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Madden 15's outspoken cover star loses with grace in his very first game

On the same day he was named to the cover of Madden NFL 15 — the Wheaties box of the 21st Century — Richard Sherman sat down in an interview room in Los Angeles and was asked, by EA Sports, to star in his own humiliation in the game. Mike Young, the creative director who came up with this idea, wasn't sure how it was going to go with the Seattle Seahawks' outspoken defensive back.

Young had flown out to Los Angeles on the day ESPN would announce the winner of this fan-voted contest. When he landed, Young didn't know if Sherman would win the fans' vote, or if it would go to Cam Newton, the Carolina Panthers quarterback who also plays a starring role in the game's unique beginning.

Newton, at least, is set up to win in the interactive opening Young had concocted for Madden NFL 15, which everyone plays once they put the disc in the tray. (You can skip out of it, and some Seahawks fans have, but why?) It's a fantasy scenario involving the Seahawks and Panthers in an NFC Championship Game set at the end of the upcoming season. If the player does it right, Sherman — the first defender in 10 years to star by himself on Madden's cover — loses.

Young had worked up a pitch to make defeat palatable, not just to Sherman, but to Nate Carroll, an assistant coach for the Seahawks who consulted on the scenario setting up the player's winning drive. "I always talked about it like this is like Mike Tyson," Young said, meaning Punch-Out!!, in which the cover-star was the ultimate boss battle, not the hero.

"I always talked about it like this is like Mike Tyson."

"You're gonna knock off the champs, rather than play as the champs," Young continued. "Everyone's done that. So, a lot of people, the first question is 'Oh, this is the cover athlete, you're trying to beat him-with the guy [Newton] that he beat.' Well, no, they're the champs. Go knock them off. So, even when Richard Sherman and Nate Carroll played this, they're like, grudgingly, you know, this is really cool. But they're proud that they get to be the boss."

The "First Interactive Experience" as it's called internally, isn't an automatic win for the user. I was able to do it in two plays in my first try and most Madden lifers should have the same success. The first play is always a double-move route run by tight end Greg Olsen, and Newton has plenty of time in the pocket to hit him at the 20.

After that, though, it does require some planning, and a new user, especially one just trying to get to the game, may not be in the frame of mind for that. Sherman, rated 99, is apt to jump a passing route if you throw it right at him. Young says early telemetry shows only 47 percent of users beating the boss.

Young, 38, had pitched story-based experiences in Madden "for years," he said, though none of those ideas found a home. Madden had teased something like this in a 2011 video, shot from a first-person perspective on the field, but didn't follow through. When Cam Weber came aboard as Madden's general manager that year, he spoke of Fight Night Champion, which featured the fight-flick "Champion Mode" narrative, as something he'd be open to trying.

'Opening the Christmas Present'

Madden NFL 15's opening is not a tutorial by any stretch. The user plays no defense, and other aspects of the game are completely absent from it. But Mike Young, now in his seventh year with the franchise, says it's just as important a way to bring users, new and longtime alike, into the experience.

"I think you always want a way to speak to an entire audience, show them what the game's about, but let them quickly experience it," Young said. "It was a strategy to help ramp them into the depth of the excitement without overwhelming them, or rushing them into that first game where they go in not knowing a single button control, not really knowing the new features, get frustrated and lose badly."

Tossing players into a full game right out of the box, even with loads of drama and cinematography, would be too much. Running people through a scripted series of cut-scenes would be bland and pointless, so Young had to find something of a manageable length and difficulty in-between.

"Often when people set out to do something they forget about the entertainment side," he mused. "There's a lot of subtle stuff, the subtle coach's stuff, the coordinator's voice. But this was all about entertaining you, letting you open that Christmas present, enjoy it for all it's got, and then set you off on your path of learning, and prepare you to play the game after that."

The "First Interactive Experience" is nowhere near as long or as detailed as Champion Mode, or the rivalry narrative that rides along your first year in NBA 2K14's MyCareer. It does show how sports video games, which still depend greatly on the emergent narrative a user creates for himself, can be well served by a little bit of stagecraft.

