Last Thursday night, the Masonic Center in San Francisco was buzzing with the anticipation of Super Bowl 50. Madden Bowl XXII had arrived and, because I am a well-connected San Francisco socialite, I was there. You could tell I belonged because I was dressed half as nice as everyone and was twice as drunk as everyone and, also, I winked at Drew Brees.
Madden Bowl is an event that has happened the week of every Super Bowl since 1995. Basically, a crowd of mostly NFL players and wealthy corporate people socialize with one another while other NFL players play a videogame based on the game that they are actually payed to play in real life. But that’s only sort of what it’s about. It’s also about people with too much money getting dressed up to get weird with one another. It’s about corny MC’s, corporate advertising and confusing musical act choices. And, apparently, sometimes it’s about a bunch of Papa John’s pizza just showing up at the end of the night, and high society types forgetting they are supposed to be impressive and remembering only that they are drunk and famished. They went buck wild on that pizza. It was a massacre.
The actual game itself featured Eric Berry defeating Jordan Reed 24-17 for the title. There was a post game interview with the winner, and his answers were as generic and uninspiring as every athlete’s post game interview always are. Berry’s dedication to not give a shit about meaningless filler questions, even on the smallest of stages, was impressive.The most interesting part of the game was that neither of these guys played as the teams that they actually play for in real life. Let me just tell you, if I’m ever in a video game, you can bet that I will only ever play that video game and I will only ever play as myself. Why did you even become a professional athlete if you aren’t going to beat people with yourself? It’s lunacy.
Luckily, Madden was not the star of #Maddenbowl 2016. It was never supposed to be. Shortly after Eric Berry walked off with his comically enormous trophy, the audience was treated to the musical stylings of DEE.JAY.KHALED, and the actual DJ that plays music while DJ Khaled posts to his snapchat story and occasionally yells the name of a random city over the music. At one point he said “where you at Miami?!” which, in San Francisco, was a weird choice; but it didn’t totally matter because no one was paying attention. The crowd of mostly white rich nerds and their way-too-hot arm candy girlfriends just stood around and chatted during his performance like it was a free jazz concert in the park. Their behavior was not [prayer hands emoji]. As a matter of fact, it was total [poop emoji][skull emoji].
And then, as if the gods themselves were testing how indifferent and entitled this crowd could act in the face of world class entertainment, Christopher Brian Bridges appeared on stage. Ludacris, as some know him, was the hero this crowd needed, but certainly not the one they deserved. For a moment, I didn’t think he could do it. There is no way, I thought, that this crowd that gave nothing to DJ Khaled, is going to even know who Ludacris is. And then the opening bells of “Act A Fool” chimed through the speakers and I have never been happier to be wrong. I think I blacked out. When I came to, I was singing the lyrics to “What’s Your Fantasy” to a woman I had never met before. The rest of the crowd’s involvement for Luda was admirable. Many still seemed disinterested, but at least feigned excitement for fear of being shamed by those in the crowd that understood the greatness they were witnessing.
Luda did what needed to be done, and that should have been it. It would have been a beautiful Madden Bow on top of the gift that was Madden Bowl. But if you know EA, the company that makes Madden and is responsible for Madden Bowl, you know that it’s not their style to leave well enough alone. Consumerist.com does a “Worst Company in America” competition every year, and EA took the title two years in a row in 2012 and 2013. People, especially nerds, love to hate EA. This well documented incompetence has never been on display more than when they decided that Fall Out Boy should follow Ludacris. The crowd clearly agreed with this, as a majority of them decided that this was the time they would stumble out to the fleet of surge-priced Ubers waiting for them. Believe it or not, Eddie Lacy is not a Fall Out Boy fan. And things only got more sad from there. While Luda and Khaled at least tried to work the crowd up, Fall Out Boy went out of their way to be as detached as possible. There was no banter between songs or theatrics to get the crowd involved. The only thing that lead singer Patrick Stump (who, by the way, may be the person who most looks like the name that he has. It’s really incredible.) said to the crowd that night was, after their penultimate song: “This is usually the point where we go off stage and come back for an encore, but we’re just going to play our last song now.” And like that, Madden Bowl XXII was over.
Post-game entertainment aside, the thing that was so great about this event was that it somehow managed to bring the worst of two worlds together for one night of awkward debauchery. ESports is a rapidly growing and increasingly competitive industry, one that is going to turn into a lot of money a lot sooner than people thing. But if The International 2015 Dota 2 Championships, a gaming competition which had an overall prize pool of over 18 Million Dollars, is game seven of the finals, Madden Bowl is like All-Star weekend. It’s fun, and some people take it more seriously than others, but, at the end of the day, it exists as equal parts self recognition and brand pageantry that results in a mostly entertaining and sometimes underwhelming experience for fans. Actual eSports can be competitive and compelling in the same way that actual sports can transcend the corporate element of the industry and be purely about the excitement and intensity of the game. Madden Bowl is the spiritual opposite of those things, but that’s by design. It’s not supposed to be game seven. I’m sure there are plenty of people at EA that are passionate about turning Madden into a legitimate eSports force, and maybe some day that will happen, but Madden Bowl exists for an entirely different purpose.
These two communities, eSports and traditional sports, are destined to meet in the very near future. In the last year, video game competitions, specifically video games that do not feature professional athletes playing major traditional sports, have found their way onto ESPN. This may not seem like a lot, but for competitive gamers it’s a huge step towards what they are working for. Gamers have set out to prove that what they are doing is no different than any other athlete in any other sport. That moment is coming. But Thursday night felt less like a marriage of two natural partners, and more like a sloppy kiss shared between second cousins.