In cataloging the greatest thrills and moments I've had as a sports video gamer, all but one or two have come in a career mode of some type. In some cases, it came because I strictly avoided the game's exhibition features. For example, in 2011, just barely qualifiying to play The Masters meant something to me precisely because I had refused, to that point, to play the course from Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12's play-now menu.
But this week, in reviewing Madden NFL 13, I needed to examine the game's Super Bowl cinematic because I'd failed to reach the game in my player's career. So that meant going into Play Now and selecting the Super Bowl presentation. In last year's Madden, if you just background simulated the Super Bowl to the end, it would have no highlights to present, and that caused the video to cut off at the end. So I had to play through just to be sure I'd see everything. I selected the Cleveland Browns, mostly as a joke.
What unfolded was an unexpectedly compelling experience from the oldest and most-taken-for-granted mode available in the sports genre: Just you and the computer, offline, in a single game drawing on nothing before the coin toss, and with no ramifications after the final whistle.
Before the advent online multiplayer, Play Now, Exhibition or whatever you want to call it was the anchor of a sports video game, because it's where grudges were settled in what we'd now call local multiplayer. Franchise modes were appealing but without the depth of features seen today, it basically committed you to playing a schedule of games with a team and little else to flesh out the experience. I remember taking Navy to the Orange Bowl in College Football USA '96, then starting a new season with Barry Lunney and Arkansas, and just saying the hell with it after three games. There were more than 100 teams in the game. Why was I spending all of this time playing 12 games with one of them?
Today it's the persistent modes that form the basic expectations of the game, with Play Now feeling like the more limited, no-frills experience. Playing the computer in a one-off exhibition, especially when you've got so much you could be doing in Association, Connected Careers, Be A Pro or whatever you're playing, feels like going out in the yard to have a sentimental catch with your father.
You don't get much variety in the commentary because there's no season context to creep into the discussion. The decision to keep a player in the game with an injury is meaningless, because there's no future at stake. Other types of singleplayer play-now modes still reflect the modern sports video game's dependence on real life events to sustain user interest. FIFA's Football Club challenges are a rewrite/relive history proposition based on something that happened in the past week. NBA Today and MLB Today from 2K Sports' basketball and baseball games are tied to the matchups and rosters of the day.
Playing the CPU in a one-off exhibition feels like going out in the yard to have a sentimental catch with your father.
It's not to suggest the exhibition mode is fundamentally irrelevant, or should be removed or is in any danger of going that way unless it gets some kind of makeover. It's where the soul of the game resides. A customer has to have the means of playing a game with any team and against any team. Discussing telemetry with Madden developer Josh Looman last year, he said 99 percent of their users play the mode at some point. It's as basic as bread, Play Now. (It makes me wonder, though, about the 1 percent who don't. They're likely uber-collectors in Ultimate Team.)
What's really remarkable is that 9 out of 10 players also participate in Franchise—the old offline career mode—in some way last year. For NCAA Football, I've been told it's around 80 percent. This figure doesn't mean someone completed a season, necessarily, only that they had the game and started one. But it's not much of a stretch to look on it as the main reason people get involved with these titles, with exhibitions and Play Now mode as a kind of laboratory.
That's sort of why I was playing the Super Bowl with the Cleveland Browns against the Detroit Lions this past week. Taking the Browns to the Super Bowl is something I'll do after my first two mugs of coffee. I'm not really interested in the time investment necessary to make it happen in a franchise mode.
This game unfolded about as you would expect it. Brandon Weeden threw three interceptions, every one of them wasting a Lions turnover in Cleveland territory. Still, the Browns only trailed 7-to-3 (five minute quarters, accelerated runoff to 10 seconds, and a lot of running the ball figures in here) coming into what figured to be the last all-or-nothing drive. Trent Richardson busted a 34-yard run to get the Browns down to the 5-yard-line, and with Weeden absolutely forbidden to throw the ball, Cleveland faced 4th-and-2 with 1:10 left.
It was supposed to be a let's-get-it-over look at a piece of video game window dressing, but now I started to take a personal interest. I stood up in front of the TV and would finish the game in that posture. I had two timeouts left. I burned one to find a fullback fake halfback toss out of a jumbo set, and Richardson was flattened at the line of scrimmage.
Detroit still had to get off its own two-yard-line. I called my final timeout after their second down and then got a gift when the Lions passed on 3rd-and-6, with 45 seconds left, and came up incomplete. Josh Cribbs returned the punt to the Detroit 40. This was now on course for being the most exciting finish in Super Bowl history. Still, I had about 40 seconds, no timeouts, and Weeden at quarterback. Ndamukong Suh flattened Weeden on the first play. No huddle on the second meant both teams ran the same plays with the same result, driving Cleveland back to their 45.
Except Weeden, by nothing less than a miracle, broke his ribs. The injury timeout allowed me to get out of the disastrous slants package I was in. Colt McCoy came in, and I remembered how he was knocked out of the 2010 national championship game at Texas. Now he was here to redeem himself. I was now rooting for Colt McCoy, more than I was controlling him. He hit Greg Little, in double coverage, on a beautiful streak, but Little couldn't get out of bounds or in the endzone. Everyone sprinted to the line as I screamed "SPIKE!" at my Kinect, and McCoy got the clock stopped with one second left, for one last play from the 5-yard line. You can see the outcome in this video.
When it was over, I was honestly dancing, shouting and winging punches in the air. No one was there to see it. I hadn't beaten a human foe. I hadn't capped a 13-win season of destiny. I hadn't done anything except score more points against lines of code in a game that, when I selected quit, would vanish from memory forever.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears weekends.