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Madden NFL 11: The Ad Game

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When Madden NFL 11 is released Aug. 10, it'll be greeted like a long-awaited summer blockbuster, with retailers staying open late and fevered players lining up to buy it at midnight.

Since 1989, when the series was first developed by Electronic Arts (made for the now antediluvian Apple II, Commodore 64 and DOS systems), it has sold approximately 85 million units worldwide and generated more than $3 billion in revenue, according to EA Sports. The NFL-sanctioned chartbuster is also the No. 1 selling football video game.

As if to prove just how commercial (and synergistic) the franchise is, this year's game cover athlete was one of three players who appeared on millions of bags of Doritos; chip crunchers were then invited to log on to doritoschangethegame.com and vote for their favorite. The winner: New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees.

Nobody said boo about that. But a month before Madden NFL 11 ships, it seems we've reached a line in the sand: a controversy has erupted in the blogosphere over how much in-game advertising is too much -- in a game, let's not forget, that is essentially an ad for the NFL itself.

The hubbub started on the EA Sports blogs about a month ago, when a screen shot of Madden NFL 11's innovations was inadvertently leaked. It included some expected improvements, like new QB rankings and a new kicking engine, as well as extra commentary. But it was an addition at the end of the list that received the attention: a ranking called Swagger, described as "a unique new rating sponsored by Old Spice to quantify a player's personality ... reflected through in-game celebrations." Translation: it will weigh a player's tendency to show off in the end zone after a touchdown.

Apparently, while Old Spice is "the official deodorant and body wash" of the NFL (Swagger is the name of one of its product lines), for many gamers this addition, which stands out in a cheesy, pirate-style font followed by the Old Spice logo, plain old stinks. Unlike games such as Grand Theft Auto and Resident Evil, which are riddled with advertising, this game seems, by the reaction, to be for purists and sports connoisseurs.

The controversy raises an interesting question: What is an "authentic" gaming experience? Certainly, the NFL is all about sponsorship and co-branding; the real-world games seem to have a commercial interruption every three minutes and sponsors sponsoring sponsors.

But here's how a blogger at Kotaku.com described the difference between ads and, well, the Old Spice sponsorship coming out in Madden NFL 11: "You often see things like 'Here's the Coors Light starting offense, brought to you by Coors Light.' But you don't hear, 'Kyle Orton's got a Doritos completion percentage of 57.8.'"

Another guy blogged, "What's next -- a hot wife rating?" Still another suggested it could pave the way for new rankings like "Chopper" from Supercuts, which "pumps up the desire to make awesomely dubious personal grooming decisions."

"This is a big deal," explained a gamer friend of mine. "Madden is by far the only sports game that is so realistic and complex. It allows you to understand parts of the game you didn't have access to before. You can be the player and the coach. So, it took all the complexity and made it accessible." A thing like Swagger, he continues, "is the opposite. It takes things that are unmeasurable, that we don't really care about, and forces it into the game."

The irony here is that the encroachment of a supposedly more subtle form of advertising, branded content, made bloggers so furious that many claimed they would rather watch a plain, old-school interruptive TV commercial in the middle of the Madden NFL game. And Old Spice, as far as I'm concerned, happens to have the greatest advertising around. "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like," starring the bare-chested, hunky Isaiah Mustafa, who played football for the Seattle Seahawks and in NFL Europe -- and whose strange, staccato speech has come to define dude culture -- just won the Grand Prix for Film at Cannes.

It's actually a compliment both to the Madden NFL franchise and Old Spice marketing that people feel this passionately about the game and are so familiar with the ads that they can quote from them, which some bloggers have.

As one anti-Swagger commenter on Kotaku.com put it: "I just want a secret combination of keypresses that will make the quarterback say, 'I'm on a horse!'"