Tech

Inside The Mind Of The Man Who Broke Madden

How Jon Bois’ delightfully impish series became an internet sensation.

All images and video courtesy of Jon Bois and SB Nation

Once in an unbearably long while, a person produces a thing on the internet that transcends politics, gender, race, religion, class, personal and professional jealousy, the balkanization of public interest, and the unsteady tides of social distribution. In my view, these things tend to succeed for two reasons: 1. They are so surpassingly Good that not even the wartiest internet hobgoblin can make a tolerable claim that they are Bad, and perhaps more importantly, 2. They are motivated by such obvious good faith, good humor, and good sense, that to pick their nits would be not just pointless, but somehow, immoral.

This fall and winter, the writer Jon Bois made one of those things. It is called Breaking Madden and it is one of the funniest things to ever appear on the internet.

Breaking Madden, if you haven’t read it, is the recounting of 17 attempts by Bois to fuck with the hugely profitable and popular football videogame, through various modifications to the game’s myriad settings and player creation options. It began with a Bois-created 400-pound mobile quarterback inspired by the zaftig Jared Lorenzen, and included single games in which a team ran for 2,400 yards, in which offsides was completely legal, and in which the New England Patriots fielded an offense comprised of 11 Tom Bradys.

It culminated in an epic finale days prior to the Super Bowl in which Bois, through a series of diabolical manipulations, attempted to score 1000 points with the Seattle Seahawks against the Broncos. And in a nice instance of life imitating art, when the IRL Seahawks laid their own pasting on the IRL Broncos on Sunday, Twitter lit up with “Breaking Madden come to life” jokes.

Bois, who is 31 and splits his time between Louisville and Montreal, has written for SB Nation since its launch in 2009. He talked to BuzzFeed about the origins of the series, his history as a gamer, and the pains of being a Chiefs fan.

When and how did you get the idea for Breaking Madden? Is there a story behind its inception?

Jon Bois: Like a lot of kids who grew up playing video games, I had a lot of fun tooling around with game settings. My friends and i would play GoldenEye 007 with every available cheat code turned on, and we’d thoroughly abuse the “create-a-wrestler” features in wrestling games. I’d make a sloth-like, 120-pound, horrible wrestler with no moves and send him out to fight Steve Austin, and I’d just laugh so hard I’d start crying.

Back in about 2005, I tried to make a primitive version of Breaking Madden, but my know-how and technology was limited, so I scrapped it. I tried it again a couple years ago with an NBA 2K game, but it veered a little more toward realistic “what-if” scenarios. So, I’ve been kicking this concept around for almost 10 years.

When you pitched the feature to your editors, what was their reaction? Did they get it? Or did they humor you at first?

JB: My boss is my pal Spencer Hall, who shares my love of crappy broken things. We’d previously spent lots of time laughing our fool heads off at this glitch reel of Skate 3. As with most things, I just told him, “hey, I want to do this,” and he said, “DO IT.” It was a pretty easy sell.

Did you originally pitch it as a series? If not, when did it become clear that it needed to be one?

JB: One of the rules I hold myself to as a writer is to be ready to scrap something and move on if it runs out of steam, or just doesn’t work. From the first episode, I was planning to make it into a series, but I would have moved on to something else if it didn’t pan out.`

At what point did you realize that Breaking Madden had a life and a momentum of its own? Was there a turning point where you realized it was getting really big? When it crossed from a sports story to a story story?

JB: That actually came right away, once I saw the reaction to the first episode. Folks loved Clarence BEEFTANK, the five-foot, 400-pound wrecking ball of a quarterback who refused to throw the ball, and they loved the GIFs and ridiculous statistics.

It evolved over time, and I started adding videos and such along with the GIFs. Personally, it reached another level for me in December. I’d played a Panthers-Saints game with the “offsides” penalty turned off, which meant I could line up a defender right next to the quarterback before the snap.

So it’s late in the game, and I’ve exploited this to make a complete mockery of Drew Brees’ passing game all day. For the millionth time, Brees tries to pitch to his running back, but my illegal Panthers defender simply intercepts the pitch and runs it back for a touchdown.

