People have been playing Madden head-to-head for more than 20 years, but nothing turns the line between gamesmanship and sportsmanship on its ear more than online play. Before Madden NFL 2003, players needed to be in the same room to play. Friends played friends. Taking a lopsided losses were just part of the Madden experience. Head-to-head Madden games were truly a character building social engagement. But online play has changed the way we think about playing each other.
The post-online head-to-head Madden world is very different. Anyone can play anyone regardless of location – and usually does. Strangers to the game get matched against grizzled Madden vets. Opponents might not speak to one another. The results aren’t always pretty. Without the friendships that bring Madden players together, today's blowouts don’t result in revenge matches; they result in frustration and anger. Learning to lose is neither the lesson it once was nor is Madden the social engagement it used to be.
Cheating doesn’t have the same meaning either. Long ago, using a glitch in a game with friends might get a few laughs but using that same glitch in a ‘wager game’ could get a player smacked. The rules of engagement used to be clearly established, simple, and easy to predict. Not anymore. Online play changes the effect of glitching friends for fun and eliminates the punishment of doing it to enemies.
Because glitches pose a threat to online players, an entire community's value structure evolved in a way that has warps our views of gamesmanship and sportsmanship. To define where themselves Madden players adopt terms like SIM, Tourney, or Freestyle, to name a few, to describe their head-to-head gaming tactics, styles, and philosophies. Players tend to identify with the group that best mirrors gamesmanship and sportsmanship ideals, but there may be more common ground that we think.
Definitions for gamesmanship include words like winning, outwitting, and cunning. Sportsmanship definitions includes words like losing, courtesy, and fairness. Gamesmanship explicitly excludes cheating. So does sportsmanship. The theme in the definitions specifically relates to winning and losing respectively, and how we do each.
Throughout time sportsmen have been adored for their gamesmanship. An ability to change a game’s momentum in clutch situations is a talent few possess. Today there are several players enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame who were known for both their gamesmanship and fiery disposition. We hope they possessed sportsmanship, but gamesmanship mattered more. After all, there is no such thing as a Sportsmanship Hall of Fame. Good losers are appreciated, not celebrated or immortalized.
Occasionally a player comes along whose gamesmanship is matched with the honor and fairness of a true sportsman. Figures, such as Walter Peyton, reach heroic proportions. It didn’t seem fair to also see him lay down devastating blocks on blitzing linebackers. We watched as he ran over and around players when he had the ball, then watched in awe as he helped them up after the whistle. If his effort toward perfecting the seemingly insignificant details of his craft and drive to be the best weren’t enough to have him enshrined for his gamesmanship alone, his respect for the game of football and his opponents was a testament to how we should strive to play any game together.
For Madden players playing the computer though, only gamesmanship matters. The CPU doesn’t think, have tendencies, nor will it catch on to repetition. The computer doesn’t get upset when its plays are defeated by solid football or cheated with shenanigans. It won’t quit when the score gets out of hand, nor will it lobby for reform after the game is over. It won’t slam the controller, press the reset button, pull the power cord, nor judge us if we do. If the CPU loses it just gets ready for the next game. It would seem the computer displays the ideal qualities of sportsmanship we should try to imitate.
While pummeling the computer may be fun, it doesn’t have feelings. Humans, on the other hand, have feelings and will do things the computer won’t. Aside from providing practice time for essential techniques, playing the CPU doesn't prepare Madden players to face human beings. Playing the computer exclusively has adverse effects on a player's ability to out think live opponents. The computer may not pick up on the patterns of game play, but humans do. Humans think, adjust, call plays with purpose, and have tendencies based on habits. Adapting to live competition requires live opponents. Unlike playing the CPU, human competitors require gamesmanship and sportsmanship as well. Human opponents might not agree to a revenge match when the first game makes them smash something.
The transition may be tough. Players used to playing the computer may find it rough going against human competitors. Part of the problem is pride. Madden players all believe they are knowledgeable about football and good at the game. Most of us can hang 255 points against the computer without a problem. Pride makes us believe beating the computer to a pulp should translate into supremacy against human competitors. When opponents are up by 35 points before the half, shouts of CHEATER, GLITCHER, and EXPLOIT are expected. Obviously, anyone with that kind of production must be doing something beyond the realm of sportsmanship. No one is that good, right?
