The year is 2039. It’s a beautiful evening in Seattle. The time is 8:30 pm, the month is most likely September and football is back, baby. Having taken the field bursting with the kind of bravado usually reserved for those fifteen pints deep into a long weekend and possibly buoyed by the thick scent of fast food drifting down onto the field from the packed stands of Lumen Field, the reigning and now fourteen-time Super Bowl champion Seahawks are about to kick off a fresh campaign.
The opponent waiting for them under the floodlights is a familiar one. The San Francisco 49ers. A local rival that’d love nothing better than to kick off the new season with a big road win. As the Seahawks offence lines up for the opening drive, the stage is set and everything feels just right.
And then I’m reminded that it certainly isn’t.
You see, positioned in the middle of the offensive line separating Seattle’s franchise quarterback, 33-year-old Michael St Clair, from the defence that’s going try and make his life hell for the next hour or so, is 300 pounds worth of Walt Franz, whose name clearly belongs in the credits of a silent film from 1910. Franz doesn’t belong there. Not because he’s not a good player, but because he’s had to switch position to centre from right tackle following a horrific event that took place midway through last season. He’s there because Max Logan isn’t.
Let’s rewind a little to about week eight of the 2038 season. Neck deep in the grind of the regular season, the Seahawks are getting ready to attempt a sweep of pretty much the same 49ers team they'll face in 2039. Having come out on top in the first meeting of the year between the two teams, the Seahawks will get a big morale boost if they can do it again.
So, a short meeting between the team’s head coach and Max Logan, one of their longest tenured stars, is called to discuss strategy. Logan’s a bit of a character. On a few different occasions, despite still being relatively young, he’s approached his coach to talk about the prospect of him retiring. Each time, the coach convinces him to stick around as long as the team keeps winning. They always have. A short time later, the team cruises to another fairly easy win over the niners. Another meeting between Logan and the coach is set up in order to celebrate achieving this goal.
But Logan doesn’t show up.
Instead, this monstrosity does:
Horrified, as soon as the meeting cutscene finishes, I go to the roster page and begin a frantic search for Logan, but he’s nowhere to be seen.
He’s vanished without a trace.
I'm left with about nine million questions. Where did he go? What on earth is this terrifying robot creature that showed up to the meeting in his place? Who’s going to stand right in front of Michael St Clair and stop him from getting knocked on his bottom?
Back in 2039, these kinds of questions are still running through my mind. I look at the players on the field and see a bunch of strangers. After all, we’re long past the point in any Madden save when all of the real players from our own timeline gradually begin to succumb to the inescapable ravages of time and, one by one, sail off into the great unknown that is retirement. In the real world, this can mean they end up living the cartoony televisual life of an outspoken pundit or simply disappear to chill by their mansion’s pool, as is their wont.
However, in the Maddenverse, the fates of retired players aren’t this visible. Once their playing careers are done and they’ve given all they can give, they just kind of disappear, much like Max Logan did. The only reminder that greats like Tom Brady and Russell Wilson, the latter of whom I watched carry these Seahawks to their first eight championships, ever even existed is a small picture of their face next to the NFL hall of fame’s logo on the game’s legacy leaderboard. Here, as a tribute to these fallen giants, are displayed the crowning achievements of their career. A pitiful numerical eulogy made up of Super Bowls, Conference Championships and individual awards, like a tombstone inscribed with an equation.
Max Logan doesn’t even have one of these memorials. This is what leads me to believe that he didn’t just retire. Instead, he was the victim of some insidious force from the strange world that exists beyond the confines of the NFL in this terrifying alternate future. Taking another look at the silver-headed creature that replaced him in the meeting, I begin to wonder about the state of AI and robotics in this alternative 2039. Given the pace at which technological developments move rapidly forwards in our own timeline, perhaps the version of the NFL depicted in this save is one in which new high-tech devices and initiatives are tested out. After all, American football is a sport that takes a particularly heavy toll on the body and if Cyberpunk 2077-esque body modifications are available, maybe the league has chosen to allow them.
Perhaps things have gone even further than this, and the creature that showed up to the meeting was actually one of a highly-advanced bunch of androids designed to eventually replace the NFL’s human players. Looking back, Logan was one of the very first regenerated players to start filtering into the league. I remember all of his aborted retirements and start wondering whether these strange discussions were actually the first signs of an AI beginning to grapple with questions about its existence and seek time away from the field in order to properly contemplate these quandaries. It occurs to me that all of these fictitious footballers could be like this, and Logan is the only one that’s developed some form of self-awareness.
My mind retreats into the world of Blade Runner, casting Logan as a replicant whose elevated consciousness makes him the target of society’s enforcers. I picture the death of Zhora, being gunned down as she bursts through pane after pane of glass, but instead of a woman in a plastic mac, the fleeing figure being retired is a 300-pound man in Seahawks gear. He might make it through a few more panes and possibly a car, but he still inevitably crumples into a motionless heap on the pavement.
Is this the dystopian world that lies beyond the floodlit confines of Lumen Field in this most cursed of Madden saves? A landscape of dirty, overcrowded, industrial metropolises, serving as a home only to those left behind on a resource-starved planet while those with money and resources escape into space? Or, is it a Fallout-esque wasteland, decimated by the much-anticipated arrival of a nuclear world war 3? Then again, maybe neither of these rather striking scenarios is at play.
Maybe 2039 looks similar to our own version of 2022, with what feels like a series of much less interesting apocalypses unfolding around us at all times, while we have to plough on as though nothing’s wrong. Maybe Max Logan hasn’t disappeared because he’s an extremely self-aware robot, but because he’s been blackballed by the NFL’s owners for taking a stand on an important social issue or trying to organise a player strike.
The existence and viability of this theory make roleplaying in sports games like Madden, as opposed to an RPG like Skyrim or Disco Elysium, such a compelling and also frightening proposition. The confines of your imaginative headcanon aren’t limited to people and places safely separated from your own reality by the aesthetic veil of nuclear armageddon or high fantasy. The events that take place on the fields, pitches and courts of these titles can be just as fantastical and gripping as the stories told by any explicitly narrative-driven adventure, but they’ll always be linked to the mundane.
Then again, isn’t that the central draw of sports as a concept? They’re a place where regular people can, with the aid of fan passion, transcend the day-to-day drudge of modern life and become almost mythical figures, onto whom all of our collective dreams, fears, and other feelings can be projected.
As my possibly-robotic Seahawks get ready for that first snap of the 2039 season, I continue to ruminate on this idea. They may be down a key offensive lineman for mysterious and inexplicable reasons, but things are going to be ok.
A short distance away from the Lumen Field of our own reality and just down the road from a western-themed saloon with dancing bartenders, lies a pub called Elysian Fields, named for the place in Greek mythology where immortal heroes eventually end up once their adventures are over. I’ll obviously never know whether this pub still exists or ever did in the alternative world of my Madden save, but I hope it does.
That way, when the playing days of those regenerated players who’ve provided me with so much entertainment are over, they might have a fittingly-christened place to hang out, rather than simply being deleted from existence by a cold, unfeeling system that has no purpose for them anymore.