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Jon Bois | January 30, 2014

Breaking Madden

The Super Bowl, in which the machine bleeds to death



Jon Bois | January 29th, 2014

Calvin: We have houses, electricity, plumbing, heat ... maybe we're so sheltered and comfortable that we've lost touch with the natural world and forgotten our place in it. Maybe we've lost our awe of nature.

That's why I want to ask you, as a tiger, a wild animal close to nature, what you think we're put on Earth to do. What's our purpose in life? Why are we here?

Hobbes: We're here to devour each other alive.

— Calvin and Hobbes, January 6th, 1991

Every single Super Bowl has been played in the Southeast, in the Southwest, or under a roof. This year, bitterly cold weather patterns are spilling out of the Arctic like hay bales falling out of a truck bed, and this is the year the Broncos and Seahawks will try to play a Super Bowl in New Jersey.

The Super Bowls leading up to this one have become increasingly stale experiences. A lot of them are inside, which is the same place where you watch Up in your sweatpants and cry. The commercials have drifted into a territory of self-awareness and sameness in which any provocative or interesting expression has become nearly impossible.

The games themselves are suspiciously well-contested. Those who grew up in the 1980s and '90s remember when every other Super Bowl was a categorical whoopin'. Over the last decade, every Super Bowl has been fairly close, and most have remained in doubt until the very end. That is fun, but so is a popsicle. Nothing is more grimy or provocative than a whoopin'.

For this, the season finale of Breaking Madden, there will be bitter cold and heavy snowfall. There will also be, Lord willing, the most one-sided result in the history of sports. In the greatest American football rout of historical record, Georgia Tech beat Cumberland College, 222-0. I want to multiply that. I want a thousand points in one game.

This is how we're going to try.

Over the course of the season, I've discovered lots of different ways to hack Madden NFL 25 into a thing that no longer resembles football as we know it. I've played around with rules, injury settings, all manner of player ratings, player dimensions, and anything else the game's developers have made available to us.

This time is special, though, because I'm pulling out every single one of the stops at the same time. No other scenario I've built in Madden has been so abjectly cruel or unfair; no other scenario has even been close.

This time is also special because we've saved all the good for the real world, and saved all the evil for the video game.

I released every member of the Seahawks and Broncos that I possibly could, and replaced them with a total of 82 players I created. Last week, I announced a simple fundraising drive: if you donated to a charity of your choice and e-mailed me the receipt, I placed you in a drawing. The 82 folks who were randomly chosen were then allowed to name a player whatever they wanted.

The response from y'all was inspiring. Though I asked only for a donation of a dollar or more, not a single one of you gave just a dollar. According to your receipts, you gave over $3,000 to charity, though I estimate the actual figure is closer to $5,000. You gave to charities that fight disease, provide school supplies for kids who can't afford them, offer support for people suffering from abuse, and many other causes that, frankly, gave me feelings as I read through them all.

You can look at $5,000 as as large or small a number as you want. But it's cold out there, and people are hurting. This is the message I received from these donations, and one I'll pass on to you: if there's a cause that compels you, and that you can help through your time or your money or anything else, think on it.

So. Let's get to that evil I talked about.


Grant Newkirk C
Brandyn Bold CB
Brett Phillips CB
Kids Foodbasket CB
Mikey McCollor CB
Brian Mitchell DE
Julie V DE
Me And Friday DE
Bob Walsh DT
Jeremy Oosterhouse DT
fiveDecks FB
hatch FS
Jon Funkhouser FS
Big Ole Fudge HB
CtrlAltDel K
Dupes Ragan LB
Money maloo LB
JC Lail LB
Josh Widmann LB
Kevin Damp LB
mattsnr LB
Andrew Jones LG
Justin Dilks LG
Daniel YES Bryan LT
OW Oriole LT
Stockton Bullitt P
Chris Haines QB
tr0llb0t QB
Lord Bubblescreen RG
Jason Smith RT
The Real Alex Goot SS
Bitter Old Man TE
C sauce WR
Garth Whorewitz WR
John Willmott WR
Ty O Bryant WR

Those who donated to charity voted on whether the Broncos or Seahawks would be the monster team. Having collected 52 percent of the vote, the Seahawks just barely won out.

