When Madden NFL 17 rolls out its third commentary update to Xbox One and PlayStation 4 sometime next week, I'm going to take San Francisco in a one-off game, make sure Colin Kaepernick is the 49ers' starting quarterback, and hear what happens. It'll be a pivotal moment that speaks to Madden's renewed vision of itself as a virtual NFL broadcast partner.
Kaepernick, in a preseason exhibition on Friday refused to stand for the national anthem before the game and later had some tough words about our society when asked why. It's all anyone talked about in the NFL this weekend, a sport whose 24-hour coverage can already fetishize any small detail into 90 seconds of primetime analysis. It would be impossible for, if not also irresponsible of, a broadcaster to not mention the controversy the next time Kaepernick is introduced.
So, will Madden's?
Update: In a statement to GameSpot on Monday, an EA Sports representative said the next commentary update will mention Kaepernick's refusal to stand for the anthem. ""Kaepernick's decision will be briefly mentioned in-game, reflecting our commitment to authenticity in Madden NFL 17," the representative said. "Overall, our new commentary will mainly center around on-field performance, as well as major news like trades, free agency signings, and injuries.
The remainder of this column follows as it was originally written.
EA Sports this year hired a new announce team in Brandon Gaudin, who lives in Atlanta, and Charles Davis, who lives in Orlando, mainly for the reason they could fly or drive to EA's studio in Maitland, Fla., record new lines that acknowledge the season in progress, and still get home in time for dinner. All sports video games struggle with generic commentary and repetition, and this move — in which dialogue will be updated weekly like rosters and ratings — is an innovative, if brute force means of addressing that.
As a user, it's really nice to hear Cowboys rookie quarterback Dak Prescott introduced with something tailored to his reality as a training camp sensation — especially given Cowboys fans' anxiety over veteran starter Tony Romo. Sports video game commentary constantly struggles to present the illusion that its announcers are really watching the game. An expansive back-and-forth about Cincinnati's Dre Kirkpatrick practicing the preceding week in borrowed cleats not only glows with verisimilitude, but also it showcases the announcing team's shared personality, which other sports video games have a very hard time affecting through generic calls recorded in the offseason.
Another commentary update has gone out in Madden NFL 17. Here's some of what's new out of week two of the preseason pic.twitter.com/v1OMgEaGSy— Bryan Wiedey (@pastapadre) August 24, 2016
But the promise of current-events commentary in sports video games also opens the door to all sorts of elephants in the room.
Two years ago at this time, the league's nonstop topic was Ray Rice, the Baltimore Ravens running back. Suspended four games by the NFL for beating his fiancée, the public's anodyne concept of athlete domestic violence changed dramatically when security camera footage of the assault made its way online. Rice ultimately was cut by the Ravens, and the NFL, humiliated by its soft treatment of Rice, toughened its player conduct policy significantly in response.
The only mention Madden made of this was the standard removal of Rice from the official roster used for ranked online matches (any suspended, injured or released player goes off it, regardless of reason) and then, quietly, wiping his name from the Ultimate Team mode, even for those who owned his card. But of course, all the commentary of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms had been recorded months prior.
Nantz, last season, said flat-out that he would not ask Peyton Manning on air about allegations he used performance-enhancing drugs, causing a huge stir. It's doubtful that an establishment talker like Nantz would be inclined to shed light on the NFL's blemishes in its own video game, but then, the chance for him to do so wasn't really there. Instead this uncomfortable duty falls to Gaudin and Davis, both newcomers to pro football broadcasting, and pitched to the audience as a video game booth team observant and insightful unlike any before.
Kaepernick refusing to stand for the national anthem matches the story of Rice's suspension and dismissal only in how both have dominated a preseason conversation. Frankly, the flag issue is a safer controversy for Gaudin and Davis to explore than domestic violence. It's also as relevant to Kaepernick's story as a player as the back injury Romo just suffered. Over the next week, nobody's going to say either player's name on my TV without bringing up those matters. But does that include Madden NFL 17?
This is not to suggest that Madden is obligated to be, or should be, a sports journalism endeavor. It's a league-licensed product — there's a hologram sticker on the case, the same an officially licensed cap or shirt would carry, which connotes this is something made in partnership. That's different from a broadcaster buying the rights to televise a game and assuming editorial independence in commenting on it. (The NFL Network is an even stranger creature, owned by the league but still freely reporting on it with an arms-length relationship implied.)
But Madden also is the game that in 2011 introduced commentary to note a player being removed from the field with a concussion, made him unavailable to reappear in the game by any means, and outlined the league's concussion protocol. The obvious reason why is the NFL approves everything in Madden, and this helped the league look conscientious on the topic.
I just want these guys to say something about it.
Davis is an African-American, a former player, and could speak with moral authority to the alienation Kaepernick expressed in saying why he sat during the anthem. As an older man, Davis could also admonish Kaepernick's choice of a preseason game as a poor platform for this kind of a stand. (Why do we even play the national anthem at a preseason game, anyway?) Gaudin, if he said anything, I'd expect he would introduce and describe the controversy and, at the most, say that it was a striking public stance coming from a quarterback whose starting position is far from assured.
But not speaking of the matter — which is an obvious context framing Kaepernick's performance and relationship to the league and the 49ers — after all of the promises EA Sports made in the run-up to a glittering launch , that would be a disappointing setback. It would be even more disappointing as it involves a bedrock feature of sports video games that now can be improved after a game ships.
I just want these guys to say something, anything, about Kaepernick and the anthem. That will show to me that Madden NFL 17 really is keeping tabs on the league and putting what we do in it into a picture larger than my living room TV's. That's what cements the fantasy of a sports video game, after all.
Roster File is Polygon's column on the intersection of sports and video games.