My initiation into the Ways of the American was a brutal one. I had just got off the plane, set my bags down in the dorm, ready to have a lie down, when the Three Matts (I lived with three guys called Matt – creepy or convenient? You decide!) tugged at my arm.
“C’mon Ossy (that’s how Americans pronounce ‘Aussie’. Protip: it’s actually pronounced ‘Ozzy’ as in ‘Ozzy Osborne’)! There’s a game on out back!”
“A game on? What, like Halo, ’cause that’d be super-sweet (my Fratboy-anese was starting to come together at this stage)!”
I lost a fair few brain cells that day (for reasons which will soon become apparent), so my recollection at this point of the conversation is a little hazy. But basically they explained to me that despite having just got off the plane, and despite my apparent state of jet-lag, they were about to thrust me headfirst into a game of American football, and yes, they were deadly serious. I don’t know what they were thinking, to be honest – maybe they were under the misconception that I wrestled crocs on a regular basis, and figured I could handle it – but American frat-boys are renowned for their over-exuberance, and so I obliged. I put on some shorts and a singlet and headed out to the oval with the Matts three.
Upon our arrival, it was widely announced that there was an ‘Ossy’ in their midst, and I think I heard whispers of crocodiles and magic boomerangs. This was not good. I was going to get hurt.
I played it cool, though. That is to say, I played the n00b, and asked lots of questions about the rules.
“Is this okay?”
“What do you do when the guy with the ball comes at you?”
I think I diffused their over-enthusiasm just a little bit with this charade, though I did still get the snot beaten out of me. See, I actually did know the rules, I just didn’t understand them. Everything I knew I learned from NFL 2K for the Sega Dreamcast. Being that it was the only decent DC game I owned that wasn’t Sonic Adventure initially, I actually grew quite familiar with the sport of American football, dare I say even fond of it. It became a vested interest a month later when I was living in Seattle and the Seahawks had made it to the Superbowl (sadly to lose to the appropriately-named Steelers, who stole the victory – I maintain – thanks to a series of dubious calls from the referees).
But understanding – truly understanding – the sport of American football cannot be taught. It’s part of America’s cultural DNA. It’s a strangely regimented and heavily codified form of football – specific formations with specific plays, with specific positions taking specific pathways – and surprisingly so, given the nation’s cultural aversion to Colonial Britain’s stick-up-the-ass mentality and America’s generally freewheelin’ ways. The number of set plays that can be employed in any given game of American football is absolutely mind-boggling, and memorising their names alone must be a pain in the ass, let alone their tactical benefits and deficits. “Middle Joker Sky” (is that even a real play name?), “All Fire Press”, and the “Statue of Liberty play” are terms that appeal to me, but ultimately mean nothing to me. Sometimes I yell out random words and numbers for the hell of it…
Despite my ignorance, I have over the years developed a great respect for the sport. I like to think of it as a game of chess between two coaches, except all the pieces are sentient, and both sides execute their moves (nay, a full game of chess) simultaneously each ‘turn’. Each team has a specialised line-up for offense and defence, and specialisation in the workforce is something to be admired. But it’s the things that separate American football from other football codes that I believe do not lend themselves to good videogaming. Translated to a videogame, it doesn’t really know what kind of game it’s trying to be. It’s essentially a turn-based strategy game whereby both teams take their turn at the same time. Once selected, you must then execute your turn in real-time. It sort of feels like trying to swim against a tidal wave of your own making. Set play and improvised play are two dissonant notions that I can’t seem to hold in stead (how do you play Civ II and Starcraft at the same time?). The crunch and flow of each play execution is continually interrupted by huddles and line-up switches. Conversely, the huddles are too short to make any sort of sensible decision without having memorised the entire playbook (this is where the DNA comes into it). And because both teams select their plays at the same time, they can’t really respond to the opposition other than on the fly. And yes, I know none of these things pose a problem to the real-life NFL quarterback, but I believe they are a problem for your average gamer.
Is there a solution? I suspect not – not if the authentic NFL experience is to be maintained. As people complain each year, the NFL videogame formula hasn’t really changed that much at all, even between Madden NFL ’94 and NFL 2K. (Though here’s a piece of craziness that will blow your mind: Visual Concepts, the developers of Madden‘s arch-rival NFL 2K series, also developed Madden NFL ’94 and ’95.) In all honesty, I believe they refined the formula as much as they could – long ago – without fundamentally messing with the sport itself, or without drastically altering the input method for videogames (watch this space!). Seemingly all they have done is improve the bullet points of graphics, sound, and extra modes, which is to be expected.
HOWEVER, if someone was to develop a videogame based on backyard American football, I’d be all for it. There was no lack of crunch or flow that sunny afternoon in Alabama. There were no huddles (okay, maybe one), no line-up switches – everything was spontaneous, and the momentum of the game never slowed. Sure, we weren’t as good as the pros of the NFL (especially not I!); and sure, I had a busted lip and a cocktail of jet-lag and concussion by the end of it; but we were having a great time. I even smashed a guy with a Rugby League tackle (don’t worry, he was the receiver!). When he struggled to get back on his feet, I asked aloud, “is that legal? Am I allowed to do that?” The three Matt-keteers just laughed and high-fived me.
An American football videogame without the trappings of pre-planning sounds like something I’d be interested in playing.