There was a time, not so long ago, when football video games were profoundly, almost poignantly primitive: scrolling goofshows in which one little squarish football unit was chased by others while martial-football MIDI sounds bleeped and honked. This suited the video gaming systems of the time, which were sweating pretty hard every time someone put together a decent run at Tetris, but it was nothing much like football. Those games were certainly less complex or realistic than the ultra-intricate concusso-nightmare of techno-warfare that NFL players wage for money, or the increasingly realistic version of the sport that gamers have played in EA Sports' Madden NFL over the past 25 years.
I should mention I'm talking about gamers, but not necessarily me. The last football video game I was any good at involved manipulating an unconvincingly rectangular version of (the actually notably rectangular) Christian Okoye across an 8-bit gridiron. The team with Bo Jackson always won, because Bo Jackson was impossible to tackle, and the only reason he did not actually turn into the wolf-headed zombie punching thing from Altered Beast was that the necessary technology was not yet available.
Right before my Nintendo quit, it went floridly, gloriously insane. It would work for a while, then just go wheeling off into glitchy dementia. Jack Trudeau would drop back to pass for the Colts and throw a pass that just never came down. It would sail past Matt Bouza or whoever and just keep going, over an endless crowd of various-colored cubes that cheered in pre-programmed patterns for a pass that would not land, that had no intended receiver, that was happening probably in retrospect only because I somehow got Dr. Pepper in the game console.
Anyway, this was strange, but it was strange because the people making video games did not yet have the wherewithal to make those games un-strange, or at all lifelike. In retrospect, it's hard not to wonder whether they made up Matt Bouza, who certainly sounds like a fake video game football player despite some evidence to the contrary. But even after the people making football video games learned to make them more like actual football, some latent video game-y weirdness remained. As it should, as it must.
Even as the Madden NFL games, which were once as hilariously goofy as any video game, became more and more like actual, complex NFL football, it made sense that some goofiness would lurk in the code, periodically heaving its own infinite overthrows. After 25 years, Madden NFL is exhaustively and a little exhaustingly NFL-esque. It has been around long enough that the most recent iteration features an All-25 team whose roster consists of the best players in the game over that quarter century.
There are a great many Hall of Famers -- and Video Game Hall of Famers like the 2004 Berserko Trans-Dimensional version of Michael Vick -- on this roster on both sides of the ball. The linebackers are Ray Lewis, Derrick Thomas and Derrick Brooks, which makes sense. The backfield is Mike Alstott and Marshall Faulk. The receivers are Randy Moss and ... well, the other receiver, and so the second-best Madden NFL receiver in the game over the 25 years that the game has existed, is Brian Finneran.
Which is an interesting choice, given that Finneran had just two 50-reception seasons in his decade-long NFL career, and no seasons that would seem to fit the definition of "very good season," let alone "one of the best seasons by a player at his position over a quarter century of football/football simulation." This would seem a good time to mention that Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson and Terrell Owens and the other receivers who caught passes more often and effectively than Brian Finneran have also been in Madden over the last 25 years.
But while Brian Finneran himself did not have one of his better seasons in 2004, the Brian Finneran that appeared in the game that year was implausibly unstoppable. Which means it (he?) was hilariously unrepresentative of Brian Finneran himself -- a good NFL receiver, but a stoppable one -- and fully representative of the comforting uncanny valley drift between video games and reality. If the technology involved has improved such that there are no longer passes floating endlessly over seats like a Cory Arcangel video, there is still enough human fallibility in the mix to turn Brian Finneran into a world-destroying pass-catching force, a version utterly unlike any version of Brian Finneran that ever existed on earth.
Which is a mistake. There's an explanation for it, although EA described it fairly drily: "Finneran was particularly notable in Madden NFL 2004 for his height and leaping ability, allowing him to get up and over the top of most defensive backs." Here's a more apt description from my SB Nation colleague and Falcons authority and actual Madden player Jason Kirk: "He's like 6'5 and they made him a better jumper than he is, probably in part because he was good at blocking punts IRL. So combine a basically eight-foot-tall receiver with the fastest quarterback ever, and nobody was allowed to play as the Falcons."
So: still a mistake, if one that has taken on a sort of goofily mythic scale. But it's an in-joke that EA Sports has not only owned, but enshrined. That this bothers some observers -- here's a blog post expressing dismay that EA "passed over" more worthy players for Finneran, as if Virtual Terrell Owens was going to hold a huffy virtual press conference about the slight -- seems to say more about those observers' humor deficits than anything else.
It may set off some Turing alarms that a video game has a better sense of humor -- or sense of its own goofy essence and inherent battle against the forces of batshit glitchy illogic -- than some of the people playing it, but it's also finally a good thing. Madden needs Brian Finneran, just as Tecmo Bowl needed the surreal threat of Bouza-bound passes that just sailed right-to-left forever over countless blinking digital throngs.
Its spiraling and complex realism is obviously important to Madden's appeal, but a video game without a Finneran-ian goofiness or two isn't any fun. Make it too perfect, too seamless and poreless and logical, and it's not actually a game at all. Then you just have the NFL itself. And what fun is that?
Thanks to Loni Berman for putting me up on Finneran's All-25 selection.