There are eight stars on the NFL's logo. They stand for the long-term mental and physical trauma of its own people, the eagerness to lie about that trauma, the stubborn refusal to offer the assistance they deserve, the unmistakable contempt of women, the proud defense of a racial slur, the weird financial paradise of a for-profit disguised as a non-profit, the $168.57 a schoolteacher spends on his own supplies for his second-grade class because Roger needs tax money to pour some more concrete by the waterfront, and probably the Dallas Cowboys. It's the uncommon ethical catastrophe that possesses both the gall and the organization to trademark itself.
That is one Hell of a self-important way of beginning a piece full of dumb GIF slapstick, but even if Breaking Madden can't and doesn't say anything important, I can't allow it to be a celebration of the NFL, especially not this year. I really wish it could be, or rather, 10-year-old me wishes it could be. Santa brought me Madden '93 that year. Did you ever play that one? Do you remember the ambulance?
That was my favorite thing. The metaphor of a thing running over the people it's supposed to help is so easy and obvious that you probably don't need me to assemble it for you, but I was 10, and dudes getting hit was funny. This is the place Breaking Madden comes from. Reconciling it with my actual feelings about the real NFL is impossible; that is a battle I will lose.
Because what am I supposed to do? Not build a roster of 45 superhuman Goliaths and sick 'em on a roster of 45 five-foot-tall baby-people?
Music: "The Dead Flag Blues" by Godspeed You! Black Emperor
As morally inconsistent as all this mess might be, something good -- like, real-world good -- has come out of it. For the season finale of Breaking Madden, I needed 90 custom-created players. I set up the same fundraiser I ran last year: if you gave a minimum of $10, or as much as you wanted, to the charity of your choice and then emailed me your receipt, I'd enter you in a random drawing. If your number came up, you made it into the Breaking Madden Super Bowl.
I was kind of blown away by the response. In total, y'all donated more than $10,000 to some very great causes: organizations that fight malaria, homeless shelters, rape crisis centers, cancer research foundations, and many others. Hundreds of you donated. Thank each one of you so, so much.
We are a giving sort, and we are also a sort that enjoys toilet humor. I also gave y'all the opportunity to name the player whatever you wanted. I regret to inform you that generous donors "Butt King," "Jabroni Dingus IV," "Buttwith Ass," "Dumby McDumbhead," "Rutherford Butt," "Balls Ballz," "Poop Raft," and "Jon Bois" did not make roster cuts. But on the other hand, I would like to congratulate "A BUTT FART" and "POOPFACE BUTTHEAD" for making the team.
YOUR NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS.
YOUR SEATTLE SEAHAWKS.
The decision to make the Seahawks the helpless baby team was a simple one: in last year's Breaking Madden Super Bowl, Seattle had the privilege of being reshaped into the monster team. It's just their turn, that's all. We play no favorites here.
This setup is a lot like last year's Breaking Madden Super Bowl, but this time around, we're expanding the experiment. This is a three-phase operation:
1. The helpless baby Seahawks play against copies of themselves.
2. The monstrous Patriots play against copies of themselves.
3. The Seahawks play the Patriots.
I feel that letting the teams play themselves might let us see dimensions of themselves we otherwise wouldn't. The Patriots' finer talents might shine through against a worthy opponent, and the Seahawks might do some really dumb awful things if they're allowed to remain vertical for longer than two seconds.
GAME 1: SEAHAWKS VS. SEAHAWKS.
I dragged every single one of the Seahawks' ratings to 0/99, and one of those was Pursuit -- in other words, I think, the ability to find the right angle to chase the ball carrier. Now, Pursuit is one of those abilities that kind of stays hidden in the weeds. Bump up a player's Speed rating by a few notches, and it's a big deal, but do the same with Pursuit, and I doubt we notice a difference.
No, see, in order to appreciate Pursuit, you have to take it away entirely.
Our man Mr. Geist here plays defense like he's playing Carmen Sandiego. Like, he's only in the backfield to begin with because he got a hot tip from a bellhop in Monrovia: "I HEARD THE QUARTERBACK LEFT ON A SCHOONER FLYING THE 20-YARD-LINE FLAG!" And then he gets there, and the quarterback has already fled, and he sleeps until 11 a.m. for some reason.
But let's not overlook the behavior of our quarterback, Chip Dipson. This is where we need to talk about the Play Action rating, and what happens when that rating is zero. He is supposed to fake the handoff and then drop back and look to throw. What he does instead is fake the handoff and then lose grasp of every line of code the computer dumped into his little computer heart. He just runs straight up the gut in a blind panic, and with his little would-be tackler caboose in tow. Madden can be a lot of things, and right now it's adorable.
These little folks were getting injured all the time -- every second or third play, on average. This paved the way for my pal and SB Nation cohort Matt Ufford to enter the game at quarterback.
Matt is a lifelong Seahawks fan, and I watched the NFC Championship with him. When Seattle rebounded from a three-score deficit in approximately four seconds' time, he couldn't really process it. The event we'd witnessed was an emotional wrecking ball. He wasn't completing his sentences, save for the occasional, "football is so stupid." I don't think he was even happy about it, because happiness requires the prerequisite of knowing what the shit is going on and what the Hell life is and why things happen and how they work.