Think of Marshawn Lynch during his famous "Beast Quake" run. Specifically, the moment when Lynch stretches out his hand, shoves Tracy Porter in the face, and sends him flying into oblivion. Imagine that someone is that omnipotent, not for just one instant, but for their entire lives. Imagine also that this player is seven feet tall and 400 pounds heavy, and that there is no stronger, smarter, faster, or more skilled football player on the planet.

Now imagine 41 of them. In previous editions of Breaking Madden, I've made a small handful of these sorts of players -- maybe one, or three, or five. Never 41.


Craig Kawamoto C
Poarch Daniel C
Jose Jose Alvarez CB
Michael Drebot CB
Morgan C CB
Rob Drowos CB
Jon Juan DeMarco DE
Sarah Barnett DE
Wombat DE
Aocalypse Sledd DT
McSlappyMeal DT
Rusty Mars DT
Big Walrus FB
Chris McShane FS
Christian Gross FS
Fat Doug HB
Jeff Hansen HB
Sean Cahill HB
Austin Fourtwenty K
Alexander Kotov LB
Coolguy Genesis LB
Lee Radke LB
Reginald Knoxtavius LB
Tucker Warner LB
Jason Heitman LG
Mitch Mullis LG
Isaac McKiethen LT
Adam Savage P
Jons Mom QB
The Real Payton QB
Jon Heath RG
Mott RG
Downer Dan RT
Ky Smith RT
Burt Chuggins SS
Jesse Knutson TE
Rudy Rudolph TE
Ben Gitles WR
Brad Kent WR
Isaac Kimmel WR
Scott Macca WR

In just about every way, these Broncos are the anti-Seahawks. They are as short (five feet tall) and light (160 pounds) as the game would allow me to make them. In every single skills category -- Speed, Strength, Awareness, Toughness, and dozens of others -- I assigned each of them the lowest rating possible.

Interestingly, nobody who donated wanted to be on the Seahawks. Those who voiced a preference all wanted to appear as a slow, stupid, weak baby. I did too, in part because I'd spent the last few months thoroughly disrespecting a video game that a lot of people worked very hard on, and I felt like I needed to pay some sort of penance. I ultimately decided not to include myself.

I was met with a fate so much more painful than that. My mom showed up in my inbox with a donation. She voted Broncos, and I hoped dearly that the random number generator wouldn't select her.

It did. She is now the starting quarterback for the Denver Broncos. And now I must throw her to the wolves.


For this game, I played exclusively as the Seahawks. None of the things the Broncos will do below are on account of me. Those are all the computer's fault.

First, let's check in on Mom. I love her more than I can say, but she is terrible at football.

Among her many other superlatives, she's the most generous, giving person I've ever known. Her presence here is only one of a thousand different times she's gone out of her way to help others in need, in ways big and small. I remember one of those small times. I was walking home from my last day of fourth grade, and as I neared my front door, a water balloon landed on the ground a few feet away from me. I looked up. She'd missed me on purpose, and she was smiling. On the porch she had a giant bucket of water balloons she'd filled for me, just waiting for me to get home and play and say hello to the summer. It was probably the 2,000th-nicest thing she's ever done for me, and I don't know what makes that one stick out, but I felt love, and it mattered. Anyway, here's a GIF of her getting clobbered.

She never really had more than one second to get rid of the ball. Her blockers were as inept as they possibly could have been, and she fumbled on roughly every other passing attempt. She did manage to complete one pass: I decided it would be fun to run "punt block" on a first down. Mom simply chucked it to a receiver, who found himself completely unguarded and waddled for a 30-yard gain. It was the Broncos' only positive-yardage play I saw.

If you're new to Breaking Madden, I should explain something to you: the game hates me. HATES me. Madden doesn't appreciate all the things I've put it through, and if a machine can emote, it's this one. It's desperate, and it's angry.