I looked at the replay and noticed that after he lost the ball, Brees appeared to look up at the camera. I zoomed in, and he had this pained expression on his face, as though he was saying, “isn’t this enough? Can’t you just leave me alone?”

And then he smiles, and then he throws his head back and starts laughing. You can see it in the video. That wasn’t at all my doing; Computer-Brees did that all by himself. I was astounded.

How long does the average installment of BM take to make? Give us a sense of the amount and kind of work that goes into every episode.

JB: As an aside, it isn’t lost on me that BM is the ideal acronym for this thing.

The workload varies from episode to episode. Once I alter the settings, play the game, make the GIFs, edit the videos, and actually write the post, I’ve spent anywhere from 25 to 45 hours. Sometimes it means working through the weekend, and usually it means working 14-hour days on Mondays and Tuesdays.

Which, shoot, lots of folks in lots of different professions do that all the time, and I get to do it in the comfort of my living room. It does get tedious, though.

Each little setting in Madden is a little slider bar that goes from 0 to 99. A lot of interfaces will realize that you’re holding the stick left and say, “oh, you’re trying to get to zero, right?” And then it’ll just take you down to zero. Madden doesn’t do that. You hold down the stick, and the meter just crawls down at an agonizingly slow rate. It usually takes eight or 10 seconds to drag a setting all the way down (a little quicker if you also hold down the D-pad).

That usually wouldn’t be a big deal, but every player has around 50 relevant settings to edit. And in a lot of episodes, I’m editing 15 to 45 players. In the Super Bowl episode, I edited 82 players. I just watched a bunch of junk on Netflix to keep me occupied.

Some of our editors are big admirers of your skill with GIFS. Do you have any tips or tricks or special methods when it comes to that format?

JB: Specific to Madden and other sports games, the instant-replay features are incredibly robust. If you play around with them enough, you can get some shots that look absolutely beautiful.

My GIF-making process is a little slipshod, but it results in GIFs I’m happy with. I use EasyCAP, a little $20 piece of hardware, to capture video. Then I split it up into still frames with iMovie (I’m on a MacBook Air), resize the images into something usable, then put them back together into a GIF using GIFfun.

Above: Jon Bois, with a burning Fernando Valenzuela baseball card.

Prior to making BM, did you play the game a lot for fun? Were you any good? Did you start playing the game as a kid? What drew you to it in the first place?

JB: I got Madden ‘93 for Christmas as a kid, and I played the heck out of it. That game was a triumph. In terms of gameplay, I don’t think it possibly could have been any better.

In recent times I’ve come back around to buying it every year. My results are mixed, because I’ve made a solemn pledge to myself: whenever I’m playing a Madden game for fun, the way it was actually meant to be played, I’m always the Chiefs, without the exception. Ever since I was 10, I have never, ever played as any other team.

That’s often an all-or-nothing proposition. One year, you experience the joy of having both Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson in your backfield. Another year, you have Tyler Thigpen throwing to Chris Chambers, and everything about your life is horrible.

How about now, after doing the series? Will you keep playing “Normal” Madden?

Not very often, I don’t reckon. I find myself spending so much time in Breaking Madden mode that if the opportunity comes up to do literally anything else but stare at that game, I’ll take it.

What is your other experience with gaming—consoles, PC, mobile, etc.? Have you ever tried to “break” a non-sporting game? Or is a game you wish you could break?

JB: These days I mostly just play the NBA 2K games (which are phenomenal) and dork around with Civilization V. But ever since I was a kid, I’ve played a lot of PC and console games. My two all-time favorites are Deus Ex and Red Dead Redemption.

I also played an unreasonable amount of Goldeneye 007 as a kid. In the first level, the Dam, there’s this really far-off island that you can only see if you zoom in with your sniper rifle. You can’t walk or swim to it, it’s just sort of there. But folks on message boards were enamored with it. Everyone wondered, “why is it there? What the Hell is out there?”

