Why Can’t I Shoot The Quarterback?

“Sports Department, this is Joe speaking.”
“Hey dad, how’s it going?”
“Good, what’s up?
“Um… how do you play football?”
*laughter*


To be fair, this was karmic turnabout for the day before when my parents asked me what “man-ga” was.

I’m a gamer from way back. Post-pong, pre-Nintendo. And during all that time, I can count the number of sports games I’ve played on one hand. Heck, I could count them on the hand of an old school chum who suffered a horrific chainsaw accident when he was a child (It’s okay, he always referred to it as a “good” accident). But every year, the sports games come out to massive fan anticipation and accolades and I sit here clueless. I mean there must be something to them, right?

So in the interest of science I took Frag-Fest: Blood Overkill Edition out of my PS3, and slipped in NCAA Football 09.

“So, NCAA, that’s College Football, right?”
“… Yes. Yes it is.”
“Why don’t they just call it that?”

The game immediately asked me for my favorite team. I never had a favorite team, even growing up. I just kind of defaulted to something for when the argument would inevitably rise up during lunchtime conversations. (Wolverines or Spartans? Wolverine, obviously, because of his healing factor.) But now, as a fully fledged grown up, such choices are far more complex. By state law I am required to support either UGA (that’s the University of Georgia, btw. It took me 3 years of living down here before I figured out what the A stood for) or GT (Georgia Tech. See? The nerds know how to abbreviate properly!) As a sign of solidarity to my geeky brethren, I went with Tech.

I was given a nice fly-by of the stadium (hey, the Coke building!) while some announcers begin to chat about the upcoming game and about how UGA and Tech hate each other. Then the game started and all hell broke loose.

Okay, look, I’m a pretty smart guy. Not a genius, but I’m at least a standard deviation above on the IQ curve. I can handle some complex strategies, hold my own at chess, and can cut through RTSs with some speed and dexterity. So imagine my amazement that I couldn’t make heads or tails of what was happening on screen.

“So I’m looking through the instruction book, and it’s talking about covering men, pinching and spreading, drag routes; what kind of a game is this?”
“Alright, so a pinch is where… *Charlie Brown Teacher noises for the next 10 minutes*”
“… Yes.”

I’m on defense and I’ve got a dozen playbook pages of little squiggles and colors. Some dots go backwards into big, colorful word balloons, while others go forward a bit, and some don’t seem to do anything. I click one and random and watch what happens. Everybody runs around, and one of my players that’s not controlled by me gets an interception. My wife congratulates me on a job well done. I inform her that I didn’t do anything except set the game to Freshman difficulty. She is, nonetheless, impressed. I feel a little better about myself.

By the end of the first quarter I’ve figured out that the lines are where the players are supposed to go, and I’ve guessed that the word balloons are areas they’ll cover. Since I’m still not sure which little dot I am, I try to pick an innocuous one and let the computer do most of the work. This strategy proves successful and in one half I manage three interceptions. Sadly, the game is not so kind when it comes to offense.

Let me pause here and point out something that struck me as odd. There is no training mode for this game. Almost every game out there now has a walkthrough of how to play, even if it’s just some pop-up tips on the first level. Not this one. I guess the idea is that if you’re willing to put down $60 for the latest edition from the franchise, you know what you’re getting yourself into. So anyways….

I don’t know why, but for the first play of every possession, I choose something where my quarterback refuses to throw the ball, opting instead to run backwards like a scared little girl for about 15 yards and then get tackled. I almost scored on my own goal this way. Twice.

Thankfully, after the first play, I was fine. You get 3-4 options of people to throw the ball to, and they’re conveniently labeled with the appropriate button. Quick Time Events! Finally something I’m good at! I score a few touchdowns, people cheer, my mascot does some bizarre Michael Jackson moves, and then something weird happened. I was kind of enjoying the game.

It might be as simple as Psych 101 conditioning, but just goofing around with the game and having fun with it was much more, well, fun, than I ever thought possible. I’m not good at sports, virtual or otherwise, it’s not a genre I have a shred of interest in, and I’m still running around playing like a arcade button-masher with his head cut off. Yet here I found myself, cheering, shouting, arguing with the referees, and having a great time.

I can’t really put my finger on it, but I guess you could say NCAA 09 has an awkward sort of charm about it. Like playing an insane Japanese video game with no translations. You’ve got no idea exactly what’s going on, but you’re having a hell of a time regardless. Of course, it’s a safe bet you won’t find me at an actual football game anytime soon (or even watching ESPN), but I can easily see myself sitting down to play a quick game to kill some time every now and again.

So while I could never in good conscience tell my chaos-blade wielding brothers-in-arms to rush out and purchase this game, adding it to their libraries of FPSs, RTSs and other such initial-laden bounty, I can say it’s worth a rental to give it a try. You might be surprised how much you enjoy it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a Sim mode I need to try out. I think I’ll name my quarterback Arjhan, after my 10th level Dragonborn Ranger.

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