Leveling Up: Madden 15 & One Man’s Look At 40

I just lost a pre-season game in Madden 15. I play as the Kansas City Chiefs, a football team I know nothing about, and what’s more, I’m six seasons in on Franchise Mode, which means that, due to six seasons of retirements, injuries, failed contract negotiations, and 35 rounds of drafts, I also know nothing about most of the league’s players — Tom Brady does not exist in my game; instead, most of the players are computer-generated results of Madden‘s pre-programmed algorithm, each team filled with truly fictional characters.

As I said, I know nothing about the Kansas City Chiefs, but after five seasons, I have just about memorized their playbook (or at least, the playbook as defined by the creators of Madden 15). I have also set the ticket prices for their stadium, upgraded their parking lot and concession booths, adjusted the discounts on their team jerseys, and experimented with the prices on their commemorative footballs. I’ve done just about everything to this franchise that the game of Madden 15 has allowed.

All of which is to say that I play it lot. It’s the only console game I’ve played for almost a year, and I play a console game at the end of almost every night.

Last season, I won the Super Bowl on the All-Pro Level. I had to replay the AFC Divisional round three times before I finally won, but I destroyed the opposing team in the AFC Conference Championship and won a solidly fought game in the Super Bowl. It was my first Super Bowl on the All Pro Level in five seasons, and I felt like I actually earned something.

So this season, I switched to the All Madden Level.

About 15 or 16 years ago, after playing every season’s release since Madden 92 (originally for Sega Genesis), I quit playing Madden video games. I had never been a great player of Madden, but I could hold my own against most human players and play well against the computer (provided it wasn’t on the All Madden Level).

But then, about 15 or 16 years ago, Madden just got too hard for me. With the strength of third and fourth generation consoles and over a decade of intellectual property behind it, Madden made the leap from being a fun video game to becoming a football simulator. Each iteration brought some new mechanical complexity, some new graphical upgrade, some new strategic depth, and each edition pushed the game deeper and deeper into the nitty gritty details of football. It wasn’t fun anymore. It was work.

There were too many other video games to play, and no real interest in work, so years of Madden video games passed me by.

Two years ago, with twenty seconds left in Super Bowl XLIX and the opposing team about to score the go-ahead touchdown from the one-yard line, Malcolm Butler intercepted Russell Wilson’s pass, sealing the victory for the New England Patriots, and in my excitement, I bought Madden 15 for Xbox 360 (a used copy of the previous year’s version). In the glow of my team’s Super Bowl win, I played the game for a little while, but when summer came and I started playing basketball again, I put it down and returned to the other game I’d been playing, NBA2k14.

Then, with this year’s Patriots season and the drama of Tom Brady’s four-game suspension, I found myself paying more attention to football than I usually do, and at some point during the season, I switched NBA2K for Madden, except this time, instead of just diving into a game, I invested my daily allotted console time to Madden‘s training mode. Instead of playing a simulated football game for 45 minutes, I played with a simulated football-training simulator for 45 minutes.

The simulator taught me about Cover-1, Cover-2, and Cover-3 defenses, how to play them and how to attack them. It made me practice a wide variety of running moves, each of which I had to execute with split-second precision on the game’s 10-button controller. It taught me how to adjust the assignments of the offensive linemen to pick up a blitz. It introduced me to the concept of the key defender, taught me to spot him before I snapped the ball, and trained me to to key my read of the coverage based on that one defender’s movements. I learned when to lob the ball and when to throw a bullet, and how and when to throw behind or to the opposite side of the receiver. It introduced me to various tackling strategies and taught me how to increase the tackler’s aggression or desperation level as necessary.

After completing over sixty different tutorials and drills, I finally felt ready to play the game, so I set the level to All Pro, and had at it. Five seasons later, I won the Super Bowl — though as I said above, I had to replay the AFC Divisional round three times (I forced the replays because, earlier in the season, my star wide-receiver rejected my offer to extend his contract and my star running-back was getting old and his skills were declining; if I wanted to win the Super Bowl anytime soon, it had to be with last season’s team, so even though I lost twice in a row in the Divisional round, I wasn’t going to stop until I beat the computer, fair and square, which I eventually did after my third try). After 15 years, five seasons, and only two extra replays, as my imaginary players stood on the field celebrating their victory, I felt as if I actually accomplished something.

I turn 40 years old in one week’s time.

I rewarded myself by increasing the level of the video game. It’s now set to All Madden, the highest level possible. The game isn’t merciful anymore; it doesn’t forgive mistakes. Hesitate too long, and it’ll score a touchdown. Overrun the ball carrier, and it’ll score a touchdown. Misread the coverage, and it’ll intercept your pass or sack you for a 12-yard loss. Nothing is forgiven.

But it plays honestly as well. Time your throw right, and it’ll give you the first down. Follow the right run blocker, and it’ll give you twenty yards more. Read the right defender, and it’ll let you take the ball deep, but — and this is important — it will force you to catch the ball on your own — because everything is earned at the All Madden Level and nothing is given.

In my last two pre-season games, Madden 15 destroyed me. In the first game, my first at the All Madden Level, the computer forced me to endure a 48-7 loss. It ran for 206 yards, threw for 176 more, had zero turnovers (while forcing four on me), and required just one third-down conversion on its way to complete domination on both sides of the field.

The second game I played (just now) ended in a 27-14 loss. The computer ran for 207 yards, threw for 110, had zero turnovers (while forcing three on me), and required three third-down conversions on its way to complete domination on both sides of the field.

As the players shook hands on the field and the replays of the various highlights played across the screen, I thought to myself, Shit, maybe I’m not ready to play at this level.

But just as I thought it, the Madden announcer said, “That’s why you play at this level.”

And I thought, He’s absolutely right. I moved from All Pro to All Madden because I wanted a new challenge, and if something is going to challenge me, it’s going to begin with my failure. As I tell my students every day, failure is not a bad thing; failure is how we learn.

Yes, Madden 15 kicked my ass these last two nights. But I went from scoring one touchdown to scoring two; from allowing 48 points to allowing 27; from giving up 176 passing yards to giving up 110. The end result might be the same (I lost), but I know I played the game better. And I know I’ll play the next one even better than that.

I put a lot of effort into getting here — five hard-earned seasons — and I’ll be damned if I’m going to slink back to All Pro just because I lost two games in the pre-season. I might not be winning right away, but I’m going to stick with it.

I’m 40 years old in one week’s time, and it’s time to level up.