One of the few broadcast features in Madden NFL 12 that I didn't punch away with a quick button press was the official league bumper video at the end. You know, when the smooth narrator puffs up and says "This telecast is copyrighted by the NFL," and lays down the law of the league's expressed written consent.
It's a rather oppressive declaration, when you think about it. In the context of a video game, its language is meaningless. It's not even a telecast. But I always smiled, because it made me feel like I was watching an actual telecast—perhaps more than any other feature in a threadbare Madden broadcast presentation thrashed by reviewers last year.
Sports video games are often thrust into no-win positions by their communities, who complain that every upgrade to presentation means some pet peeve in the gameplay has gone unaddressed. While development choices have to be made, it's not the zero-sum game that axe-grinding complaint presupposes. Games have failed in both areas and they've succeeded in both, too.
But it is hardly a surprise to me that Madden NFL 12, whose lifeless, repetitive commentary may have been the worst seen on this console generation, was likewise the most poorly reviewed release of the title since its debuts on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Whatever you think of it, this version certainly had better gameplay than six years ago.
Sports video games are sports fantasies. Kids have re-enacted breathless play-by-play calls of their imagined heroics since before the age of video games. As many people experience major team sports by watching them on television, rather than attending in person (much less playing them), then properly mimicking a live sports broadcast becomes essential to a first-rate, licensed sports video game.
The scrape is in how the fantasy and the reality are consumed. I can't button through a replay on Fox's baseball broadcast when I'm watching the Cardinals and the Cubs on a Saturday. But in MLB 12 The Show, if I don't want to see the starting lineups, Matt Vasgersian will interrupt himself and, in a way that always makes me feel self-conscious, tell the viewers "wait a minute, looks like we're ready to throw the first pitch." And off we go.
We don't have true commercial breaks in sports video games (though I say that knocking on wood) but the breaks in the action they serve are as recognizable to the eyes and ears and spur the same instinct—thumb a button, whether it's on a TV remote or a controller, and move this along to something interesting.
That's why NCAA Football 13's big presentational upgrade is such a wild card to me. In the abstract, I think it's outstanding that EA Sports is bringing a genuine studio headquarters presence to this game, something absent from simulation football since NFL 2K5 (or, in unlicensed sports games, All-Pro Football 2K8.) It's doing it differently, too.
In the season-long dynasty mode of the upcoming game, you'll get updates on games taking place elsewhere around the country, whether or not they directly affect your team's conference or bowl standing. Dynasty-mode games can be interrupted as many as 10 times, though developers say they will come at natural pauses in the action—after a score or a change of possession, for example. I don't know that I've seen a game provide me results in progress in a virtual season with anything other than a line score across the bottom of the screen. And halftime highlight packages have all either covered the game I'm playing, or final results from the rest of the background simulation.
Dismissing those messages with a button press, even inadvertently, costs nothing. The information I missed is recoverable from elsewhere, even if I have to wait until the end of the game to hunt it out of a menu. The value of NCAA 13's mid-game studio update is that you'll be getting the story of a game evolving alongside your own.
What happens if you button out of that? What happens, frankly, if you restart? (As many assuredly will once the score goes against them). Will you see the same thing? An upset brewing in the Oklahoma-Iowa State game that kicked off two hours before yours will assuredly make you play differently, if the loser is ahead of you in the BCS standings. Yet grasping that plot twist in the story of your season, when it happens, will require not doing something gamers do by reflex—punching the A button as soon as the network's graphic comes up.
We sports fans say we want all of these things in a sports video game. I'm not sure we really do. Ask yourself the last time you took in every broadcast element, every replay, every postgame highlight without pressing a button.
Was it in a video game? Or was it watching a telecast? A telecast copyrighted for the private use of the audience, and any other use without the express written consent of the NFL is prohibited.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears weekends.