Madden isn't the only way to play video game football. It is the only way to play NFL football. Other games must invent teams, and their names and logos have often reinforced an outsider, expansion or even knockoff look.
This was a disappointment of Tecmo Bowl Throwback. The teams had no nicknames. You were left to infer them from the helmet logos. Cincinnati Fists? Green Bay Wheat? Houston Viruses? The color schemes were painstakingly nonreferential to any recognizable NFL color pattern, past or present - Phoenix was damn near taupe. It looked like the USFL got its threads from Goodwill.
Know who looks even more ridiculous? The Seattle Seahawks, in that lime-green crossing-guard clown suit. They can get away with dressing like a WLAF team, because they're still in the NFL, and generations of fans have grown up with the bias that there's the NFL, and anything else simply wasn't good enough to make the big time. That judgment applies, unfortunately, to video games as well.
"You've summed up everything that was daunting about designing this game," said NaturalMotion Games' Rob Donald, the associate producer on Backbreaker, which is due out on Tuesday. "People are set in their ways, especially in sport. But we found that more than anything, people love the sport itself. At heart, people are simply football fans, many having played it in high school or even college. And there are lots of people who don't have NFL teams local to them, so they may have no strong connection to the league even if they really enjoy watching it for the sport."
Backbreaker and another Madden alternative, the online game Quick Hit Football don't exist because their leagues or teams are somehow more interesting than real life. They're in the marketplace as a different way to play the game - Backbreaker's played from the perspective of players, not those watching a game, for starters. Quick Hit melds strategy and fantasy football player management.
But designers of both recognize that gamers, in addition to playing in this league, need to feel invested in it. Uniform design and nicknames are a part of that, Donald said, but not all of it.
"The names and the logos of the teams came first," Donald said. "The guys were quite imaginative about that. We put some cities in that had maybe been abandoned by pro football teams in the past. We're not publishing a story, but there is definitely stuff that is behind the scenes with the game."
Although Backbreaker delivers a very deep team creation and customization engine, it also ships with 60 teams whose logo designs were deliberately chosen, Donald said. The Indianapolis Spartans, one of the game's better franchises, has an interlocking I-S logo that speaks of establishment. The Omaha Cyclones, one of the weaker teams, may have a traditional nickname but their emblem hints at expansion status.
"The Spartans are very traditional, others are kind of a comic-book style," Donald acknowledged. "Some kind of look like, when a pro team says ‘Hey, we need a rebranding,' and either they come up with soemthing great, or a load of crap. Some of the logos are cheesy, some are cool."
Quick Hit (above) begins with the user creating a team, so there's no real league story to tell beyond the one players end up writing for themselves. That said, the game had to offer them design choices that support how they'd want to feel about the team they own, said Geoff Scott, the game's producer and art design lead.
"We need our players to come in and identify with their team, a team they have no knowledge of," Scott said. "Coming up with logos for the teams was really where we started getting success in identifying our brand with football. We havegood artists, with a style that embodied the league we wanted to build. When we started to create the logos, it created that kind of vibe."
Scott and his artists also had to pick logos that not only looked interesting, but could also suit many different nickname choices. "It wasn't as complex as it sounds, we just said, we need some cats, a shark, some piranhas, we had an inside joke here about aardvarks, even," Scott said. "But if youand I were to sit down and talk about creating a league, one of the first things we'd talk about are, OK, what are our mascots? So there are about 35 or 40 things that you come up with, and then we found an artist with great style, who can tell that story across the board."
Looking like a tradition-rich, old-school league wasn't in the discussion. "It's not like we wanted logos that looked like they'd been around for 50 years," Scott said. "We wanted our league to feel contemporary, in and of itself. And we wanted people to be able to look at a logo in the game and go, ‘That's Quick Hit.'"
These designs only tell part of the league's backstory, of course. It's up to the players to flesh out the narrative with their own performances. But they'll get some assistance in Backbreaker, where certain rivalries should evolve out of the way NaturalMotion deliberately matched some teams' strengths and weaknesses, Donald said.
But "We didn't want to drown the game with made-up information that we're forcing down players' throats," Donald said. And while the game's promotion and relegation system was installed because they didn't have to hew to a realistic, established league, it also will help give a narrative structure to a completely open-ended game, Donald said.
In the end, though, people will imprint on a game on looks. And if Backbreaker's 60 teams aren't good enough, you'll be able to build your own, with just one limitation: The game will block renaming of teams and players to keep you from recreating, name-for-name, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
(Correction: An earlier version of this said Quick Hit's rosters are not renamable. They are, but they are similarly limited: Ray Lewis, one of five current players licensed to appear in the game, won't be seen in a purple and black uniform because of the obvious reference to the Baltimore Ravens.)
Donald, an admittedly bad artist, tried creating a volcano logo for his Backbreaker team, based in Ash, England. "You can design a crappy logo, but it's still your crappy logo," he said.
"I think people spend a lot of time on it," said Scott, who created the "Menemsha Sallygrowlers," after a town on Martha's Vineyard. "If your team's your avatar, when you come in, the more you identify with it, the more you want to play. If you don't, what desire is there to come back?"
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 2 p.m. U.S. Mountain time.