Like It or Not, the Wheaties-Box Era of Video Game Covers Is Over

Looking over the field of candidates for the Madden NFL 13 cover, I'm thinking of what William Munny said before he shot Little Bill in Unforgiven: Deserve's got nothin' to do with it.

That's not to say all of the 40 candidates announced so far are meritless underperformers or lack star power. But when you've got a kicker and a punter in this contest—from the same team, so one is assured of winning at least one round—it dawns on me that the Wheaties-box era of video game covers, initiated by this game, may be behind us.

While I don't think Oakland's Shane Lechler really has a shot at winning out, I know someone's going to get a campaign going just to see if we really can put a punter on the cover of North America's premier sports title. And strange things have happened when fans vote, as the NHL and Major League Baseball, whose all-star teams are selected by fans, can attest.

Last year, Aaron Rodgers by all rights should have won Madden's 32-player vote-off. He was the starting quarterback on the reigning Super Bowl champion and MVP of the game, to boot. Yet Packer fans threw their support to other players, convinced that the "Madden Curse" would doom Rodgers to injury or some other tragedy if he made the cover.

So, that's what I mean when I say deserve's got nothin' to do with it. It's fine to put this up to fan sentiment, and it certainly feels democratic, but there is no wisdom of the crowd here, just passion. That's why it's been such a successful marketing initiative for EA Sports and has really driven, among other things, its social media outreach. Every game made at EA Sports Tiburon since NCAA Football 12—even the downloadable NFL Blitz—has had some kind of fan vote. I don't think they'll stop the practice any time soon.

But as you blow out the fields for these things—Madden's will draw on 64 players—you're inevitably going to get candidates who simply don't pass the sniff test. That's because talent is a necessary but not sufficient condition for eligibility. EA Sports has to be able to reach a deal with the player should he win out. It would be a disaster if the label put a bunch of names in a bracket—I guess they have the right to do that, per the terms of their NFL Players Association license—and ended up with a winner who either wanted too much money or simply wasn't willing to participate.

The other spanner in the works is free agency. There are players in this bracket who may not be with their team by the beginning of next season—St. Louis' Brandon Lloyd almost certainly will be somewhere else. The Indianapolis Colts' Dwight Freeney may be out as that franchise rebuilds. The Steelers' candidates haven't been named yet, but could you imagine the humiliation if Hines Ward—a reasonable choice—had been nominated before he was released this week?

Fans are conditioned to see Madden's cover as an ultimate honor. Yet a punter eligible for it.

It's not just Madden. Looking at the covers of other sports simulation titles, NBA 2K12 delivered three different ones. Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson are widely named one-two-three when you're arguing that sport's three greatest players ever; the last game any of them played was nine years ago.

Tiger Woods now shares the cover of his own game, and hands up if you either recognize Rickie Fowler or would buy a game because he endorses it. Robert Griffin III must share the cover of NCAA Football 13 in a year in which he is the reigning Heisman winner and, likely, No. 2 overall draft pick. He'll be joined by another Heisman winner.

This gimmick, for as much as it engages the fans, can be confusing or disappointing to them, too. They've been conditioned, going back to Eddie George's appearance on the cover of Madden NFL 2001 to see a a sports video game cover as an ultimate honor. So, you see it in message boards, from fans who can't understand why Tom Brady and Eli Manning, the incumbent Super Bowl quarterbacks, aren't in the discussion. The plain fact is if either had any intention of being on the Madden cover it would have happened by now—long ago, in Brady's case.

This will run its course, but then what? In the days before the explosion of social media, simply announcing the cover star generated the kind of buzz that marketers and PR managers wanted to see for this kind of product. Now we have elaborate fan engagement. What will be next? How long will this even be a concern, as video games move inevitably toward digital distribution, making a physical cover irrelevant?

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It's tough to take myself too seriously saying all this because, in the end, we're talking not about a feature in the game but how it is marketed. None of this costs anything on top of the $59.99 you pay. And I admit, it is fun both to vote on these things and try to predict who'll be nominated. I went 6-for-8 predicting the AFC South, announced today, and I'm 27 out of 40 overall.

Still, a sports video game is distinct from other genres because of its archival nature. It represents a snapshot of its league at the time it was made. I feel like the guy looking back at me from its cover should mean something to his sport at that time other than the fact he won a popularity contest. And the thought of someone like Lechler winning out through a combination of viral mischief and why-not enthusiasm makes me cringe as much as seeing a guy on the cover in a uniform he won't be wearing when the season kicks off.

Of course, I guess we already went through that with Brett Favre.

Like It or Not, the Wheaties-Box Era of Video Game Covers Is Over
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays.