Michael Vick may, for the rest of his life, remain a contemptible stereotype to much of the public: A brutal or stupid man. A laughingstock. A guy who did federal time. Still, there is one aspect of his football career that cleanly escapes the wreckage of his personal scandal, that lives on almost as a separate identity, and is a mortal lock to return tomorrow.
It's the Michael Vick of Madden NFL 2004. The incandescent, unstoppable, oh-god-don't-let-him-run, oh-please-don't-make-me-throw Vick, the last of sports video gaming's otherworldly performers. He arrived—with his jaw-dropping, unheard-of 95 speed and totally unfair 97-rated acceleration—at the sunset of the dorm couch's dominance over online multiplayer, and in the age when what you got on a disc was what you played with for a year.
Madden NFL 25 will bring back the best individual performers, as they were rated in their best year ever in Madden, on something called the All-25 Team, and it started slow-rolling the announcement of each position this week. Nearly everyone announced so far is a 99 overall. Tomorrow, we'll find out who is the quarterback and if it is not Michael Vick, rated according to his Madden NFL 2004 appearance, I will go grocery shopping with a bra on my head. EA Sports is, officially, not giving up anything yet, but in the official announcement video it put out a week ago, freeze-framers spotted a guy wearing No. 7 and throwing lefthanded for the All-25s. To me, that's case closed.
You just don't create a team like this and, in the 10th anniversary of his appearance, not bring back the series' greatest quarterback. In fact, of the decade's worth of refinement, in playbooks, in player ratings, and to the computer's defensive intelligence, a good hunk of modern-day Madden can trace its roots to Madden 2004 Vick, and the quandary of showcasing a performer whose physical talent, relative to others on the field, could wreck a video game.
"Before Vick, it was unheard-of to talk about a quarterback with 90 speed or above," said Donny Moore, the current "ratings czar" for EA Sports' American football titles, and was a player rater 10 years ago.
"That had been the elite speed threshold in Madden," Moore said. "Even when Vick came into the league, we didn't say 'Well, look at what he did at the [scouting] combine." In 2001, Vick ran a 4.25 40-yard dash, still the fastest, by far, of any quarterback entering the draft. It was as good as any defensive back, running back or receiver, the guys who get 90s in speed and acceleration and agility without a second look, but Moore and his comrades were unwilling to break that threshold on a rookie. Vick also was not the Atlanta Falcons' starter in his first year; he took over in 2002.
"We gave him 89 speed, 84 acceleration and 85 agility," for Madden NFL 2003, Moore recalled (Madden is always numbered one year into the future from the current season). "He was still the top quarterback in terms of speed. But our feeling was, let's give him a whole season. We're not going to break the game because of what he did at the combine."
So Vick got his full season in 2002, and "blew everyone's expectations," Moore said. Vick had five runs for 30 or more yards that year, including his longest against Minnesota on Dec. 1, a 46-yard tiptoe through the middle of the field that is replayed to this day.
"He blew by everyone," Moore said, "He looked like Usain Bolt."
In the 2003 playoffs, he undressed the Green Bay Packers, 27-7 on the road, with 64 yards on 10 carries. When it came time to set the rosters, Moore and his pals knew they had a problem on their hands for Madden NFL 2004.
"We gave him 95 speed, 97 acceleration and 95 agility," Moore said. "Obviously, the argument was, 'Hey, that's how he pairs up against any corner, or wide receiver, or halfback; he's just as fast as any of those guys.' We wanted to be sure that, after the show he put in in 2002, that his athleticism would be completely on display in Madden 2004."
This was not an uncontroversial choice, even internally. "Oh, the ratings went up the chain," Moore said. "For Vick, we knew this was going to be a game changer. To combat that, we wanted to make sure his ball-carrying rating was super low," meaning a higher likelihood of fumbling, which Vick was prone to do in real life. "I had it around 50. The executive producer came in and said, 'No, no, you gotta make this lower. Any time you touch him, I want him to fumble the ball. If not, it's an automatic touchdown.'
"I think we lowered him to a 42 carry," Moore said. Know which quarterback has a 42 carry in Madden NFL 13? Mark Sanchez, he of the buttfumble.
That's how bad they had to cut Vick back, 10 years ago, because otherwise, the guy would just obliterate you. The ratings team nerfed the hell out of Vick's passer attributes, too, though to be fair, he did throw a ton of interceptions in real life.
Even so, I distinctly recall—on the GameCube, now—doing the usual 70-step video-game QB drop with Vick and then sprinting—to Vick's right—for the sideline and spearing Peerless Price for a touchdown as time expired, as my friends spat profanity and Taco Bell debris.
In 2003, EA Sports wasn't rolling out day-one patches or roster updates, and was getting maybe a tenth of the feedback it receives in modern day, however vehement it is. It was probably the last time a sports game could get away with rating a performer this unstoppable relative to the rest of the game and not have it remembered as a withering blunder. (Madden NFL 2004 hit 94 on Metacritic for PS2 and GameCube, 92 for Xbox).
"There were no tuning considerations after the launch," Moore said, "You had to be right. What went out the door was out there for the next 365 days. Any mistake we make now, we can have the issue fixed in August before the game comes out.
"We put the rosters in back then, maybe a couple of months before the game was due to be finaled," Moore said. "Then there was a couple-month period of tuning the game. All of the gameplay tuners were all keenly aware of Vick and how he altered the game."
Vick even altered the entire ratings structure for quarterbacks. In his inhuman year in Madden NFL 2004, a quarterback's speed rating was weighted at 1.5 relative to all other attributes in computing his overall rating. Moore, in an email dated February 2003, recognized the mayhem this could cause in the upcoming game. He proposed that the weight of the speed rating be backed down to just 1.0, with the extra 0.5 slid over to awareness, whose effect on a user-controlled player—especially a quarterback—I have yet to observe.
Gameplay tuners were all keenly aware of Vick and how he altered the game.
Subsequent editions of Madden, Moore said, were still forced to respond to the disruption Vick caused. "If you remember, Madden 2005, that was the year of the defense," Moore said. "We added the hit stick and quarterback spies on defense." Vick, and the advent of mobile quarterbacks seen today, changed the game in real life, but it changed Madden more immediately. "We had to combat the real offensive year everyone had seen in Madden 2004."
Ray Lewis took the cover after Vick, and the Hit Stick introduced in his Year-of-the-Defense edition remains one of the most spammed control inputs in video game history, sports or otherwise. "To this day it's still probably one of our top features," nodded Moore. Defensive formations with QB spies—linebackers who sit back and neither drop into zone coverage nor attack the runner, but read what the quarterback is doing—have likewise clamped down on a mobile quarterback's ability to draw Family Circus cartoons all over the playbook in Madden.
So has the natural evolution of the real world game. "Today it seems like every team in the league has a defensive end who runs a sub-4.5 40," Moore said. "Guys like Mario Williams and Julius Peppers. The league had to adapt. They had to keep up with guys like Robert Griffin today."
So if Vick is introduced tomorrow—or if I'm wearing a bra on my head at the Food Lion—he shouldn't have as easy a time in Madden NFL 25, even with the same ratings. The 95-97-95 combination of speed, acceleration and agility will still create a mess if you can get outside the tackles, but doing so in the modern game should be a lot trickier, thanks to defenses on the watch for mobile quarterbacks and a pass rush that got a lot more aggressive out of necessity.
"My memory of playing with Vick? OK, what I'd do is snap the ball," says Madden's ratings czar, "then I would let the pocket come in—the defense would almost suck in, and then I'd float out to the left. As long as you had Brian Finneran or Alge Crumpler crossing over, you couldn't be beat."
Moore has rated thousands of players since Vick in 2003 and taken reams of abuse, online and otherwise, for those choices. None stick out like Vick, though.
A year after Vick's meteoric Madden NFL 2004 appearance—a year in which, naturally, he was injured, thanks to the Madden Curse—a man who is now an NFL head coach passed through Moore's studio as a consultant and asked to talk to the person who rated players. Moore won't name him, but he says they sat down at a conference table, and this coach had some thoughts to share.
"You know, other than his scrambling," the coach said, "Vick shouldn't rate so high."
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Sundays.