It’s hardly a selling point, but this year’s edition of Madden has the real Kyle Lauletta. The game’s rendering of the Giants’ rookie quarterback—who stepped into a blowout win against Washington in Week 13 to throw five incompletions and a pick and then meekly returned to clipboard and donut-gofer duty—looks more or less exactly like the man himself: blond and well-built, handsome and ambiently Pennsylvanian. Given that the real Lauletta is a fourth-rounder with career backup written all over him, the fidelity is both impressive and a tad gratuitous.
Lauletta is one of the more obscure NFL players to have an excellent approximation of his real face in Madden 19, and proof that the franchise’s bench goes deep. Every year, the team at EA Tiburon visits the rookie combine in Indianapolis to perform around 330 head scans of incoming prospects, using a semicircular rig outfitted with eight cameras and software that allows artists to turn numerous snaps of a player’s eyes, nose, cheeks, and jawline into a digital re-creation in under a week. The Madden folks also go around to teams during offseason workouts to track down players they’ve missed, or whose in-game models are in need of a refresh. “It just takes a few minutes to do a head scan,” Madden producer Ben Haumiller says, and that—combined with the fact that so many current NFL players grew up with the game and are eager to see themselves represented—assures that Haumiller and company have a vast library of scans available. The number of faces on file is vast, far more than can be put into any individual season’s edition.
Yet the vast majority of semi-anonymous NFL dudes don’t have their real faces in the game. Instead they wear generic masks, one of the 146 Madden heads that look vaguely like football players but not exactly like any one of them. There just aren’t enough hours in a development cycle to get everybody in every year, so deciding who makes an appearance and who doesn’t is both a workload and a budgetary matter. Quarterbacks get first priority, then skill players, then defensive stars. The in-game camera often shows kickers’ and punters’ faces, so they’re higher on the list than you might expect. Defensive linemen, especially gap-clogging tackles, are an underrepresented population, and all but the very best offensive linemen are left out.
The people who make sports video games spend long hours in pursuit of finely tuned realism, in part because they’re fans and in part because their employers have paid huge sums of money to leagues and players’ associations for the rights to official jerseys and stadia and likenesses, and they want their dollar’s worth. When Todd Gurley cuts back in Madden, the ideal is that his character’s movements precisely mirror the slick maneuver he flashes on Sunday afternoons—his weight shifting quickly and fluidly, flecks of turf flying out from under his cleats, the defender in front of him wobbling as he attempts to stay in the play. Video-game Gurley’s facial authenticity plays a part in all that, though it’s not paramount. He is wearing a helmet, after all, and the Rams uni with number 30 on the back does most of the work, identification-wise. This goes double for Gurley’s less famous teammates, Dante Fowler and Tyler Higbee, who are most recognizable thanks to their shape, size, and number whether in a video game or in the Super Bowl.
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Which goes a ways toward explaining why Madden Fowler looks jarringly like a young Mike Tomlin and Madden Higbee like a beardo bouncer, despite neither of them looking like that in real life. This past August, when Houston Texans defensive lineman Christian Covington groused that Madden made him ugly, he was referring to the ogre-ish visage that afflicted not only him but a number of other rectangular trench-dwellers. (That particular face has since either been scrubbed from the game entirely or refurbished beyond recognition. Covington has a marginally more fitting avatar now.)
In Madden, the NFL’s rank and file—the figuratively faceless players that fill out each play and every league roster—are Dr. Thunder to the stars’ Dr. Pepper. They’re deja vu in pads, a half-remembered movie that might also have been a dream. Or, in some unfortunate cases, they’re simply hungover butter statues melting in the noontime sun.
There’s this fellow I call Doug. He’s got a thick neck, a wide nose, and disarmingly kind eyes. Sometimes he’s got dreadlocks, other times a goatee. His complexion fluctuates, but his eyebrow game is usually tight. Doug is not real, but he is based on a real guy. For the game’s generic faces, EA holds casting calls for people who roughly resemble football players. Not anyone in particular, really, just folks with features that might plausibly belong to an NFL lineman or safety. The civilians selected through this process then have their faces scanned, reconstructed by Madden artists, and put into the game. Doug’s got a versatile look. In his myriad iterations—there are 33 of them, at last check, varied but all animated by Doug’s peculiar essence—he can stand in for also-rans at an array of positions.
The part of Lions linebacker Christian Jones is played by Doug Classic.
Jets runner Elijah McGuire is Divorce Beard Doug.
Falcons safety Damontae Kazee is Ferocious Doug with war paint-style eye black.
As far as I can tell, the highest-rated Doug in the game is Eagles guard Brandon Brooks, a chubby-cheeked Doug with the strength and intelligence of a two-time Pro Bowler.
What’s noteworthy about Doug, whom you will get to know well if you dig into the game’s franchise mode, is that he is the only generic face that repeats nearly so many times. There are seven skin tones in Madden, and nearly all the white guys are custom designed. There aren’t many Latino or Asian faces, but they’re each distinct. Doug, though, spans three different black skin tones, and when you scroll through the gallery of faces for each category, you will notice that his sympathetic gaze is everywhere, padding out the number of generic black players and ensuring that most rosters feature multiple Dougs. Because of this, I have seen things you wouldn’t believe—one Doug light up another over the middle, Doug juking other Doug out of his socks. If this is not, strictly speaking, the definition of the Uncanny Valley, it’s at least an adjacent property, evocative of Andy Richter and his four fictional brothers strapping on helmets and knocking the crap out of each other.