Before wholesale accusations of cheating ensue, it's good to remember that not all players are created equal. All Madden players have strategic strengths and weaknesses that are as individual as the players themselves. Against humans, strategic weaknesses are eventually exposed. Sometimes these weaknesses are glaring and so pronounced that it can seem like an opponent is cheating. Most often the only thing being exploited is the connection between the couch and the controller. That's us.
Gamesmanship reflects more than just a player’s skill set. It is also how those skills are applied to outwit opponents. Players with the most gamesmanship are not always the players with the least weaknesses, but often the players that best disguise their shortcomings. Players with a weakness against inside pressure may use their gamesmanship to immediately scramble away from pressure. Players who lack offensive patience may always be on the lookout for a quick score. Likewise, players who are strong at defeating pressure may commit eligible receivers to protection while players with offensive patience may look to control time of possession. Head-to-head games pitting two players of equal gamesmanship tend to leave both players with a positive experience. When the gamesmanship of matched players is unbalanced, one player gets upset.
Yet the line between gamesmanship and sportsmanship is still blurred. Some players exhibit an excessively aggressive gamesmanship style, without crossing the line that amounts to cheating. Aggressive gamesmanship might errantly be viewed as poor sportsmanship. The terms we use to describe ourselves (SIM, Tourney, and Freestyle) do little to adequately reflect our gamesmanship or sportsmanship values.
Some players consider themselves ‘SIM’ because they don’t resort to tactics they deem cheap. Players who identify themselves as ‘Freestyle’ or ‘Tourney’ players may opt to use tactics ‘SIM’ players feel are cheap. No one advocates or encourages tactics that rise to the level of cheating. In effect, these terms identify ideals of gamesmanship, but do not speak to sportsmanship at all. Few players with high level gamesmanship are sore losers because of the level of effort they commit to preparation. Sore losers infiltrate SIM, Tourney, and Freestyle groups for the opportunity to spin their poor grace into the illusion of good sportsmanship.
Commonly used football tactics seem more effective in Madden than in real football. Communities, divided over the use of these tactics, have long debated the value and ethics of A-gap blitzes and scrambling quarterbacks to name a few. Madden players with the most gamesmanship often accused as cheaters whether they cheat or not. Meanwhile, players with the least gamesmanship are dissuaded from competing on the grounds that all good players cheat. It’s a vicious cycle that falsely indicates that one cannot be a great Madden player without taking short cuts that exploit game programming.
Gamesmanship and sportsmanship are different in focus. Players possessing good gamesmanship strive to become better players with every outing – win or lose - by working harder. Players possessing good sportsmanship strive to accept the outcome of every outing – win or lose - by giving their best effort. Striving for one does not require sacrificing the other, possessing one quality does not mean having achieved the other.
While different, Madden players blend elements of sportsmanship and gamesmanship to create a type of Madden euphoria where great gamesmanship practitioners don’t wait until after the game to make plays and great sportsmanship practitioners don't wait until after the game to make disparaging remarks about their opponents. It stands to reason that players with enough gamesmanship to make plays during a game won’t need to speak negatively about their opponent’s sportsmanship afterward. Their game speaks for itself.
In Madden, there are no referees to govern on-field gamesmanship. While penalties are called, there are several that should be, but aren’t. Without an entity to enforce all of football’s rules, players sometimes cross the lines of both gamesmanship and sportsmanship in an attempt to cheat. It's unavoidable. Even when Walter Payton played, he went up against players that attempted to cheat. He never pointed the finger, lost his cool, nor compromised his ideals.
Sportsmanship never wavers. Its compass always points true. Sportsmen play with ethics and honor regardless of what their opponents do as a principle of character. Oddly, it is not until one’s opponent crosses the line that sportsmanship is tested. Players that compromise their own ethical standards based on the circumstances of their opponent’s play may claim sportsmanship, but do not possess it. The compass that changes direction makes all who use it lost. Their gamesmanship may be stellar, but the willingness to throw out the rules of ethics and football depending on their opponent’s actions prohibits them full claim to sportsmanship.
As a gamesman, Madden players can strive to be great while also striving to be great sportsmen. Likewise sportsmen, can exhibit the great manners while displaying their gamesmanship skills. Contrary to some reports, sportsmanship and gamesmanship can coexist in Madden players in much the same way that Walter Payton exhibited both as a football player. In the end we, as gamesman and sportsmen, will benefit from the knowledge that our labels of SIM, Tourney, and Freestyle Madden players merely describe our methods, not our character.