The Baltimore Ravens, despite the token grumblings of any fan base that is not the Green Bay Packers’, are a well-run organization. They generally draft well, get out of potentially bad contracts before it’s too late, and keep a healthy mix of vets and promising young players on the roster. This makes them one of the worst possible candidates to have a fun experience with in Madden 12‘s Franchise Mode. As the newest iteration of the game arrives today, I am left with my annual decision to play with another team than my hometown club.
Franchise Mode has been the cornerstone of the Madden series since 1998. Franchise is about control- complete and utter control. You are not just Joe Flacco. You’re Joe Flacco and all his potential targets. You’re not just Jon Harbaugh, you’re the coach and his entire staff. But most crucially, you’re Ozzie Newsome. You develop talent through the draft. You plan for injuries, retirements, contract holdouts, and restricted free agency. In older versions of the game, you were even Steve Biscotti, setting ticket and hot dog prices in order to generate some cash for those new luxury boxes. Madden, for over a decade now, has been about this incredible level of detail and control. EA Sports has tossed you the keys to your very own BMW M5 painted in your favorite NFL team’s colors.
When your game is couched in as much realism as EA Sports strives for, the user’s brain searches for this realism even in their imaginary NFL experience. The team that produces Madden takes user feedback and tries to tweak the experience to mimic how the NFL operates and feels as much as possible. It all feels so real that decisions that seem implausible in real life just leave a bad taste in my mouth when I see them on Madden. The Steelers don’t sign Terrell Owens as a free agent. The Colts don’t trade for another starting quarterback. The Panthers run the ball like it’s 1899. These things make sense because they are what we could expect in an actual NFL season.
The user experience outside of actually playing the games comes down to a series of decisions that mimics the NFL’s actual off-season. Who do you re-sign? Do you go big on the free agent market? What is your draft strategy? If these elements were not in the game, I think I would’ve stopped playing Madden a decade ago. The game itself is fun, but the game beyond the game makes the title worth buying.
Unfortunately, for those of us driving the Ravens’ virtual franchise on our Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 consoles, the road has been a dull one without many tight turns or 120mph straightaways. Taking over a well-run NFL franchise, at least virtually, is flat-out boring, and if you’re a Baltimore fan, it has been about going through the predestined motions for three years now.
Consider the team you inherit when Ozzie Newsome decides tomorrow that he wants to go take a high-paying job at another NFL club, or maybe go back to his alma mater and be Nick Saban’s boss at Alabama. Here is a link to the Ravens roster (as it was in July) with full Madden ratings. On [digital] paper, this is one of the most talented groups in the NFL. On the polygonal gridiron, it’s a fun and electric team to play with. In the hypothetical GM’s office, the process is so dull it could be automated. You have your franchise quarterback, rated an 88 at 26 years old, for the next decade. Same goes for running back. The defense is loaded with established and potential stars. So, you’ll do what the Ravens actually do. You’ll draft low in the first round every season, looking for reliable talent to add to the exiting vets on defense and providing more weapons at receiver. You’ll look to free agency and the later draft rounds for values to bolster the offensive line as well as skill positions. And you’ll duke it out with the AFC powers year in and year out, until (if the difficulty is set low enough) you’ll being to win Super Bowls.
This may sound exciting to those of you who can’t fathom working the controller with anyone but your hometown boys, but to me, it seems far too clear a path if you are keeping to a realistic experience. Sure, you could blow up the team, trade away or cut the core of young players and try and rebuild it to your liking, but that is not how the real Ravens operate. There are never “rebuilding” years. It’s like a home-cooked batch of crab soup. Little dashes of seasoning here and there, a few minutes more on the burner. You’re never starting from scratch.
And isn’t starting from scratch the most rewarding challenge there is in Madden? When I fire up franchise mode, I become a fan of the Ravens within the game and put in my day job with another franchise. I check in to see how they’re doing, but secretly I hope that I will demolish them if we ever cross paths. I take on the Buffalo Bills, wear the throwback uniforms full-time, and try and rebuild that mess around C.J. Spiller and Marcel Dareus. Sometimes, if I get bored, I move the team to Toronto.
Other years, I’ll take the Oakland Raiders, ditch all their horrid contracts and try and right the wrongs of their last decade. Since I have attended a game at the Oakland Coliseum, I immediately build them a new stadium and erect a horrifying statue of Al Davis in the plaza (not really, but this should definitely be an option). Sometimes, I try and restore the 49ers to greatness. Other times, I play the role of Pete Carroll in Seattle, just to see how it feels to get off scot-free for running a dirty college program and still be such a likable, mellow dude. I plan, track, scrutinize, imagine, and world-build. I’m like Leo in Inception.
There are about a dozen poorly managed teams in the NFL. For just minutes a day, you can help right their wrongs and create a world where they draft wisely and sign prudent contracts. Look at their faces. Those poor Clevelanders dressed up like dogs. The lowly Rams, with their lack of a single wide receiver you have ever heard of. Oh, and those poor Jaguars, who lack an identity entirely. They need your help, fellow gamers!
Sadly, and thankfully, the Baltimore Ravens do not.
Dave Gilmore lives in Baltimore and writes “The Win Column” for Baltimore Sports Report. He is currently working on a novel about college football. Find him on Twitter @dave_gilmore or visit his web site at davegilmorejr.com