared because the Immortals had a full season to demonstrate their dominance and build up a storyline.
So here's my modest proposal for Madden: Scrap the four major events and play a full virtual season in tandem with the real thing. Have qualifiers in the summer and tempt in professional teams like Cloud9 rather than community members. Take the best 32 players and randomly assign them a team, then hold a fantasy draft (snake format) in the fourth week of the preseason. Already you have an amazing hook: Will Aaron Rodgers go first? How about Rob Gronkowski? Will teams build around offense or defense? Maybe the Browns will end up with Tom Brady on offense and Richard Sherman on defense. If I'm a Cleveland fan, I'm interested, especially if my team is doing well in the Madden League while it tanks in the regular season. Get proper commentators, capitalize a bit on football fever, and build up excitement in the community. You will have narrative for days.
(I haven't even mentioned the dynamic between the player and the team. Would viewers root more for their real fandom or the individual players? Would they get pissed at players who did poorly with their team? I'm kind of curious).
When the Super Bowl finally came around, EA would actually have something to talk about. They would be able to make legitimate hype videos and talk about all the crazy things that happened throughout the parallel universe that they had created. It would be so much more interesting to watch than a random Madden tournament, shorn of context, pitched to only the most intense elements of the fandom.
At least, I'd watch it, if only to see if my virtual Vikings could be more successful than the real thing.
Take this with a grain of salt if you want, EA. Maybe you'll lecture me on logistics, or tell me about how the NFL would never allow such a thing. At the very least, I'm sure it would be exponentially more expensive and more difficult to pull off than four events. But I have to ask: How high do you want the ceiling for your eSport to be? I don't know if a Madden League would take off and become the next League of Legends, but it would almost certainly have a higher ceiling than what exists now. At the very least, it would be an interesting experiment.
Horizon Zero Dawn, figure skating through the Sega Genesis Attitude Era, and the Switch's Virtual Console.