Experimental Football

“A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.” –Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller”


The Wall Street Journal/Rich Schultz

Last week, in Brooklyn, before a crowd of hundreds, the Brooklyn Bolts defeated the Omaha Mammoths, 15-13. The two teams play in the FXFL, the Fall Experimental Football League, playing its inaugural season. I’d happily link to a write-up of the game, but I can’t seem to find one. Sports journalists seem just as unaware of the league as the general public. I just happened to catch a brief segment on the local New York news in which the Bolts held a press conference on the steps of Borough Hall in downtown Brooklyn. The players were seated on the steps wearing their jerseys, but sat far from one another so that they didn’t really seem like they wanted to be there. Regardless of the players’ enthusiasm, the startup league has four teams: the Bolts, the Boston Brawlers, the Omaha Mammoths, and the Florida Blacktips. The Brawlers logo is a bare-knuckled boxer, which is a good way to reassure people concerned about the violence of football by conjuring an image of even more violent sport.

The FXFL is another in a long line of football leagues to try and establish itself as a developmental league for the NFL, which would put them in distinguished company of leagues like the Atlantic Coast Football League (1962-1973) and the World League of American Football/NFL Europe (1991-2007).

But what makes it “experimental”? According to Wikipedia, just some minor rule variations:

• Extra points will be attempted from the 17-yard line, as opposed to the 2- and 3-yard lines at other levels of the game.
• Kickoffs will be administered from the kicking team’s 25-yard line, as opposed to the 35-yard line used in college and the NFL. In addition, eight players on the receiving team must line up between the kicking team’s 35-yard and 45-yard line. Once a kickoff passes the 45 yard line, fielding rules become similar to punts in that the kicking team will not be allowed to recover and regain possession.
• Field goals must be attempted from outside the hash marks.

I realize now that I had unrealistic expectations for the FXFL. I was hoping to light some incense, pack a bowl, maybe put on an Aphex Twin record, and watch a football game in which multiple forward passes would be allowed on the same play and goal posts would actually before a field goal attempt. Perhaps the line of scrimmage would become the line segment of scrimmage or the arc of scrimmage. Football that really explored the studio space of football-as-a-concept, like “Breaking Madden.”

Breaking Madden,” the brainchild of Jon Bois at SB Nation, is a weekly excursion into the dark undercurrents lurking beneath the surfaces of both football and video games. Each week, Bois distorts the most recent version of the Madden video game franchise by playing a game in which the players’ ratings have been adjusted to their extreme limits. Clarence Beeftank, the patron saint of “Breaking Madden,” may be the best example. A 5-foot tall, 400-lb quarterback who makes occasional appearances, Beeftank has never once thrown a pass; instead he mercilessly runs through would-be tacklers, a throwback not to an earlier, more violent form of football but to an earlier, more violent form of hominid. Sometimes Bois alters or disables the fundament rules of the game, such as having no penalty for offsides. He then writes about the comical and often absurd things that happen in the course of a game. This isn’t garden variety “absurd”; this is some radical, Camusian absurd that finds its existential affirmation in denying the very logic of football.

In the most recent edition Bois resurrects Brett Favre to reclaim Peyton Manning’s career passing touchdowns record: “Peyton Manning is now the all-time leader in touchdown passes with 510. Brett Favre’s mission: to surpass that in a single game. We realize how impossible this sounds.” And so ol’ Brett throws passes to receivers that Bois makes really tall who are covered by really small defensive backs.

Often the absurd contortions of this alternate-dimension football lead to some weird and hilarious gifs. Then things usually take a dark turn. In last year’s Super Bowl edition, Bois doctored the player attributes to make the Seahawks players the best at everything and the Broncos players the worst at everything, and then simulated the game. (This was done was before the Super Bowl was actually played. That the game ended up looking something like the “Breaking Madden” version of it, was hopefully mere coincidence.) When the score became 255-0 in favor of the Seahawks, the game, as Bois poetically puts it, “bled.” All the players vanished from the field, the game play ceased, and this abomination appeared at midfield.

All the computer shenanigans are funny and fascinating, but Bois’s writing is the real attraction. A gifted stylist, his tone usually begins as trivial and accumulates weight, becoming frequently, and humorously, mock-heroic with the sense that the havoc wreaked upon the video game will manifest itself in the outside world, fundamentally altering and perhaps even destroying football and life on earth. Here he is after the appearance of the above “abomination”:

What did it mean? Had the computer descended into visual gibberish, or was it speaking, fluently and concisely, in a language I could never understand?

I continued to stare at it. This was not a gesture of a being who was having a good time or approved of what I was doing. This was an expression of resignation, of sadness, of delirium.

I could not continue. My heart wouldn’t let me. I used the simulation feature to speed up the game to the end. I relinquished my ambitions of a 1,500-point game. Seahawks 255, Broncos 0. The machine and I agreed upon the final score.

And the season was over, and the machine bled to death.

The more you read “Breaking Madden,” the more you realize that there’s nothing really ironic about Bois’s tone. There does seem to be something apocalyptic going on. The Madden franchise is built upon an enhanced idea of verisimilitude: it aims to provide a version of football that looks as life-like as the one on television with the added bonus of allowing the player to control players, call plays, and even run a franchise. To challenge or upend that verisimilitude, by, say, disabling offsides and stationing a tiny defensive player just behind the quarterback, calls into question the reason for the existence of the game.

Scientists who work on artificial intelligence seem divided about the possibility of singularity, in which artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence and either subsumes humanity or eliminates it altogether. “Breaking Madden” makes those who fear singularity seem all the more justified, as malfunctions of the game seem designed to send us a message, like Hal 9000 locking the astronauts out of the space craft in 2001: A Space Odyssey: artificial intelligence, it seems, doesn’t like to be fucked with.

With so much discussion about the inherent and cultural violence of football, I had hopes that an experimental football league could do some of the big work of deconstructing football, emptying it of some of the cultural baggage that makes it such a troublesome entity. Admittedly, this is a lot to heap on to the shoulders of a semipro football league. Even Bois’s weekly contentions with artificial intelligence don’t necessarily prompt a reconsideration of violence in football, as 7-foot tall virtual behemoths crush tiny virtual ball carriers. With apologies to World War I and Walter Benjamin, all the pads and helmets and virtual violence do little to obscure the tiny, fragile body.

But something like “Breaking Madden” may help us at least consider our place in the universe and our future on this planet. Confounding an Xbox One or PS4 helps us understand that singularity may not bring about the apocalypse in quite the way we fear, since artificial intelligence seems just as confused by humanity as we are of it. Bois’s version of experimental football makes possible a radical kind of empathy in which artificial and human intelligence struggle together, futilely, to make sense of the chaos that surrounds us.


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