I knew what was coming after I lost to Green Bay, 24-17, in Week 11 of my first season in Madden NFL 13. It was the same kind of thing that came in Week 2 after a gutwrenching 24-20 loss at home to San Francisco, in which I was cited for the lack of a "clutch gene."
It was ESPN's Skip Bayless, a media personality I actively avoid, someone put on my TV screen by my Xbox 360 to bray about my defense's inability to tackle opposing runners. Never mind that I was controlling just one player, a running back. Win as a team, lose as a team, get ripped by Skip as a team. If it's in the game, it's in the game.
"Hah-hah, there's Skip!" said my opponent, still connected by chat.
"Fuck you, Skip!" I growled.
For years, many Madden players have taken it upon themselves to create storylines and fake recaps and email them to friends to document their virtual seasons. This year, Madden 13's season mode generates a "virtual Twitter feed" to constantly update the story of the year and the league as you play through it. Terrell Owens gets released? ESPN's Adam Schefter breaks the news. Chris Johnson runs for 200 yards? The NFL Network's Alex Flanagan will swoon, with double exclamation points.
None of these tweets were written by their supposed authors. One guy wrote all of them, nearly 20,000 total. In fact, there's a good chance that Skip's Week 11 hectoring was written by an American expatriate in Paris, the city of Gertrude Stein and Henry Miller, the place where Hemingway penned The Sun Also Rises.
"Yes, I was writing Skip Bayless tweets in France, it helped him sound much more obnoxious," laughed Todd Zuniga, the writer solely charged with impersonating more than a dozen different real media personalities for Madden NFL 13's "Connected Careers." This Twitter feed appears in the main menu of the game's career mode, and responds to your video game's top performers, draft prospects, free agent busts, and veterans on the way out.
Zuniga, 37, was living in the City of Light with his girlfriend last fall when the Madden gang called and explained their concept for this year's game. Zuniga was on the speed-dial because he had written scripts for Madden for another over-the-top TV personality to deliver—Gus Johnson, the outgoing play-by-play voice of Madden 10 and 11. This assignment would be a bit different.
But Zuniga knew innately what they were going after. The game's creative director, Mike Young, was a friend going back to their boyhood in St. Louis, where Young was the star of their little league team and Zuniga was its "alternate right fielder." Later, they would spend hours in their basements playing NHL on the Sega Genesis, convincing themselves every girl in their class was in love with them. Zuniga moved to the Chicago area, but the two still would meet up in their teenage years, road-tripping between the two cities and discussing video games, and their limitless potential, for the entire drive in between. "We were just blue-skying everything," Zuniga said, imagining all of the ways to implement real world details that would create a truly immersive sports fantasy.
So when Young called, "he said, 'We're gonna have a Tweet system, and we'll have this guy, and this guy—and Skip Bayless,'" Zuniga said, "I was like, 'Oh, now I get it.'"
Skip Bayless. The almost universally despised contrarian of ESPN, a sports media personality lampooned like none since Howard Cosell, bringing two times Cosell's bombast and half of his intellectual honesty to each studio appearance. Bayless derives his success and job security from being a shameless provacateur, and imitating that voice authentically means walking a fine line between impersonation and parody.
"It took me about 300 tweets before I felt like, 'Oh, that's it,'" Zuniga said yesterday from Los Angeles. "The secret to being Skip Bayless is just being the ultimate contrarian. If you say 'Andrew Luck will be the greatest rookie quarterback,' then he'll say, 'No he's not , why would you say that?' And he'll pick the smallest thing to undermine it."
In Madden 13's virtual Twitter engine, Bayless' contrarianism requires him to respond to other simulated personalities, Zuniga said. "If Chris Mortensen says, 'I realize this guy is getting a lot of hype, but I'm worried about his health,' then Skip will jump in and say, 'He's the greatest person ever.' He's there to contradict anything the others are saying."
Mortensen proved to be the most difficult voice to impersonate, Zuniga said. "Me and my dad have a bad relationship," Zuniga said frankly. "And Mort is sort of your dad, he's nerdy, he uses a lot of hashtags, he shows a very basic understanding of Twitter. At first, it just doesn't feel interesting enough."
Trey Wingo, the ESPN NFL Live host brought to Madden primarily to commentate on the off-season draft, was likewise tough to nail down. "He's sort of smarmy but not really, he's more tongue-in-cheek," Zuniga mused. "His voice is tough to do, not for one to two tweets, but to maintain it."
Ultimately, he did, from October through March, reading Twitter feeds, watching ESPN and YouTube videos of draft broadcasts, through a breakup with his girlfriend and a move back home. "Nothing is more romantic," he joked, than writing fake Tweets in Paris.
"I'm obsessed with the language of sports, because I think it's ridiculous and so funny from an outsider's perspective," Zuniga said. "I watched tons of video about the draft. There are four guys sitting there, talking for four minutes about one guy, saying 'He's got a great motor and long arms.' I'd ask Mike [Young], 'Hey, if I write 'This guy has long arms,' can you adapt the game to it?' And he'd say, 'If you let us know what physical characteristics the guy is talking about, we can make it work.
"If you watch the draft from a non-sports perspective, it sounds really idiotic," Zuniga laughed. "Mimicking that was really fun. I sort of giggled all the way through it."
When Zuniga returned to the United States in December, to finish a book and begin work on the reading performance series Literary Death Match, he was still faced with creating more than 300 fictitious draft personalities in Madden NFL 13, which cannot import draft classes from its sister title NCAA Football 13. These are players that coaches must scout, and the Twitter feed is designed to tip off opposing players when someone scouts them or puts them on a draft board.
"I told Josh [Looman, a Madden producer] that, yeah, you can draft 'Josh Allen,'" Zuniga said, "but it's much more fun to draft someone named 'Quantavious Jackson.' That's a name that sounds like it has a story behind it."
So does "Cam Sweet" or "Tyrekus Lee," or "Hadrian Bellweather," an homage to an old friend who would invent stories for his draft prospects from past Madden campaigns, and email them around. "Or Robo Robonovich," Zuniga says. "I don't even know his first name, I just know he gets the nickname 'Robo.'
"These rookies are all my favorites," he said, "they're like my children."
His work took one final 17-hour day in March, jet-lagged by the overseas flight, to complete, but he did. And at the end, there was Bayless, the implacable figure who will never approve of your created player, Zuniga says, unless someone else runs him down first. Bayless is the guy who is going to say two Super Bowl rings isn't enough for your quarterback or coach to make the Hall of Fame.
"The weird thing is by the end of all of that stuff, I actually had a deep affection for Skip Bayless," Zuniga said, even if the character seems programmed for disapproval. I started up a career with Tim Tebow, Bayless' favorite son, and didn't get an encouraging word from him at all during the season. I asked Zuniga if virtual Skip Bayless would ever say anything nice about a player you control, even as he approaches his Hall of Fame induction.
"I don't know," Zuniga said. "That would be an incredible moment, where Skip Bayless finally thinks you're pretty good. Like, he's the dad who's hated you your whole life, and now I feel resolved, so, thank you, Skip Bayless."