The NFL did a very smart thing on Sunday. Rather than hold its much-maligned all-star showcase, the Pro Bowl, in the middle of a surging pandemic, the league instead attempted to tap into the popularity of esports, playing the game out on Madden NFL 21.
In theory, this was a great idea — an opportunity to uphold an American football tradition while simultaneously tipping a metaphorical cap to an emerging competitive landscape.
In practice, the presentation left a lot to be desired.
The embrace of esports or even video games as a vehicle to promote the NFL was tenuous here, at best. From the level and means of exposure down to its very execution, the 2021 Madden Pro Bowl failed to move the needle, whether measured as pure spectacle or sporting event.
Rather than serve as a case study for how professional sports or broadcast television can use gaming to boost aspects of its product that are outdated or in decline, the Pro Bowl pandered to no one in particular, and should be viewed largely as a failure for the following reasons.
It wasn’t even televised
I was a little confused when I saw the “Pro Bowl Celebration” listed on ABC and ESPN at 3 p.m. ET, in no small part because the game was advertised for 5 p.m. As it turned out, that’s because the nationally televised aspect of the program was nothing more than a glorified reveal of the rosters that were announced over one month earlier.
The Madden Pro Bowl itself was not on TV.
The actual game was only available live on streaming sites such as Twitch, YouTube or (allegedly, I couldn’t find it) the ESPN app. As long as you weren’t worried about catching it live, it was replayed on NFL Network, though that was barely mentioned anywhere.
Obviously, internet streams make up the overwhelming majority of esports viewership right now. If the goal was to generate just the slightest bit of interest outside the streaming audience though, making the Pro Bowl impossible to find on cable was a huge, unforced error.
And why? As much as the Pro Bowl is considered a joke in football-watching circles, nearly 8 million people watched in 2020, according to Sports Media Watch. Had it been available on TV, there would’ve been more eyeballs on it.
The Pro Bowl wasn’t ESPN’s only hand in esports over the weekend. The traditional sports network also partnered with Psyonix for a Rocket League tournament in conjunction with the X Games.
Like the Madden Pro Bowl, Rocket League’s X Games event was available on the ESPN App. Unlike the Pro Bowl, the broadcast was run by game developer Psyonix, with several teams of announcers and a panel of analysts breaking down the action of a legitimate competition, not just a bunch of people playing video games.
The Pro Bowl was more akin to a late-night talk show. Sure, some of the attraction was the NFL players like Kyler Murray and celebrities like Snoop Dogg playing Madden, and there was a focus on the stars involved. Still, it wouldn’t have hurt to let hosts Charissa Thompson and Michael Strahan call the game at times, perhaps cutting to the teams at key or opportune moments.
What viewers were treated to instead was a lot of yelling and not a lot of insight into what was on their screen. If you weren’t a Madden fan before — and even if you were — this wasn’t likely to hold your interest very long.
It was way too short
The Madden Pro Bowl broadcast clocked in somewhere around 75 minutes, or just over one hour. Maybe 30 minutes of that was actual gameplay.
Meanwhile, a real televised football game usually takes three hours or more to complete.
I’m not suggesting the Madden Pro Bowl should’ve gone three hours, but steps definitely should’ve been taken to make it feel like something closer to the actual product.
Clocks could’ve been set for full 15 minutes quarters, with the accelerated clock option turned on to tick time off after play calls. Even if the longer quarters would have resulted in an unrealistically high score at the end, so what? It’s a video game, simulating an all-star sporting event, no less.
Instead, viewers were treated to less than a half hour of gameplay that neither resembled real football nor a competitive esports contest. It’s difficult to discern what exactly this was aiming to be.
Esports stars not represented
It made sense to have NFL players and celebrities make up the teams, both because the athletes deserve to be represented and to help publicize the event.
Yet, rather than have somebody like Keyshawn Johnson — a former NFL receiver and capable analyst who apparently doesn’t know the first thing about playing Madden, judging from the numerous accidental laterals — why not welcome an esports pro or two to each group and lend a little credibility to the affair?
Why not include someone like Raidel “Joke” Brito, the 2020 Madden Bowl champion? It could have looked something like the “Wild Card Duos” the network hosted last month with NFL pros and Madden pros teaming up.
Not only was the “game” over as soon as Keyshawn got his hands on the sticks. Watching some of the other celebrities involved, viewers weren’t exactly treated to the highest caliber of play. Have you ever seen so many missed extra points?
What might’ve made for a far more compelling watch, on the other hand, would be to see the difference in ability between an NFL player and Madden pro, possibly even pitting the two against one another.
At minimum, adding one pro on each team would’ve improved the presentation as well as the legitimacy of the contest.
To take it a step further, allowing teams of Madden pros to simulate an actual Pro Bowl event with something more akin to a lifelike game clock would’ve been a far more compelling experience, even had the final product excluded the actual Pro Bowlers altogether.
Unfortunately, what viewers were treated to was a forgettable game of Madden that flew by, wrapped up in an untargeted presentation that was nearly impossible to find on any traditional broadcast media. And if the game was intended for steaming audiences only, why not include Madden pros to cater to an esports audience? What a missed opportunity.
Lead image credit: EA