As unintentionally funny as Madden’s widespread proliferation of Dougs is, there’s also some latent and half-sad profundity to it. The NFL employs just under 1,700 players at any one time, the majority of whom are pretty anonymous. Even studious fans of the game might be hard-pressed to identify who plays nickel corner for the Ravens or covers kicks for the Bucs. The talent churn is steady, rosters are big, injuries are inevitable, contracts are non-guaranteed, and this is all essentially by design. A lot of men are lost in that churn—rip off a highlight play one week, get cut the next. The NFL is built and sold on stars, but it’s chiefly composed of replaceable parts: perfectly cromulent pass-rushers on short-term deals, fifth-round linemen trying to prove their worth, special teamers living a muffed punt or two from unemployment.
Guys, scrubs, journeymen, stopgaps—these are Dougs. It’s fitting that the face you’re likely to see most often in Madden, here dropping back into coverage and there sprinting up the seam, is that of the decidedly average NFL player, literally the same unknown dude styled tens of minutely different ways, like how most cereal is just corn and sugar baked into a particular shape. Doug is hoping to get more snaps this Sunday. Doug is on his fifth team in three years. Not many people remember that Doug was aggressively recruited coming out of high school. Perhaps even fewer will remember his pedestrian stint with the Jaguars.
“We feel it’s our duty to those players [who] might only be in the league two or three years, but they spent 18, 20 years trying to get to that point,” Haumiller says about Madden’s approach to getting real faces into the game. “It’s the biggest moment, and one of the biggest achievements of their life. It pains me every year to know we’re not going to get every player in the league in the game.”
It’s a stretch to call a business concern that seeks to recreate a game that is itself a corporatized spectacle lovingly crafted, but there is a staggering degree of detail in Madden, all of which is the residue of a similarly staggering amount of labor. Haumiller describes in great detail the work that goes into sculpting players’ bodies: how they pay special attention to distinctive characteristics like bulging arms or tree trunk-sized thighs—he mentions Saquon Barkley as an example of the latter—and then tweak the player models so they match the genuine article. There’s also the matter of Shaquem Griffin, a rookie linebacker for the Seahawks, who has one hand. The developers took pains to create a custom glove model that looks like Griffin’s arm. It doesn’t function flawlessly in the game—if you intercept a pass with Griffin, there sometimes appears to be an invisible hand influencing the ball—but it’s a technical achievement nonetheless, and reflects EA Tiburon’s desire to stock the game with as many players as they can, as accurately as possible.
When the Madden team’s efforts come up short—as illustrated by the Too Many Dougs problem, or when commentators repeat themselves ad-infinitum, or when a glitch causes gameplay to fly off into giddy-goofy Borgesian madness—that hard-won faux realism breaks, revealing the fundamentally absurd core of all sports video games: By aiming for a verisimilitude target they can’t possibly hit, they inevitably set themselves up for failure. Madden is an ambitious and well-financed attempt to capture an entire sports league on a disc, then update it throughout the season as this player gets traded to that team or this one blows out his ACL or this one changes his hair, or when the NFL tries to disappear a player entirely after video surfaces of him shoving a woman to the ground in a hotel hallway. Madden doesn’t keep pace with reality, but even chasing after it becomes a steeper ask with every day that passes.
There are a few respects in which Madden comes very close to faithfully capturing the sport’s strange brew of beauty and violence and the broader rum-dummy-dum spectacle of NFL gamedays, the looming possibility that Josh Allen will overshoot his intended target by a full eight yards. The game’s unique faces frequently look great, from Julio Jones all the way on down to sideline dwellin’-ass Kyle Lauletta. There’s something disquietingly Duke Nukem-esque about J.J. Watt’s model, but there’s also something disquietingly Duke Nukem-esque about J.J. Watt. Haumiller laments that they’ve been chasing after Watt for a couple years, trying to get a new scan with an updated rig.
All sports leagues, and the NFL especially, push a version of the game that’s both heightened and sanitized. If you were to pay attention only to the marketing materials, you might think football has been concussion-free since 2010, or that Raiders-Bengals is a matchup worth paying attention to. Officially licensed product that it is, Madden should be decently fun to play but also, in the interest of accuracy, possess all the verve and personality of a press release. When it’s better than that, or brighter than the sickly taupe of Roger Goodell’s soul, it’s inaccurate in a good way.
It’s all definitely Shield Approved™ in some obvious ways, but like the sport itself, Madden is at its best and most beguiling when it eludes the complete control of its masters. On purpose and otherwise, with features broken, elegant, and unfinished, Madden aptly represents the league it seeks to replicate, for better and worse. It’s focus-grouped and fussed-over and daffy and cruel all the same. Todd Gurley looks just like Todd Gurley, and some dudes just look like dudes. If they make a name for themselves, maybe they’ll get into next year’s game. Until then, any old face will suffice. What at first looks like an error is in fact strikingly true to life.
Colin McGowan is a writer living in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @cs_mcgowan.