That's the only explanation I have for this. The Peyton Manning Broncos have no designed quarterback runs in their Madden playbook, which makes sense, because Manning tucks and runs once every 25 years or so. Doesn't matter. The computer sent my mom to rush with the ball.

"You're being terribly mean," the computer told me through this moment. "I can also be mean."

These Broncos were stone-cold stupid. Madden's Awareness rating, as demonstrated by previous installments of this series, is one of the very most potent skill categories. Without it, normally competent players are reduced to total knuckleheads who often don't know what they're doing, what they're supposed to be doing, where the ball is, or whether they're playing a sport at all.

The Broncos' kick returner, Big Walrus, was so completely checked out that I was able to kick the ball and hit him in the ass.

That was not an isolated incident. There were lots and lots of kickoffs in this game, naturally, since I was scoring all the time. When I kicked them the ball, they kinda just stood there. AND THE BALL KEPT HITTING THEM IN THEIR ASSES.

Macca really drives the point home by dancing a little jig en route to the most comically miserable safety I've ever seen. Goodness, these Broncos are not particularly good. They may lose by a score of 28-0, or perhaps even greater!

There is no football explanation for this:

I called a Hail Mary, because the Broncos were offering absolutely no incentive to call anything more complicated than, "RUN TO SCORE PLACE THROW BALL SCORE." Even if Mr. Drebot had played man coverage, his guy would have left him in the dust, so playing zone was really no better or worse. I guarantee you, though, that Drebot's assigned zone was not way over on the opposite side of the field. He looks back at the receiver out of apparent cursory interest, then returns to his very important job of speed-sidestepping to a part of the field where there is no football and there are no sports of any kind.

These Broncos really whipped themselves up into a clueless frenzy over all these Seahawks running around. I thought it might be nice to settling everyone down a little, so I had my running back, VISHNU, just stand still and chill in the backfield for a little while.

Morgan C. is but the red shell revolving around Bowser's kart. It's like watching one of those really awkward musical numbers in which someone sings to someone else, and that person just has to sit there and be sung at and stared at and do nothing.

In the player creator, Madden asked me to choose whether or not each player had a "high motor." I decided that, no, the Broncos do not. I'm still a little unclear on what exactly that means, but it might help to explain this.

I think this play, in which two of my receivers slammed into each other, was the Seahawks' only incompletion of the game, and I'm glad dude could get a good view of the spectacle. He might have had a better view, had he taken literally one step in any direction over the course of the entire play. The folks in orange were just completely giving up.

Guy's finally got himself a Seahawk, and his friends are offering absolutely no help. This isn't Madden 2001 or something. There's an engine in place that draws up a limitless number of ways in which a guy can get gang-tackled. Defenders can and do bum-rush a ball carrier in groups of six or seven. This is not a limit of the physics engine or anything else on the technical end. His teammates just wanted to stand there and watch, that's all.

The Broncos can't be blamed all that much, I guess, because terrible things tended to happen when they interacted with the other team.

That GIF goes from good to great once you watch the player in the background. He kind of ambles right into his own tackle, but not before rubbernecking at the misfortune of his friends. Hey, I don't really know where to put this, so it's just going to go here: the Broncos' uniforms are the ugliest in football by a considerable margin. The orange and blue don't work together at all, the logo screams "create-a-team default," and the numbers look like they were ripped off the Rocketeer's mailbox. Also, the dark-blue sides make y'all look like you're wearing sandwich boards. Wear nicer things to the video game!

I set the Broncos such that they were as injury-prone as possible. Their roster of able bodies started to thin out pretty quickly.

Torn MCL, broken jaw, broken foot, broken hand. Broken all over. About 10 minutes into the game, the Broncos had eight players listed on the injury report, all of whom were ruled out for the rest of the game. Eight, it turns out, was the maximum number the game would allow. After that, there were still injury timeouts being called all over the place, but no matter how devastating the hit, Madden wouldn't take them off the field.

