Zach Farley didn't know much about the others in his residence hall when he moved back in at Westfield State University as a sophomore about seven years ago. He did know one suite had a PlayStation 2 and a copy of Madden, the communal fire of a dorm for most of its 25-year existence. Farley introduced himself to that room first.
"I got a cold reception," Farley recalled. "But I ended up beating both guys at the game, and earning their 'Madden respect.'"
One of the vanquished was Stephen Gibbons, also a sophomore, who after not beating Farley settled for the time-honored alternative of joining him. The two teamed up for online play, Gibbons taking offense and then handing the controller to Farley for the defense. One evening they took down the No. 16-ranked player. In the world.
"We knew we had a formula," Farley said.
Indeed they do. It's a formula that has resulted in what today is essentially a full-time job playing Madden, whose latest edition hits shelves on Tuesday. Gibbons and Farley, for the past three years, have written Madden's official strategy guide for Prima Games, a Random House imprint and one of the two publishers who dominate the strat-guide market.
The know-it-all culture of hardcore video gaming may roll its eyes at a hard-copy strategy guide, generally regarded as some high-margin upsell foisted on you by a GameStop clerk. Madden's guide, particularly for those who do most of their playing online, is different. It's not a list of collectibles and quest-givers, it can mean the difference between winning a game, especially online, and just blundering around.
No one's on GameFAQs offering tips for a base offense for the Indianapolis Colts, after all, much less formation substitutions for inside runs. In a sport so driven by set-piece tactics and influenced by individual talent and playing style, the intelligence Farley and Gibbons can supply to a dedicated Madden player has real value. The Madden guide is the only team sports guide Prima, or anyone, currently publishes.
"We try to simplify it," Farley said. "EA Sports has to replicate 32 NFL teams' entire playbooks and all of the plays they might run. Over the course of a season you might use all of the plays in the playbook, but if you're playing your buddy, you only want the best plays."
Zach Farley (l) and Stephen Gibbons (r).
That's where Farley and Gibbons, perhaps better known as ZFarls and SGibs, come in. The guide under them isn't just a ratings dump or a scouting report written as if you were coaching against the team in real life. Each team gets four recommended base plays from the Madden playbook—passing and running, offense and defense—with flowchart instructions for altering it at the line of scrimmage depending on what you want to do in the situation.
When I play Madden, a lot of the pre-snap adjustments I make are almost purely cosmetic, if not actively harmful to what I'm intending to do. Madden may give you the option to put a defensive end into a hook zone, but it doesn't advise you of a situation where that would be useful. Gibbons and Farley are that voice.
It's a voice that often speaks in a fast-paced jargon, before Gibbons reminds himself to edit it down to clearer terms. Gibbons, 27, is the "mad scientist" of the duo, describing his work as "labbing" or "going into the lab." When he goes into a stream-of-consciousness monologue to express a thought, it can rival anything you hear from Ron Jaworski on the State Farm NFL Matchup even though Gibbons, like Farley (also 27) never played a down of the game on any organized level. He can still befuddle his brother, who did play college football, with his command of football concepts, though he readily admits he wouldn't be a good coach or coordinator in real life. All of this stuff he knows is geared to Madden.
Gibbons gets asked all the time what the big secret is in the latest game but he seems genuinely excited to share it. "Oh, man, Gun Empty Bunch," he told me, "in the Minnesota Vikings' playbook this year." The formation features five receivers but includes one run in its 12 plays, a motion read-option that can sneak Adrian Peterson, last year's MVP who damn near broke the single-season rushing record, into the discussion. "Singleback bunch was always one of my favorite formations," he says. "Online, most people play some type of zone coverage. Gun Empty Bunch gives you the best chance to beat the zone on an every-down basis."
Gun Empty Bunch. It's in the Vikings Playbook. Know it. Remember it. Use it.
Though the two work closely with EA Sports, this discovery isn't handed to him by the developers who build the game down in Florida. Gibbons and Farley spend 12-hour days at an office they rent in Boston—where the carpet is astroturf, actually—playing every team and every play against practically every defensive scheme and interpreting the results. The two are constantly in the game's instant replay feature, and Gibbons always has a controller rattling on the desk—he calls the other team's defense and lets it autoplay as he explores the playbook.
"We'll go from 10 in the morning most days to past 7 p.m.," Gibbons said. "We'll take a playbook, any playbook in the game, and start with one formation, and then run through every single play. Gun spread curl flats; take that play and run it against, say, dime 2-man under, to see who gets open, to see the timing of every single player on the field. Then I'll go back out and change it to a cover 2 zone, so I can see how the defense reacts differently to that, so when I'm giving tips I can tell the player to see the defender playing the flat routes, and you want to target the curl routes behind it."
After their first meeting in college, Gibbons and Farley became fast friends and a team in Madden's competitive circuits. "From there, we started to travel to tournaments all up and down the east coast and eventually put our scheme up online to share with the community," Farley explained. After graduating, the two pursued Madden as a side gig, recording a weekly "This Week in Madden" show, which eventually got the attention of EA Sports. The publisher signs off on the guide's writers in the same way a pro team will approve its home broadcasters. Pre-release access, after all, is important.
"We've been down to Orlando 20 times," Farley says, "and never been to Disney World. Never golfed, either. We've stayed up to 6 a.m., twice, playing there. It's intense. You're there to play the game."
The guide isn't the end of their labor—after the game publishes, they must supplement their work on MaddenTips.com (which Prima acquired in 2011) examining the trends and popular concepts as the NFL season unfolds and explaining how they do or don't work in the game. The 350-page book hitting shelves with the game on Tuesday is, after all, just a snapshot of the league as of about a month ago, when the Madden NFL 25 rosters were made final.
Not only do players change teams, they evolve and are re-rated as the season progresses, a popular team in the real world, particularly one with a lot of speed, becomes a go-to option online, and people want to know how to use or defeat it. In last year's guide, for example, the only mention of Colin Kaepernick is in the San Francisco 49ers depth chart, where he was rated 70 in the pre-season. Kaepernick took the team to the Super Bowl, becoming one of the deadliest mobile quarterbacks after taking over the job in the 10th week of the season.
"We always want to be an open book—what I know is what you know," Gibbons said,. "I don't know what I'll be doing in October; I might start the season saying I love the Minnesota Vikings and Gun Empty Bunch, but then what happens, organically, is the world figures out how to defend it, or make it so I don't want to run Gun Empty Bunch anymore.
"These are things that get developed as the season goes on," Gibbons said. "But what I know, and what Zach knows, is what we want everyone else to know."
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Sundays.