End Zone

Rec-room gaming meets gridiron capitalism in 'Madden NFL 2004'

My first action as owner of the Minnesota Vikings, I decide, will be to slash the price of beer. Next, I'll tear out all of the luxury boxes in the Metrodome and install massage chairs. Then I'll get rid of those silly bobble-head things altogether. Last, because they so richly deserve it, I'll move the whole team to Topeka.

This bit of wish fulfillment comes courtesy of Madden NFL 2004, the most recent installment in what is possibly the most popular video-game franchise in history. In the three weeks since its release on August 14, the game has moved more than two million units. That may not sound all that impressive. But consider this: At $50 a pop, Madden NFL 2004 has already made more money than last week's box-office gross for the top 20 movies--combined.

Indeed, while Hollywood struggles to fill seats and record companies grapple with lackluster sales and possible extinction, the $28 billion-a-year video-game industry, driven largely by sports-related titles like Madden, is enjoying a boom: As Fortune recently reported, the game's publisher, Redwood, California-based Electronic Arts, is now the fourth biggest software company in the world. Which is all just to say that, in addition to becoming something like a *below-the-radar pop-cult institution, Madden has made its creators fatter than the game's tubby namesake.

The goal of playing Madden itself is relatively straightforward: Adopt an NFL franchise and shepherd it to both victory and liquidity. (Turns out the two have something to do with each other.) Once you've mastered the basics of zone blitzing and trips-formation passing routes, you can enter tournaments online, where every 15-year-old in America is waiting to juke you out of your jock.

For those who haven't been keeping track of technological advances since Madden first appeared on the Sega Master system 14 years ago, the game's sophistication may come as a shock. Madden's 2004 edition looks great. It's like watching football on TV, without those beer commercials featuring bikini models frolicking in the snow. And Madden's deep, open-ended design makes it more an heir to board games like Stratego than to those old electronic football games that jiggled their pieces around on the field. In addition to picking through opposing defenses, players have to micromanage the head-spinningly complex minutiae of running a sports team, from dealing with prima donna free agents to negotiating television contracts. If nothing else, Madden must be the first game that's turned on an intimate understanding of the business of hot-dog vending.

In fact, what's maybe most impressive about this latest installment is how deftly it captures the grotesque economics of professional sports. (In this, Madden rather resembles The Sims, a wildly popular "life simulation" that doubles as a sharp parody of late-stage capitalism.) Within an hour of playing, for instance, all of my benevolent intentions went out the window and I'd become a despot of Steinbrennerian proportions. First, I jacked up the price of beer to $10. Then, when my miserable, newly sober fans started kvetching, I remodeled the Dome so that it was nothing but luxury boxes. An hour later, I found myself loudly cursing the miserly residents of the Twin Cities for refusing to finance my shiny new stadium.

Which was about the point that I decided it might be a good idea to turn Madden off. A game is one thing, but sports are too damn depressing.

 
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