Madden 18's Longshot Made Me Care About Football
I never really understood much about football growing up. I played soccer with my cousins and at school, had a basketball hoop in the driveway of my house for a few years, and was cajoled into playing for a little league baseball team. I played NBA Jam, a couple of Nintendo 64-era FIFA titles, and the Super Nintendo classic Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball. I wouldn’t say I ever fell in love with the sports, but over the years I was able to learn enough about them to enjoy them at a distance. That never happened with football.
When EA showed off a trailer for Madden 18’s story mode, The Longshot, however, I was intrigued. For more detailed breakdown of the story-based mode you can read Matthew Kato’s preview of it from a few months ago. The short of it, however, is that you watch a story play out, make dialogue choices, press some buttons at the right time, and play a little bit of Madden.
The mode follows in the footsteps of other recent sports games story modes, such as NBA 2K’s MyCareer, by giving players a story-driven campaign outside of the franchise mode. These modes have steadily become more involved and worthwhile, and I felt like I was missing out; despite not watching much football (or sports in general), I occasionally read old Grantland articles that covered players as personalities, and I liked a few sports movies like Remember The Titans. So the idea of playing what essentially amounted to an interactive movie with some football thrown in didn’t sound all that bad (the presence of House of Cards and Luke Cage’s Mahershala Ali didn’t hurt either).
So I dove in headfirst, not entirely sure what I was getting myself into. After finishing The Longshot, I’m pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. But is it the introduction to football (or Madden) that people with a casual interest might need to foster a love of the sport? Well, it depends.
Will it help get you into football?
It just might. The story of Devin Wade’s journey into the NFL is surprisingly poignant, and at the core of the story are several people’s struggles to find out what football means to them. For Devin, getting drafted is not only a dream to achieve, but a way to honor his late father. For others, it’s a way to connect with their family, recapture lost glory, make a name for themselves, or get ahead in the world of show business.
But all of them love football for one reason or another, and the best moments in The Longshot are when the story taps into the larger culture of the sport. Though Devin’s origin story as high school quarterback who failed his team and hometown when they needed him most is a bit too earnest at times, moments in his training regiment when the coach assigned to him as part of The Longshot reality TV show, Jack Ford, is drilling him on football concepts show the hard work it takes to go from playing pickup games to making a career out of something you love.
Other scenes, such as when Devin and his friends are reading tweets about people’s reactions to his appearance on The Longshot, showcase how players can often feel like they’re under to spotlight 24/7. You don’t need to understand what a 1st & 10 is to empathize with someone who feels the pressure of his family, community, and an engaged audience after having one of the biggest do-or-die moments of their life. A huge part of the appeal for me was seeing such a grounded story told through a game, unburdened by the need to throw in some sort of fantasy or sci-fi hook to get people interested.
The mode does lack a bit of polish, though. There’s more than a few instances where characters’ eyes look dead, and the acting is a little spotty (the worst offenders are real-life football analysts Jim Miller and Pat Kirwan, who interview Devin as part of their fake TV show Real Football and are clearly reading from a script). But others, like Rus Blackwell (who plays former coach Jack Ford) knock their roles out of the park, giving their characters pathos and making you care about them.
And while the story as a whole is a bit saccharine, it’s not an entirely cliched affair. Devin is never made out to be the next NFL legend; he’s someone who quit football for a few years and is having a hard time finding his bearings. And while my performance in the interactive parts of the mode didn’t earn me the best ending, I’m pretty happy with it. Without spoiling anything, my ending humbled Devin’s aspirations while still giving him something to shoot for. This isn’t the happy ending some may want, but it’s a great portrayal about how most people achieve their dreams not through leaps and bounds, but through incremental progress, hard work, and a few lucky breaks.
As someone who plays and watches a lot of competitive video games, the idea that a game can mean this much to people isn’t foreign, but The Longshot drives home the degree to which a team and its players can be a part of a community, how this relationship can be both fostered and exploited. It’s not a masterpiece of storytelling, but it’s a solid piece of standalone fiction about sports that got me to care about the regional rivalries and drama of football.
Will it help get you into Madden?
Not really. Even after playing a few matches of seven-on-seven or under special special conditions (such as starting on the opposite end of the field instead of in the middle and having to run 80 yards), I never got a good sense of how to play honest-to-goodness Madden. Since Devin Wade is a quarterback, most of the actual football involves you choosing who you’re going to throw the ball to each down. Although I could see the paths all my teammates were running, choosing the right person to throw to felt like guesswork, and The Longshot never teaches you how to determine the best choice beyond the person who’s most isolated from the enemy team (though it’s entirely possible I’m simply bad at football and that’s all there is to it).
However, that doesn’t mean you have struggle with actually playing football that much. You only play a handful of these specialty games, and most of the big moments are reduced to timed button sequences you should be able to handle with ease. You can skip most gameplay segments if you fail repeatedly, too. This means you can just enjoy the story without worrying about failure, but don’t expect to suddenly develop a love of the game through The Longshot.
That said, it did teach me a bit of football terminology. The most helpful bit involved breaking down the terminology of calling plays before they’re made. I wouldn't be able to call one myself, but if I happen to be around a football game during the holidays this year, I have a better chance of knowing what’s going on, or at least how a coach or player tells their team which plays to run.
Does The Longshot alone justify buying Madden 18?
No. As much as I enjoyed the mode for how it was able to portray some intricacies of football while also making it clear why football matters to people so much, I can’t outright recommend people who aren’t fans of football go spend 60 dollars for a mode that doesn’t last all that long, especially in a year as thick with great games as 2017. The Longshot isn’t a revelatory campaign that will get you to rethink storytelling in games, either, so it doesn’t win the “quality versus quantity” argument. But it’s good enough that if you can find the game on sale, or if one of your football-loving friends wouldn’t mind lending you copy, it might just get you to understand what this whole football thing is about.