Last weekend, the NFL took a surprising virus-inspired twist: a game usually played in the real world was played inside Madden 21 on Xbox.
To be clear, this wasn’t exactly an important game. In fact, it’s not even technically part of the proper league year. But, nevertheless, a yearly NFL staple match-up was played inside a video game – and the results were a whole lot of dumb fun.
For those uninitiated, the game in question was the Pro Bowl. The Pro Bowl takes place after the conclusion of the regular season and championship games, but before the Super Bowl. It’s usually a ‘best of’ wrap-up to cap off the year – where the best players, as voted for by fans, join forces to create two ‘super teams’ that then battle it out for fun and for a special yearly title. Functionally, it’s really a canny way to keep the NFL on TV screens and in the public consciousness in the one-week gap between the conference championships and the Super Bowl, the final game for all the marbles.
The thing is, the Pro Bowl is always just a bit of fun. No player wants to risk injury in a game that’s ultimately meaningless, for instance – so it’s easier on the heavy tackles, lighter paced and lighter hearted. That meant it wasn’t a surprise when the NFL decided to cancel the game, not wanting to risk players travelling in the middle of a pandemic when their season is technically over.
In stepped EA and Madden NFL 21. The idea was simple: the Pro Bowl game would still take place, but inside Madden.
They could’ve gone with a wide variety of formats, but in the end it took the form of a four-on-four battle steamed on Twitch, YouTube, and other platforms. Each side was made up of a few current NFL stars who would’ve played in the real Pro Bowl had it taken place, plus some beloved veteran players and, er, Snoop Dogg. ‘Cos why not?
The end result was one of the most gloriously stupid and funny esports events I’ve ever seen. Half these guys don’t really know how to play the game. They’re muddling through, yelling to their teammates about how they don’t understand the buttons. One discovers one play that works, and cheeses it four times in a row to touchdown – a video game staple.
Others are experts. Snoop Dogg clearly knows his Madden, screaming advice that actually makes a whole lot of sense.
It’s just full of funny, stupid moments. The one-hour broadcast featured hilarious moments interspersed with genuine banter. Retired NFL superstar Marshawn Lynch got so hyped over catching an interception that he snapped the leg off his chair while celebrating. Seattle Seahawks star Jamal Adams started playing only to realize he wasn’t personally on the in-game squad. So he took a time-out, went into the menus, and substituted himself in, to much cheering and hollering. For me, one of the players screaming out a reference to that time WWE Wrestler Booker T accidentally called Hulk Hogan a slur as a victory cry put it over the top as just about one of the best live streams I’ve ever seen.
Marshawn broke his chair celebrating the INT 😂 #ProBowl
— NFL (@NFL) January 31, 2021
In the end, it was all a bit of silly fun – but it worked. In fact, as a celebration of the NFL season, it was arguably more effective than the actual, real-life Pro Bowl, which is often just a skippable zero-stakes game at the end of the season.
Most notable, perhaps, is how much this one-hour broadcast allowed fans to get to know the eight personalities involved. Their banter and back-and-forth was fun, but also genuine. In a sport where the players all wear helmets, that feels particularly valuable.
The comments bear this out. People are calling it the best pro bowl ever, and it’s not even all tongue-in-cheek. Sports news organizations embraced it, reporting it like it was practically a real Pro Bowl. Even teams got in on the bit, tweeting highlight clips of their players’ highlights, just as they would during the real Pro Bowl. It all came together.
EA’s Madden might not be a perfect simulation, and many NFL fans, myself included, are keen to see what 2K Sports can do with its own, different NFL video game. But the 2021 Pro Bowl was the best advertisement Madden has had in years – a fun stream that was good for the league, good for the game, and fun to watch. It should become a new tradition.