So eventually, I bought a GameShark, plugged the game into it, and enabled a hack that would let James Bond walk across water. After a couple minutes of walking, I finally got there. There was this little building, a ladder, and a gun turret that didn’t do anything. In reality, of course, it was probably just a remnant from an earlier version of the game that the developers decided not to use and just sort of left there. It wasn’t amazing at all, but to me it felt that way. I saw this thing, however ordinary, that I was never supposed to see.

Have you had any interaction at all with the Madden team, or Electronic Arts?

JB: A little bit, yeah. I’m actually planning to talk to them about the game at greater length in the near future. As far as I’ve heard, they’ve gotten a kick out of Breaking Madden.

How about with the NFL or NFL players?

JB: I did an episode centered around Colts punter Pat McAfee, and he tweeted at me to tell me he dug it. Recently, Cam Newton was shown the “Bo Jackson is God” episode, and then the Panthers episode in which I turned off the “offsides” penalty. He said, “y’all do that to Bo Jackson, and then y’all do that to me?” He seemed equally amused and annoyed.

Is there something about football videogames that make them particularly susceptible to this kind of mischief? Could you break other sports games? Will you?

JB: I think there is, because football is very physical and centered around knocking the Hell out of people. It’s far more satisfying to hack than, say, a baseball game. There’s just so much more to do.

In the near future, I’m planning on doing the same for NBA 2K14 (the working title right now is “NBA Y2K”). Those games allow for a ridiculous amount of customization, so I think I can make some pretty terrible things happen.

Did doing the series affect at all the way you watch actual NFL games?

JB: I watched a lot of games this season with a Twitter feed on the side, and whenever there was a particularly one-sided game, people would tweet at me like, “did you rig this game?” I’m amazed and grateful that Breaking Madden has become something people joke about when they’re watching actual football.

Breaking Madden really reminds me of the culture jamming movement that was big in the 80s and early 90s. The aim of this movement was to take mass consumer objects and prank them in ways that were both funny and functioned as commentaries on consumer culture.

Breaking Madden is obviously really, really funny. But do you consider it as well any kind of argument about or comment on the massively popular, massively profitable NFL or Madden cultures?

JB: Last year, Spencer wrote a column about the state of NFL coverage that began with, “y’all suck.” There are lots of reporters, columnists, and analysts who do really outstanding work. The NFL’s popularity is absolutely massive, and the appetite for it is virtually infinite. And yet, there are probably a thousand interesting approaches to this league that nobody has taken yet.

I don’t really consider Breaking Madden to be a stronger statement than, like, an armpit fart, and it’s none of my business to tell other folks what they should be doing or enjoying. I just wanted to do a thing I thought was funny and interesting, and I’m really grateful that so many people have found it as much fun as I do.

Do you have any personal theories about why the series is so successful, beyond being really, really funny?

JB: I credit a lot of it to the amount of time I’ve been at liberty to spend on it, and I credit that to the company I work for. Between the emphasis on trying to make the best stuff in the world, the room I’m given to work, and the talented people I work with, I can’t imagine a better environment in which to create stuff like this than SB Nation.

Do you get any angry communication from internet people who thought that you were trying to run an actual earnest simulation? Like, did you get any pissed off Broncos fans after the finale?

Actually, I didn’t hear from a single person who was honestly upset over a Breaking Madden. For the Super Bowl, I used a voting process to determine which team would be the team of monsters, and which would be the team of awful weaklings. If I had announced, “I’m making the Broncos lose because I hate them,” I bet I would have gotten some guff over it. But I wouldn’t have done that, because honestly, I like pretty much every sports team for one reason or another.

Are you going to do another season of Breaking Madden? What’s left to “break?”

Yep, as of right now I’m planning a Season 2 of Breaking Madden to coincide with the actual 2014 season.

There are a whole lot of things, like the Owner and Career modes, which I never explored in this year’s Madden. I’m excited to mess around with the next one and see what’s there to break.

If I run out of things to hack, I’ll just use the game to keep telling stories about kind-hearted short chubby men who take baths in Lincoln Logs instead of bathwater.

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Joe Bernstein is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Bernstein reports on and writes about the gaming industry and web culture.
Contact Joseph Bernstein at joe.bernstein@buzzfeed.com.
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