"Who Makes These Kinds of Things?" Dynamics of Power in Madden NFL

Curator's Note

 Madden NFL is currently one of the most successful sport video game series on the market, with new games released on a yearly basis. In selling a franchise where new entries features gameplay that is rarely all that different from the previous year’s game, promo videos released in support of it place a heavy emphasis on its authenticity (the game includes real players and teams) and dramatic potential. In the linked video, rookie NFL players are asked to guess their specific numerical ratings on a variety of factors (for example throw accuracy or throw power) and then, in the latter half of the video, told their actual rating. In all cases, the guesses were too high, although multiple players come very close. However, near accurate guesses are not framed any differently than much further off ones. The players featured all take offense in ways that are humorously framed--“Y’all came in here to make fun of me”, “That’s fucked up”, and, one of the most frequently heard responses, “Who makes these kind of things?”

This video may be but one of many promotional videos released in support of the game (others include one in which Von Miller, over a musical track reminiscent of Justin Bieber’s “Sorry”, encourages players to “Start Me” and build their defense around him), but in asking “who makes these kind of things”, it touches upon a trend within physical, offline sport that is taken to an even greater extreme within the sports video game. The numbers used in the game are collected from a variety of sources, including the NFL scouting combine. This event, in which players are identified by numbers rather their names and in which their performance in a variety of physical challenges is meticulously recorded has been described by Thomas P. Oates and Meenakshi Gigi Durham in “The Mismeasure of Masculinity” as a key component in a draft system that transforms the athletic body into a commodity that can be bought, sold, and traded. In a game world where players are invited to not simply play professional football, but to become both player and manager, to trade players and to train them, it is difficult not to see this as the ultimate extension of the draft itself, as a mechanism through which fans are taught to accept and embrace the corporate logics that govern the lives of actual athletes within the NFL.


I find it fascinating how entangled reality and simulation have become with Madden and the NFL. I also think you have touched on an important idea here: while many games have notions of masculinity and character value, this is placing a number on it.

What I find interesting about this piece is that these stats are extrapolated (or sometimes directly copied) from a variety of sources/metrics, and really under the hood of the game is the code and its use of these figures, but that the actual humans that produce these stats are unaware (albeit sometimes close) of their own performance. (Methinks that there is probably plenty of psychological research in how people habitually overestimate their abilities.) Perhaps being reduced to a series of algorithms is disturbing, but it underscores fundamental derivations of the rules of football as a game.

Very interesting piece. Sports seem to both embrace and argue against the primacy of statistics and numbers, with the opposite position being "you have to play the game." Numbers are being used to turn athletes into tradeable and salable commodities, and perhaps not coincidentally, this rose to prominence in front offices (at least in baseball) around the time that player free agency, and particularly salary arbitration, became more common. Numbers give people a way to point to the math, as if it can't lie. But who builds the metrics? This also reminds me of a conversation I heard the other day. I've been looking at wrestling video games, and I found an interview where Bret Hart, a long-retired pro wrestler, was complaining that Triple H had a much higher set of logistical numbers in a recent wrestling game release. Hart couldn't believe he had been judged lower than Triple H--"he can't lace my boots." Nobody brought up, of course, that he was complaining about a fake set of numbers for a staged performance sport.

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