As the controversy unfolded over San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick's refusal to stand for the national anthem at a game last week, an EA Sports spokesperson said Madden NFL 17's new commentary, which is now updated weekly, would mention the issue in the coming week. That has turned out to be untrue.
Despite two commentary updates issued on consecutive days, there is no mention of Kaepernick's protest by either of the game's announcers, Brandon Gaudin or Charles Davis. I've played three one-off games involving the 49ers, with Kaepernick starting, and not heard anything. Bryan Wiedey, the sports gaming expert from Pasta Padre and The Sporting News, says he's run the games repeatedly in the background for nine hours and heard nothing about it.
Madden's updated commentary doesn't mention the elephant in the room
I reached out to an EA Sports spokesperson yesterday for an explanation and was obliquely informed that none would be coming. I know what happened though: EA Tiburon, the game's developer, brought in Gaudin and Davis for their recording session and had every intention of the two discussing Kaepernick's protest, which the quarterback says is to raise awareness of police brutality and other examples of institutional racism in America. But someone at the approval level killed this idea. Whether that was EA or the NFL, I don't know for sure.
Sure, an EA representative made a claim on the record that was proven false, and that hasn't been walked back or explained officially. Not a good look. But as I wrote in my column a week ago, the real point is that this controversy reveals how Madden's publisher and the league view the game, and how the new ability to update Madden's commentary complicates the authenticity the developers aspire to deliver.
I doubt either announcer issued any kind of a hot take, either way, about Kaepernick, the national anthem, or why we have to begin a preseason game that doesn't mean a hill of beans in the standings with a full national ceremony. Fans of all sociopolitical persuasions enjoy EA Sports video games and the publisher doesn't make its billions by alienating people. The problem is really that just acknowledging an off-the-field controversy would open the door to the obligation to mention others in the future, and apparently EA Sports does not want to go down that path, threading a needle on some touchy subjects and being called out for avoiding others.
For example, on Aug. 17, the New York Giants' Josh Brown was suspended for opening day; later it was revealed the suspension involved a 2015 arrest on a domestic violence charge. The Giants weathered criticism for re-signing Brown — a kicker, probably the most expendable position on the roster — despite his misconduct. Nobody in Madden NFL 17's booth mentioned this, for good reason: Domestic violence is about as third-rail as a topic can get in sports.
More benignly, nobody in Madden has mentioned Laremy Tunsil's draft-day plunge when someone leaked out a video of him smoking pot with a gas-mask bong, either. There are very few opportunities in broadcast journalism to say the words "gas mask bong," with a straight face, so you'd think Madden's booth guys would want to take a crack at it. They didn't. That's because Madden NFL 17 is a piece of entertainment software, not a work of journalism.
Bringing up any of this stuff, candidly, officiously, hot-take or sober thought, obligates Madden NFL 17 to bring up every other controversy that happens down the road (or qualify what it will and won't discuss, ahead of time, in a time consuming press statement that also must be approved by the league, and sells exactly 0.0 video games). And the league has no shortage of domestic violence arrests, DWIs, drug test failures and other bad news — not confined to the players, either — that surface during the year. My guess is the NFL would prefer none of that appear in a game bearing its officially licensed hologram.
My first thought when I heard Madden would regularly update its commentary mid-year — a first for simulation sports video games — was "How is that approval gonna work?" And now we have an answer: Very strictly. I'm also curious how, if at all, it involves the ESRB, which has rated the game E for Everyone. The ESRB gets a transcription of all the commentary when it's submitted for rating. I guess they Ctrl-F it for certain terms and give a thumbs up if they aren't found. But what would happen if, in the middle of the season, Davis or Gaudin mentioned Ezekiel Elliott walking into a Seattle pot dispensary? If it was in the main script, that would get flagged for a "drug reference" by the ESRB and possibly even raise its age rating a notch.
So those are the major constraints I failed to consider when envisioning Madden's updated commentary as an ongoing work capturing the evolving story of the league — warts and all. From the NFL itself wishing this type of stuff didn't happen or would go away — I've always said these games are idealized portraits of the leagues that license them — to a publisher not wanting a post-release re-rating incident that recalls Grand Theft Auto's Hot Coffee, there is way more incentive to keep the commentary between the lines than outside them.
Roster File is Polygon's column on the intersection of sports and video games.