The first time you put NBA 2K11 in your console, you booted into an absolutely electrifying, perfect-in-every-detail introduction of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls for the first game of the 1991 NBA Finals. But after that, the player was left to play a full game — with major changes made to the controls. As well done as it was, it was a little overwhelming, especially for those who wanted to get to know the game before taking on such an historic moment. Madden 15's opening is a more manageable experience, and quicker to gratify.

Without the players' own voices, the moment would have no shot at being dramatic. Luke Kuechly doesn't say anything, but when he forces the fumble that sets up the Panthers' final possession, I swear he growls during the celebration. Then there's the usual indecipherable jargon as Newton takes the play from his headset, but when he goes to the huddle and says, "Let's go be great, and win this game," it puts you right in the moment. Win, and Cam Newton celebrates with a Clark-Kent-becoming-Superman pose as the camera cuts to a glowering Sherman, stalking off his home field a loser.

Fail however, and Sherman looms over the camera to deliver a broad admonishment that one does not trifle with "The LOB" — the Legion of Boom, the nom de guerre given to Seattle's defensive backs. At Sherman's insistence, all of the starters — himself, Kam Chancellor, Byron Maxwell and Earl Thomas — appear together in the game's main menu.

"He loved the ending," Young said of Sherman. "He got it ... but it's a little nerve-wracking. I show him the video, and I'm a little nervous because it's like, 'Hey, don't worry, the Seahawks are gonna lose, but hey, you're the boss, and guys are trying to knock you off."

Sherman and the Seahawks had already bought in by that point, though Young did worry that if Sherman lost the cover vote, it might dent his enthusiasm for being the bad guy in the game's opener. Still, Young had already talked with Carroll, the son of Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, to make sure the setup facing the player was believable.

"I was out there working with him on something else, and I said, 'Hey, I'd like to show you something, get your opinion on it,' He's a Madden gamer," Young said, "I showed it to him and I'm kind of a little scared that he's gonna be like, 'I hate you, why are you making my team lose, get out of my offices.' But he was like, 'This is cool, I'd love to play this. I love how you're in the huddle.'

"And I was like, cool, so ... how about if you look at this play with me?'" Young continued. "In this world where the sack-fumble could happen, could you help me, advise how that would be more realistic?" Young said. "The reason why they fumble on third-and-six with an empty backfield, it's kind of a stretch, but [Carroll] tells me, he's like, well, we'd never do that if it was third-and-five. Or third-and-eight. But third-and-six ..."

A Seahawks coach helped script his team's defeat.

Newton and the Panthers were already locked in, and not just because they're matched to win. Newton was brought on as a guest producer, and he chaperones the player through the game's new skills tutorial, right after the opening. Kuechly appeared in the first promotional video for the game, too, so it's no surprise he creates the big defensive play. It also helps Madden greatly that the small-market Panthers are good, but not polarizing like, say, the Dallas Cowboys are. Even a Saints or a Falcons fan could play this and not hate themselves.

Though everyone got the concept and was fine with their portrayals in it, win or lose, Young's audio session with Sherman still didn't go so well. "That recording was trash," Young groaned. "They had us in this terrible studio and you could hear trains on the recording, and cars going by."

Young and his cohorts searched the NFL Films audio archives for anything from Richard Sherman that they could use in the game, but found nothing that fit the moment. So when Sherman reported to training camp in July, Young reached back out to Carroll and overnighted him one of the recorders the team uses. "We had, like, basically a one-day turnaround in the studio. It was so stressful. We had spent this whole trip just for the audio, and there was nothing you could do about it.

"[Carroll] pulled him out of the locker room, said, 'Hey, the Madden guys need you to do this line over.' We'd honed it down to the line we thought would work best." With the recorder laying there on the desk, and Sherman in full pads, he gave it one more shot.

"Whooo! Never try the LOB!"

And that's what you hear — if you lose.

Roster File is Polygon's news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games.

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