Madden NFL 21, this year’s iteration of the only major football video game in the world, has an average Google user rating of 1.4 out of 5. On Metacritic, it’s .2 out of 10. At CGMagazine, Brock McLaughlin writes that “This game is much like 2020, a giant disaster” and urged those interested to buy it if and only if “you wanna pay $60+ for what should be a free roster update.” Ricky Frech calls it “a mess of lazy modes, bad gameplay, and a continued descent into a focus on over-monetized offerings” and “it’s own bizarro version of the sport we watch on Sundays [sic].” Gamesradar’s Mark Delaney compares Madden 21 to “the perennially doomed Browns, Lions, and Jets” while bemoaning that the game’s flagship “Franchise mode” was “all-but-ignored” by developers.
“All-but.” Despite the disastrous initial reception to the game from laymen and critics alike, Madden did its best to redeem itself a week and a half after its release date when it added Colin Kaepernick, First of His Name, King of Nike and all its holdings, Kneeler of Levi’s Stadium, and Wearer of Radical Socks to the game’s free-agency pool. Announcing Kaepernick’s entrance into its universe, Electronic Arts asserted that Kaepernick, who played his last NFL game in 2016 and last playoff game in 2013, “is a starting-caliber NFL quarterback” and expressed a desire “to make Madden NFL a place that reflects Colin’s position and talent, rates him as a starting QB, and empowers our fans to express their hopes for the future of football.” Okay.
It comes as a surprise to this Madden player — I’m one of the useful idiots who buys the game every other year or so for the roster update — that the game’s developers feel so strongly about Kaepernick’s abilities as a player. They have, after all, excluded him from the last several Maddens prior to this one. Only now, after four years of Kaepernick’s being out of the league, have the game’s talent evaluators decided that he is qualified to play in the National Football League — and even to start in it. In addition to being rather lazy in their commitment to putting together a halfway decent game, have they been cowardly? Have they, until now, been setting aside their duty to accurately assess the talent level of players in an effort to appease a right-wing outrage mob? That seems unlikely, given the lengths to which they go to please the narrow sliver of players who might have demanded virtual justice for the former quarterback in Madden 21.
For what it’s worth: I don’t think it is totally outrageous to include Kaepernick in the game. He worked out for a few teams as recently as November 2019, and could conceivably be signed to an NFL roster at some point in the near future. But the over-the-top celebration of Kaepernick is not only ham-fisted, but downright creepy.
The game does not simply rate Kaepernick as a “starting-caliber QB.” He’s also a high-end one. With an overall rating of 81, Kaepernick is tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger — who has two Super Bowl rings — and the Raiders’ Derek Carr — who has the fifth-highest QBR in the league this year — as the 14th-best best signal-caller in the entire game! That’s better than the Cardinals’ Kyler Murray, who actually has the 14th-highest QBR; better than Jimmy Garoppolo, whose 49ers went to the Super Bowl last year; and better than Carson Wentz, who is widely regarded as one of the best quarterbacks in the league, despite a slow start to his 2020 season. Kirk Cousins, Jared Goff, and Teddy Bridgewater are all also worse than Kaepernick per Madden 21 — but absolutely no one else.
Should you visit the neglected Franchise mode and attempt to sign a free agent, you will be asked, “Are you sure you want to sign player x to team y?” That is, you will be asked this of any free agent except for Kaepernick. But once you have indicated that you’d like to sign him, the game is far less cautious. Of course you want Colin Kaepernick on your team. “Congratulations!” it says. “You’re about to sign C. Kaepernick to team y! Hit Yes to confirm.” What with all of the pomp and circumstance, you’d half expect an achievement notification.
One of the beautiful things about Madden is that players can build teams the way they want. For fans of hapless teams such as the New York Jets, this is a particularly enticing feature. When the NFL Draft rolls around in Franchise mode, I feel none of the pressure to pick a mediocre interior defensive-line prospect that Jets’ general managers typically do. Kaepernick’s inclusion and celebration mark a departure from this philosophy. Odds are, if you start a franchise with your favorite team, Colin Kaepernick will be better than your team’s starting QB. And if you do consider signing him, the game will literally congratulate you — not just for being a smart would-be general manager, but for being a good person, unlike those brainless professional talent evaluators who have supposedly left Kaepernick on the market at the behest of racist team owners.
Madden’s clumsy attempts to cater to a particular political perspective by including a man who has worn clothing depicting cops as pigs and responded to the death of terrorist Qasem Soleimani by writing that “America has always sanctioned and besieged Black and Brown bodies both at home and abroad” in its product are irritating. But its betrayal of its mission in the pursuit of pandering is what frustrates me most. Madden is supposed to be a game, an escape, and an opportunity to exercise control over your favorite team’s decisions. With its Kaepernick-specific grade inflation and “Who’s a good boy?” pat on the head should you decide to bring him onto your squad, the game is not only failing in its most basic duty, which is to accurately update the league’s roster. It is also putting a thumb on the scale, not only for questions of silly in-game roster management, but for moral ones as well.
John Madden, the NFL coach and commentator for whom Madden is named, once said that “the only yardstick for success our society has is being a champion. No one remembers anything else.” Madden’s developers would be wise to spend the next year putting together a quality product instead of overstating the abilities and virtue of Colin Kaepernick.