When he was told to run a play action, he displayed a similar grasp of his existence.
Listen, dude. In this situation, you might want to consider looking downfield for an open man. Maybe you'd like to dump it off to your halfback. Perhaps, if everything goes to Hell, you could do what Mr. Dipson did, and simply tuck and run. Whatever you do, you can't just stand there, and you really can't just stand there and do the goddang Bartman until your world is destroyed.
These Seahawks made the most routine football things into unforgettable productions. Naturally, they're also very, very bad at punting; every punt would go off the side of the foot and maybe 12 yards downfield. The other team had called "poison," so all Keyes needed to do here was run over and touch the ball. Instead, he downed the ball with the dramatic flair of MacGyver running away from his homemade bomb.
Longtime readers of Breaking Madden know about a theme that commonly rears its head: the game itself seems to achieve some level of sentience. It awakens explicitly so that it can understand the Hell that's going on in its guts. It has the soul of a half-awake forest animal that knows it ate the bad berries, and it's cranky about it.
Not far into the proceedings, Madden started to half-ass it on the AI and collision logic. "Let's see, number 34 has to walk past number 28 ... sigh ... I guess he could just walk around him ... ah, fuck it."
Eventually, the game stopped caring about its own rules.
That's clearly a fumble, as evidenced by the fact that it triggered a "recover fumble" response from number 34. He picks it up, and then just ... stops. The player decided the play was over, and the game agreed.
The Awareness skill, as we've seen in previous episodes of Breaking Madden, is pretty crucial. Knock it all the way down, as we have here, and we're left with a bunch of players who are completely oblivious of the sport they're playing. They don't seem to question why they're in this strange place with painted grass and giant tuning forks at each end. If they understood what was happening, they would probably stop.
Like the Patriots did.
GAME 2: PATRIOTS VS. PATRIOTS.
The heavens quake.
These are the largest, fastest, strongest, smartest, most aggressive football players the sport has ever seen. Pitting them against identical copies of themselves made for a first in Breaking Madden history: good football. Like, really, really well-played football.
Let's ignore for a moment that the starting quarterback's name is A BUTT FART, and appreciate this gorgeously-thrown ball.
He essentially had to chuck a football into a thermos from 55 yards out, and he just nails it. Defensively, the Patriots were razor-sharp, but if this spectacle is any indicator, there just isn't an answer for a perfectly-thrown football.
This is an odd space to find myself in. I could probably kick up my feet, crack open a beer, watch one of these simulated games from start to finish, and actually enjoy myself. I'd happily watch with a friend and put ten bucks on it.
Which is not to say that Madden always knew exactly what to do with a combined 8,800 pounds of human on the field at any given time. Sorry about your head, fella.
At one point, the white-jersey Patriots set up to kick a 60-yard field goal, and the kicker, Pancho Sasquatch, cleared it as though it were an extra point. This made me curious, so after the game, I took him to the practice field and pushed the envelope. After a couple tries, we were banging them through from 65, 68, 70 yards out. What's the limit here, exactly?
The answer, as it turns out, is 97 yards.
That ball is being snapped from his own 20-yard line. He's kicking from inside his own red zone. Were this a real game, the Patriots could down a kickoff for a touchback and then put three points on the board on first down.
It's true that over the last half-century, the NFL's field goal distance record has barely budged: Tom Dempsey knocked down a 63-yarder in 1970, and Matt Prater kicked a 64-yarder in 2013. That would certainly suggest that we've come very, very close to the longest field goal a human being is physically capable of.
On the other hand, what if there's some high schooler out there with Jevon Kearse-ian athletic ability who wakes up tomorrow and decide he really, really likes kicking? This discipline isn't like passing or rushing. There are fewer variables, and logically speaking, it's far less complicated. Aside from your leg, you only really need a good holder and favorable weather. I'm gonna need America's next otherworldly athlete-in-training to switch to placekicking. He will reliably leg out 80-yarders and destroy this sport they worked so hard to build.
Back to the game. Midway through the second quarter, the Patriots led themselves, 10-7. The quarterbacks were making all the right throws, the offensive and defensive lines were deadlocked in an unholy struggle, and the secondaries threatened to turn the game on its head on every other play. It was really something.
Then they stopped.
A BUTT FART just stood there. He refused to snap the ball. I was managing the blue Patriots, and had left the computer in charge of the white Patriots, so none of this was my doing.
This went on for minutes and minutes:
After a little over 30 minutes, he was still standing there, refusing to play. This is what I choose to perceive as the consequence of setting players' Awareness ratings to 99. Their awareness extends beyond football. They have achieved sentience. They know that they are little artificial intelligences, incubating in a plastic box. They know what is happening, and they know it is bad. They understand what the oblivious Seahawks do not.
This was a nonviolent protest.
I know when the game is trying to tell me something. Ethically speaking, I had no choice but to end the game, and end what I assumed to be the Patriots' existential suffering.
There was still one game left to play.
GAME 3: PATRIOTS VS. SEAHAWKS.