"They've got him. Pull up the rope. There's nothing we can do for him now."

Before long, I could only get tackled if I tried to. My Seahawks barely had to do anything but run in a beeline to the end zone if they wanted to score. The Broncos fumbled away the ball on nearly every play.

I had reached the mathematical ceiling of how often I could score. I wouldn't blame you if you didn't believe me, so here's a screenshot.

About 10 minutes into the game, I had scored 262 points. The above score is actually wrong. We've run into this problem before: once you get to 255 points, Madden stops counting correctly. Not that it doesn't try.

At the bottom, it says the Seahawks have scored 255 points. At the top, 266. Neither was correct, and I was pretty amused that a computer could attempt the most basic of tasks -- addition -- and come up with two kinds of wrong.

Since the game stopped counting, I simply started counting myself. I started to become more and more efficient at forcing fumbles, and angling my kicks so that I could get the best angles on the return man. Scoring was nearly effortless, and nothing could stop me.

With just under two minutes left in the first quarter, I was winning 366 to zero. I realized that I was on pace to score 1,500 points in a single game. I had never conceived of such a high score. I'd never even heard anyone talk idly about such a thing. There was absolutely nothing the Broncos could do to slow down my pace. I could score just as surely as someone can point and click. It was great. I wanted to ruin Madden in a way I never had before, and I was doing it.

And then it happened. Before I tell you what happened next, I want to lay out a couple of things: first, I made no actual hacks to this game. I didn't have some special jailbroken Xbox, nor a special copy of Madden, nor anything like that. I bought my Xbox at Target and bought my copy of Madden off Amazon, and that's that. Second, I stake whatever journalistic integrity I have upon the statement that I didn't Photoshop any of this, and that it happened just as I say it did.

I was setting up for a two-point conversion try, which I hadn't failed all game. Suddenly, an official blew a whistle and called one of my players for a false start.

Wait a minute. I turned all the penalties off. I had certainly turned off the "false start" penalty, as well as every other penalty. This was the first time a ref had shown up all game.

I wondered what the Hell had happened, so I went to the replay.

This was no replay. There were no players on the field. I scanned up and down, and my eyes caught a little speck of something at midfield.

It was placed neatly at the 50-yard line, right in the middle of the NFL logo.

I panned the camera over and zoomed in. And I stared and stared, and then I got Spencer on the line.

Jon Bois: dude

so i'm simulating the game. there's a funny moment, so i go to look at the replay

nobody's there. the field's empty. so i look around, and then i notice there's this thing, neatly placed in the middle of the NFL logo

so then i zoom in.

Jon Bois: it's like this half-Bronco, half-Seahawk fetus

the game has told me in the only language it has left that it has been broken

Spencer Hall: you made that Jon

you took science

and made an abomination

you did that

Jon Bois: i'm a dad

hand me a cigar

Spencer Hall: [puts it out in that thing's eye]

eye hole

whatever it has

It ... this thing ... it had Seahawks lettering, and yet it had Broncos orange around its "head." It didn't appear to have legs. It appeared to have four arms. There was no rewinding or fast-forwarding in this replay, because there was no time. It was just a giant, still image to explore.

Right in the middle of the field. The computer had left it there for me to see. What did it mean? Had the computer descended into visual gibberish, or was it speaking, fluently and concisely, in a language I could never understand?

I continued to stare at it. This was not a gesture of a being who was having a good time or approved of what I was doing. This was an expression of resignation, of sadness, of delirium.

I could not continue. My heart wouldn't let me. I used the simulation feature to speed up the game to the end. I relinquished my ambitions of a 1,500-point game. Seahawks 255, Broncos 0. The machine and I agreed upon the final score.

And the season was over, and the machine bled to death.

Producer Chris Mottram Product Manager Chris Haines Design Ramla Mahmood Development Josh Laincz

About the Author

Jon has been with SB Nation since 2009. He is the author of the science fiction football story 17776, and producer of the documentary series Chart Party and Pretty Good.