Madden NFL creates a videogame world every bit as rich, complex and thought-provoking as the league it's based on. It is powered by complex graphics, advanced computing and reams of numbers—the product of the expert judgment of its makers. Pros play the game and argue about their ratings. Gamers get to make decisions for virtual versions of some of the world's best athletes, and place them on a numerical spectrum that extends to the average Joe.
"It turns out that my very best was hilariously lacking."—Walt Hickey
I don't play Madden, or any other videogames. I entered this world through the work of my FiveThirtyEight colleagues Neil Paine and Walt Hickey, who exhaustively and entertainingly—yes, I'm biased—chronicled Madden in a two-part series last winter. Paine got incredibly close to the game by shadowing its then-player ratings czar. Hickey got closer, so close he entered the game as a player, after putting his athletic skills, such as they are, under the Madden microscope.
I talked with Neil and Walt about why they chose to focus on Madden, what it was like to suit up for inclusion in the game, and how our office would do in intramural football. The interview was conducted by Slack and edited for clarity.Gelf Magazine: You both spent weeks or months on this project. Did you play and know Madden well before you started?
Neil Paine: I definitely knew Madden reasonably well—I think I own every copy going back to 2003 or so—but I wasn't as avid a player as I'd been in college. It was more one of those things where I got it each year intending to play a lot, and ended up playing maybe a dozen games.
Walt Hickey: I'd played before, but it was one of those situations where it was always someone else's game. I am not very good at Madden.
I had played a bunch of Madden in college, but I had played Madden sober possibly
once, maybe twice in my life is what I'm getting at here.
Gelf Magazine: Neil, I like that you intended to play a lot and then didn't. It's like procrastinating reading the latest New Yorker.
So, curious what's changed for you both after your deep immersion in the game—in Walt's case, literal. Walt, is your typical Saturday night spent playing yourself in Madden? And Neil, now that you know how the sausage is made, so to speak, are you eating it more?
Walt Hickey: Oh man like nobody is seriously that narcissistic, right? Just playing as yourself in Madden? That's like what I imagine Ryan Leaf does all weekend and I am not about that. Also, playing as me in Madden is misery. It's like driving in the snow.
Gelf Magazine: How about playing against yourself? It's like a cheat code.
Walt Hickey: Walt Hickey: For When Easy Mode Just Isn't Easy Enough.
Neil Paine: Right, I can't imagine Walt playing a lot as Walt.
Walt Hickey: Like showing up to a NASCAR event in a Ford Pinto.
Neil Paine: Although there are people who watch NASCAR for the crashes…
I do find myself more interested in playing Madden now, or at least more attentive to the mechanics of gameplay and how that is affected by the player ratings when I do play. I don't think it helps me play the game more effectively, though—I'm still the solidly mediocre player I always was.
Gelf Magazine:So why Madden? Is there another game, sports or otherwise, that would have lent itself to this kind of coverage? Or if not, what makes Madden worthy?
Walt Hickey: I really like how Madden is in a lot of ways a vastly powerful computing engine that runs on some of the most sophisticated hardware on the market and we use it to play video games. The sport of football is complex and constantly evolving, but after years of work people found a way to model this system in a rather realistic fashion. It's a system that folds in a lot of compelling ideas about probability and modeling and very few people really appreciate that. I'm sure a lot of other games could be useful to try it out with, but I guess the thing that is interesting about Madden is that they actually pulled it off for football.
Neil Paine: Yes, like Walt said, it's amazing that they managed to simulate something as complicated as football, and it actually works (relatively speaking). It was the first game to successfully pull off 11-on-11 football, which was one of the selling points when trying to convince John Madden himself to endorse the game. And I also think Madden just has a lot of cachet among gamers in general. It's basically the longest-running "dynasty" in sports gaming.
Gelf Magazine: Neil, you spent a lot of time with Donny Moore for the piece. Then he left for FanDuel. That leaves me with a couple of questions for you:
1) Did your piece drive him out of the business?
2) Can Madden get by without Moore as rating czar?
Neil Paine: I think once he was profiled by FiveThirtyEight, there was nothing left to be accomplished at EA Sports. But in all seriousness, it is an interesting question of what EA will do without Moore around for next year's game (or even this year's in-season updates). From what I've heard, they've been pretty tight-lipped about who will be picking up the slack, so it's certainly a question that has also occurred to journalists who cover gaming by trade. When we visited EA, everyone we talked to portrayed Moore as one of the most integral members of the game's development team; they didn't really have an answer when we asked them what would happen if Moore got run over by a bus tomorrow and couldn't be ratings czar anymore. For all intents and purposes, they're finding out now.
Walt Hickey: I regret nothing. I mean, the thing is I really went into this with no demonstrable athletic achievement in my entire life, right? So it's not like being told I wasn't cut out for the NFL was brutal. Like when you watch Hard Knocks, and you see the guys who have worked for something their entire lives get cut and it's just soulcrushing, that sucks right? But I went into this with the intention of just putting it all out there, hoping for the best, and it turns out that my very best was hilariously lacking. And that's cool, because if anything it allows me to appreciate what the actual players are pulling off.
Still, my friends regularly bring it up, typically after I do something tremendously unathletic or clumsy. This happens a lot.
Neil Paine: I was grateful to Walt for being our guinea pig, and putting his (lack of) athleticism on full display, because I have no doubt many of us would have also fared quite poorly under Donny Moore's microscope. And it would really destroy my delusions when I create myself in a game. If I was actually rated by the guy who makes Madden's ratings, how could I ever again create my own character and give him playable ratings? That part of Madden would be ruined for me forever.
Neil Paine: Yeah, Breaking Madden is the best. It's so fun that you forget he's actually using the absurd extremes of Madden's engine to tell us stories about how the real game of football works.
Walt Hickey: I love Breaking Madden so much. It's hilarious and amazing and endlessly creative. I feel like he is probably the preeminent student of the game and the person who knows its intricacies the very best.
Gelf Magazine: And I guess you have to know your enemy to break it.
I think for both of you this was the most ambitious story you've done, in terms of time invested in it and scope of the piece. Is that right? And if so, what was the experience like of trying to craft a long, compelling narrative built around data?
Walt Hickey: I mean it kind of sucked, but in a good way? Like the way that exercise totally sucks but afterward you considered it a worthwhile process and you're happy it happened? It was definitely the largest-in-scope story I've had the chance to do, so it pushed me out of my comfort zone a bit and forced me to write in a way that I'm not really used to. But it was a load of fun to do, I would say, process-wise.
Neil Paine: I'm not necessarily sure it was the most challenging because, for me, shadowing Donny was a pretty routine act of reporting. Perhaps the more ambitious aspect was digging into the history of sports video games (and, specifically, player ratings), because it required a strange mix of experiential journalism (actually finding some of the old games, jotting down some player ratings out of them, and, in some cases, playing the old games with an eye on how attributes affect gameplay) and philosophy (what started with me asking a handful of gaming journalists about the nature of quantifying human athleticism often turned to the philosophical aspect of "simulating" someone like Peyton Manning, who relies first and foremost on his brain, when you are the brain controlling his avatar).
Gelf Magazine: Based on your expertise from this story, should FiveThirtyEight form a football team, or would we be better off just playing other news organizations at videogames?
Walt Hickey: I'd love to join a FiveThirtyEight football team. I would definitely be the quarterback: After all, I have the highest Madden rating of anyone here.