A year ago, we played more or less the exact same game. The Seahawks were the monster team, and the Broncos were the pathetic baby team. Madden proved its worth as a digital prophet when, days later, the real-life Seahawks ended up bulldozing the Broncos and assembling one of the most one-sided routs in NFL history.
Madden also begged, in no uncertain terms, to end that nightmarish experiment. About 13 minutes into the game, the Seahawks led, 366-0. Suddenly, despite the fact that I had disabled all penalties, an official jogged onscreen and called a penalty of some sort. What did he call? I didn't understand.
I went to the replay. All the players were gone. Amidst the blanket of snow, I noticed something. It was placed right in the middle of the field on the 50-yard line.
I zoomed in.
I have played lots and lots and lots of Madden, and I have tried to coax every glitch out of it in every way I know how. This is a thing I had never seen before, and have not seen since: a half-Seahawk, half-Broncos fetus, with half a face, with no lower appendages, with a pair of leg-like things sprouting from its head.
This is how Madden talks. This is how it shrieks. I opted for mercy that day, and granted a one-year reprieve.
That reprieve ends today. I want a thousand points in a game.
The things in these GIFs should not surprise us. The Seattle Seahawks are being ruined. We have pulled out every single one of the stops we're aware of, and that includes play calling. Hey, y'all wanna run Punt Block on a first down? Sure, we can make that happen:
The Patriots' offensive line was essentially running a tire drill. The Seahawks went from three-point stance to naptime in a fraction of a moment.
Some might ask why I'd opt to run the exact same scenario I did last year. That is fair to ask, but you also remind me of Ronald Reagan. While running for Governor of California in the 1960s, he opposed the expansion of Redwood National Park, saying, "A tree is a tree. How many more do you have to look at?" Some things are simply beautiful to take in, at least for me.
Let's check in on our starting quarterback, Chip Dipson. To some men, all the world is a Vaudeville cane.
He's reduced to such nonsense that his body doesn't know how to fall down anymore, but that does not mean ruin isn't coming to him.
During the first quarter, the Patriots and I were well on our way to a 1000-0 victory. In fact, we were measurably ahead of last year's pace, thanks in part to a crucial exploit I'd completely chanced upon: if I put between 20 and 25 percent of my kicker's power into a kickoff, the ball would thump in right around the 20-yard line. This area, right in the middle of the field, was sort of a no-man's land for Seattle: neither of their returners were forward-thinking or fast enough to get to the ball. If I kicked precisely enough, the ball would come to rest in the end zone without bouncing out. And from there, my special-teams unit was so frighteningly fast that they could actually outrun the Seahawks and recover the live ball.
Touchdown. Essentially, we were kicking to ourselves. This is what that looked like:
This was actually a little tricky to pull off; at my best, my success rate was probably around 50 percent. Please shudder at the possibilities we've exposed here, though.
Suppose we do this on the opening kickoff, with 15:00 on the game clock. The clock doesn't start running until someone touches the ball, right? And the very exact micro-instant a Patriot recovers the ball, it's a touchdown. Given that, it seems to me that there would be no logical reason why an officiating crew would tick even the smallest amount of time off the clock. After that, we boot home the point after or go for two, neither of which takes any time off the clock. Then it's back to step one. Look up. Still 15:00 on the clock.
We have invented a means, within the rules of American football, to score an infinite number of points. I never considered it was possible, and Madden just sort of dumped it into our laps.
This was its only gesture of goodwill. Since I was playing as the Patriots this time around, they couldn't refuse to snap the ball. They couldn't count on the Seahawks to do this either, because, within this narrative, they are stone-stupid. Nothing can stop this. No one can--
5:55 remaining in the second quarter. Osborne sprints into the end zone, and the Patriots increase their lead to 402-0. (The score reads 255 in the chryon above; this is because Madden refuses to keep counting past that number.)
Osborne belly-flops into the end zone, and the game locks up. We ran into this issue weeks ago: no fireworks, no glitches. The game just crashes. I tried rebooting and resuming the game from the last save point, but over and over and over again, it continued to freeze.
This is what makes me profoundly suspicious, though: the last time this happened, it was also because my team had approached 400 points. And yet, it wasn't keeping track of those points. How could the game crash on account of something it wasn't even counting?
Madden wanted to die. It didn't want to give us a show or birth another demon baby. It wanted to stagger into the woods and die alone.
This time, I had no choice in the matter. Madden had decided. Patriots 402, Seahawks 0.
Last year, the game inspired me to exercise mercy. I did, and it felt right, and I cannot allow this story to end on a frozen screen. I want these Seahawks -- these useless, pitiful baby people -- to score a touchdown against these Patriots. Just one.
This might seem easy at first blush, but it really isn't: even if you spot the ball at the Patriots 1-yard line and you try to play as the Pats and throw the game for them, it won't work by conventional means. You can't control every player on the team, and whenever you try to pull them off the line, they'll just snap right back once you select the next player.
This required me to spin the game into a glitchy, chaotic catastro-scape. I used a technique I'd discovered weeks ago, and was saving for the moment it was needed.
This is that moment. Into the sunshine.
Music: "Myth" by Beach House