No, this isn’t a case to keep the Pro Bowl in a virtual setting forever. Hopefully, someday soon, we’ll get to travel normally so the players who’ve earned it could make the trip to Orlando. But the NFL Madden Stream worked, as far as quality content goes.
If you missed it over the weekend, the league decided to air a stream of the official Pro Bowl, which was played virtually on Madden 21 by athletes and celebrities, which included Snoop Dogg and Marshawn Lynch. Although the game itself has endured criticism for its glitches and repetitiveness — in many ways, little has changed in the series for several years — but it’s still Madden. For football fans, it’s still the best way to play football virtually. Other independent attempts, like Maximum Football and Axis Football, just don’t have the budget to sustain themselves as anything more than an arcade-style alternative at best. Someone would joke that that’s what Madden has reduced itself to, but that’s neither here nor there.
And football gaming’s preferred savior, 2K Sports, hasn’t released a football title since the legendary NFL 2K5. The company did strike a deal with the NFL, announced last year, but the release will be a limited “non-simulation football game experience.” So, it’ll probably be an arcade game with a better budget.
As far as the Pro Bowl stream went, three things were immediately made clear.
1) This would be a missed opportunity if the NFL doesn’t attempt to build up this leg of content. All leagues, and really, companies in general, should be adding resources to develop their digital presence in ways that aren’t just posting some random self-promotion. That gets old and corny fast. People need to lean into video games as a method to tap into the other generations of people who play more than they watch. How many people do y’all know who would rather play Madden than watch a real-life football game? Moreover, it just adds versatility to the type of content you’d produce, which the NFL could use given their shortcomings elsewhere, like hiring coaches of color.
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2) Leaning into video games doesn’t need to revolve around the actual Pro Bowl — but it does require a steady supply of engaging personalities, even if it’s just three or four at a time, to carry the event. The Pro Bowl stream worked because of the eight players involved: Deshaun Watson, Keyshawn Johnson, Derrick Henry, and Snoop for the AFC, who faced Kyler Murray, Bubba Wallace, Jamal Adams, and Lynch for the NFC, along with hosts Charissa Thompson and Michael Strahan. The broadcast itself was run as a live show, but was clearly pre-taped, which was probably a bright idea on the part of the league, given the amount of cussing that had to be bleeped. (I’d love to hear cussing, but I don’t blame them for censoring the Pro Bowl, though. That’s different.)
3) These gatherings would birth stars in a sport where athletes need to wear helmets. Football players are difficult to market because, even in the case of some greats, much of the general public couldn’t even confidently say what they know what they look like — nevermind how hilarious they could be on Twitch or YouTube. As one would expect, Lynch stole the show, but everyone had at least a couple of reel-worthy moments.
In a sport where lengthy careers are rare, it would also be a productive way for players to build their off-the-field presence, using their personalities and whatever else they could offer on these streams. What if, during a random conversation, that we learn that an offensive guard is a chef-worthy cook. Or that a backup running back, a player you’d know from fantasy, is a legitimate poet. Or that your favorite slot cornerback is an expert coder. Or that any one of those guys is a monster at Madden.
Much like the real Pro Bowl, the results wouldn’t actually matter. When people listen to podcasts, they care about the dynamic before anything else. The same rules apply on Twitch. Just create good content, regardless of how it “performs,” because if you’re smart, you’ll measure things by impact, not numbers. And a regular showing would be impactful if presented to us correctly and consistently.