Why a Train Wreck Can Still Be One Of Madden's Most Popular Teams

Barely a week after the Super Bowl ended, fans of the Cleveland Browns got confirmation they were functionally eliminated from contention next year, too. The team's president and general manager resigned after hiring a new head coach, a comical sequence that is so bass-ackwards you can't even repeat it in Madden.

Since re-entering the league in 1999, the Browns have made one playoffs appearance; they have had more head coaches, general managers, first round draft picks and starting quarterbacks of any franchise in that span. Teams in such historic disarray, regardless of the sport, are never desirable in the online or head-to-head multiplayer of a video game.

But in a franchise mode, they are irresistible.

"There are no exact numbers, but the telemetry over the past 12 years, it has stood out that people don't like to go into our franchise mode and pick a loaded team that has won it all recently," said Josh Looman, the producer in charge of Madden's "Connected Franchise" career suite, where all of this pseudo-history is written and re-written.

The population breaks down into three categories, broadly speaking: Folks who play to win the Super Bowl year after year after year; those who play with their favorite team no matter what, and then there are The Saviors. 'There are a lot more people playing our franchise mode as the Jaguars or the Browns than you'd expect," Looman said.

I'm not a Browns fan but some of my best friends are, so last Tuesday I decided to do something as patronizing and insubstantial as that statement: Fire up Madden, cut ticket prices in half, sell beer for a dollar (even if it can't be called "beer"; thanks ESRB!) and kiss away 50 seasons' worth of tears, putting out the NFL's worst dumpster fire in the city where the river itself burned. And that and $200 will still buy you an entire season of unwatchable football in real life.

This past season Madden's career suite restored ownership-level administration of a season—essentially a role-playing layer where you can answer some media questions and, most drastically, move a team to another city—to the personnel and game-management tasks it already presented. It introduces a measure of noblesse oblige to sports video gaming, the way you always fancy yourself acting if given control of an NFL team. Not only can a player be the most skillful runner on the field, the most brilliant play caller on the sideline and the best talent appraiser back in the menus, he can be a benevolent dictator.

Cleveland has actually held season ticket prices flat for the past five seasons (because, my God, how could they raise them?) and even removed the execrable "personal seat license" requirement—essentially a surcharge for nothing, that most franchises require of new season ticket-holders. It hasn't cut prices, of course, but if you did in Madden you might find a boost to your bottom line as fans come back, perhaps accepting the apology such a decision represents.

"We tried to give you, as the new owner of the team, the tools to pull yourself out of that tailspin," Looman said. "Let's say the stadium is 30 years old and falling apart and you're not selling tickets; if you cut those prices, and manage your merchandise, you can take the money, invest it back in the stadium and reinvent the franchise."

If my past playthroughs are a guide, though, winning solves most anything; even with the San Diego Chargers I've been able to get Eric Weddle's jersey to the top 3 in merchandise sold. A Madden owner who can win on the field can halve prices in just about everything, reap an enormous goodwill benefit, and by season's end still have plenty of money to set you up for another run, and two, and three after that.

What Madden lacks, for now, is a kind of enforced or restricted ascent. While you can "retire" mid-season and jump to another club as a player, owner or coach, you can choose anyone (unless they're taken in a shared online league). You can ditch the Buffalo Bills to be the head coach or starting running back for the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. In reality, you don't get to pick this fate. It's why College Hoops 2K8, the last entry in that series, still is one of the best sports titles ever made.

In its career mode, there was the option to be the coach of any team—a Duke fan paying $60 is going to expect that, of course. But in "Career Legacy," you had to begin with a real strivers bring them to the Big Dance, and then choose whether to stay or to go to a more plum assignment that your coach had earned.

"I remember once taking Cleveland State, one of the pretty bad starter teams, to the NCAA Tournament as a second-year coach," said Abe Stein, currently of Wheaton (Mass.) College, and formerly an MIT researcher who studied sports video games. "It was awesome. I watched their simulation of Selection Sunday and whooped when they mentioned our name. I knew we were in because we won the conference, but just being announced in the bracket was awesome."

NCAA Football 14 (and its two predecessors) had a similar dynamic, in which you could restrict yourself (or members of an online dynasty) to low-rated programs and force them to ascend to higher rated schools through a "coaching carousel" in the offseason. In the Xbox/PS2 years of the NCAA Football series, though, you just took control of a program and led it up from nothing.

It still offered some outstanding payoffs. Back in the days when it had a licensing deal with Sports Illustrated, each week would begin with a made-up SI cover. For 10 weeks, despite historic victories at Nebraska and Oklahoma, my created team got no recognition. Then, when the University of Denver made the top 10 of the A.P. poll, Sports Illustrated screamed "Where Did These Guys Come From?!" I wanted to frame it.

"It's one of the more enduring narratives in sports; everyone loves an underdog story," said Stein. His survey of more than 1,700 sports gamers showed 89 percent of them played a full season in a franchise mode. That sounds like an astounding number considering the time input (especially in baseball and basketball) but I'll do it every year in at least three titles, and most of my friends do, too.

"One of our QA guys is a hardcore Oakland Raiders fan from Northern California," Looman said. "His name's Larry Mellette. We go to lunch all the time, and it doesn't matter who their quarterback is, he's OK with it. They've got the revolving door, and every time a new name comes up, he's like, 'I don't know, I think this kid's got it.' Then they cut him and he'll go 'Uh, well, let's see who they get now.'"

"And it's the same thing with Cleveland, in our game," Looman said. "The fans will love you and reward you if you win and do things the right way."

In real life, that's a big if. It's a 50-year if.

Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games.