Madden NFL 18: Greatest of All Time? When ESPN NFL2K5 Ruled the World (Matthew 13:43-46)

The year was 2004. Long before Madden and video game football were terms used interchangeably the way we use “Band-Aid” to describe all bandage products regardless of branding, the realm of gridiron greats was an open playing field. The 2K football series had existed for several years alongside EA Sports annual Madden offering and both sides seemed to have settled into a comfortable yet competitive status quo. Until 2K flipped the entire game on its ear and put Madden on notice in a way that has changed the gaming landscape around football as well as many other sports titles forever.

  To adequately understand what was about to occur, a brief historical diversion. 2K football was one of the last remaining remnants of Sega’s final console, the ill-fated Dreamcast. Each year Visual Concepts produced a quality sports title across most of the major sports franchises, but few people noticed because they were buried on the Dreamcast system. With the death of the Dreamcast the 2K sports games navigated over to the PlayStation and Xbox, continuing to release well-regarded titles that were mildly successful, but not enough to put significant pressure on the world’s leading developer of sports gaming, Electronic Arts.

   EA may have viewed this competition as unwelcome, but they didn’t make any major changes to their game engine or respond in a way that would indicate they viewed 2K sports as a legitimate threat. And then, it happened… the moment that altered it all. 2K snatched up the unbelievably available rights to the ESPN license, made massive overhauls to the presentation, graphics, and game play of their title, hired one of the most outspoken and well-known stars in the game in Terrell Owens to pose for the cover, and in the final coup de grace released their vastly superior title for the meager price of $19.99. The impact was immediate.

   While their competition released yet another tired, old, complacent football game for $49.99, 2K had suddenly trumped them in every department and released a game that featured such first-time occurrences such as a halftime show that showed your real in-game footage with commentary, first-person mode, actual ESPN music and personalities… and all for the price of a pizza and a 2-liter. This was the most immersive, realistic, and exciting football game that had ever been released and even non-sports fans were picking it up to try it due to the low price of entry. And EA realized very quickly that immediate action would be necessary to protect their empire from being erased by this unprecedented assault on their bread-and-butter.

   What did they do? If you are a student of gaming history then you already know the answer, but for those of you who may not what happened next was unthinkable… they BOUGHT the exclusive rights to make games based on NFL football. And just to keep 2K out of their honey pot in every conceivable way, they also purchased the rights to NCAA college football and even Arena League football. Seems a little bit like overkill, but after paying the NFL an exorbitant sum of money to be the exclusive developer of games based on professional football they were leaving nothing to chance. They left 2K games literally zero options, and after an ill-advised attempt at a football game that featured old retired players absent any of the licenses that would give their game credibility, 2K football died and Madden stood alone, once again, as not only the definitive game of football but also the ONLY game in town. They effectively excised their competition by making a massive commitment that seemed like a huge amount of money at the time, but they deemed the risk of being pushed out of their own comfortable position as being worth the investment and the results speak for themselves.

   What would have happened if EA didn’t step up and shut 2K out of the game? While conjecture is easy, the truth is as close as the other sports juggernaut series, NBA 2K. This series has easily eclipsed the rival basketball series produced by EA (NBA Live) and has consistently sold in the top 10 of total video game sales each year as a result of their excellence in-game development. It is not too hard of a stretch to imagine that this same scenario could have happened in the football gaming sector. If EA hadn’t acted with such an extreme decision, the gaming landscape could have shifted to eliminate Madden from the store shelves permanently. It took an incredibly expensive, seemingly desperate, but ultimately necessary move from EA to save their franchise and here we are over a decade later about to play the only licensed football game in town one more time.

   Now that’s what commitment looks like… EA put a ring on it as they understood that this was a relationship they could not afford to lose or even see diminsh. In my day to day walk with the Lord, I am challenged with realizing that I may have felt this way at my point of conversion and had the flames of that feeling fanned once again after a particularly moving sermon or service, but am I truly sold out for the Lord in this desperate of a manner? In Matthew 13:43-46 Jesus tells two short but significant parables to guide us in understanding how we should respond to His call to our lives.

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

   In each of these settings the message could not be more clear, but it’s application can be a tad bit more difficult. Much like EA in our previous example, there must be a recognition that what is on the other side is worth giving up everything in order to possess it. EA forked over millions of dollars to the NFL and in the end they not only survived, but thrived. The investment seems paltry now compared to the payoff.
 
Likewise, we are in the position of the man looking at real estate or the merchant searching for the perfect pearl. Once we have found the truth and the reality of the life we are meant to live, we have a choice to make. The value of the prize is much higher than anything we could ever generate on our own. Even after my conversion as a believer, if you are anything like me you have wasted too much time in relationships and activities that leave us unfulfilled and often more damaged and worse for the wear. And in my case, it was my fault for expecting people, places and things to be able to fill a God-shaped hole inside me that nothing else could ever hope to come close to. But if you asked me to give up those things for something better at that time I would look at you like you were crazy. Like a child stubbornly clinging to a mold-covered teddy bear while being offered a shopping spree at the Build-A-Bear Workshop, for years I failed to recognize the value of the life being offered to me while over-estimating the worth of the life I was living.

   As believers, we must understand that our commitment to Christ requires 100% of ourselves… every thought, every desire, every possession. He can only deposit His free grace into an empty account. What He offers is priceless, with a mortal life directed by the Creator as He walks with us side by side followed by eternal life in the world to come. The very best this life offers is worthless by comparison. Sell out, and sell out fully. This is not a one time act of belief, but a commitment each and every day. But not only is it worth it, it is the only thing that is truly of worth both in this life and the life to come.

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Delay of Game:  Ark Delayed, NCAA Derailed, and (almost) The End of the Summer Gaming Drought (1 Kings 17-18)

We are finally nearing the end of the dog days of summer, when the gaming drought lifts and we see out on the horizon the finish line for the highly anticipated titles that have been years in the making.  It seems like it has always been this way as each June, July, and August become a barren wasteland of new releases that ends with a bang as the annual Madden release signals the existence of rain clouds in the horizon.  Sure, sometimes a nice little indie title pops up to tide us over and occasionally a high-profile beta will run to keep us satisfied, but by and large the rule of thumb has been that the gaming industry hits the recess button about the time that the kids head home from school for the last time.

Sometimes you have a title like Ark: Survival Evolved, which should be out on shelves now but hit one final snag on its long ride home to completion. Or you have the tragic case of NCAA Football, which was long counted on to carry the month of July but is now forever mired with a licensing issue that does not appear to have a potential fix in sight in our lifetimes.  In each of these cases it is not a lack of desire for the title to exist or be completed, but rather the existence of unforeseen challenges and external battles that delay their launch or sometimes derail them permanently.  So as these heavy hitters either step back or go down for the count gamers around the world twiddle our trigger fingers and play through our back catalogue as we impatiently wait for something truly worth our time to emerge from what appears to be an inactive geyser.

The funny thing is that out here in the real world it feels like the great video game machine has ceased operations, yet behind the scenes in each developer’s cubicle the action is at a frenetic, break-neck pace as these days are anything but a summer vacation for them.  This is the most critical part of game development… the final steps to going gold.  The title has long since been set in stone, the voice acting work is completed, the marketing budget is being spent as we speak… as bugs are getting squashed and final multiplayer stress tests are being completed the last months of getting a game out on the shelf is the most challenging, frustrating, stressful, yet critical portion of the game’s journey.

What began as a gleam in the creator’s eye years prior is about to come to fruition, and not a single area in need of polish can be overlooked.  Companies literally rise and fall based on the success or failure of one software title these days, so a rough launch may not only be the end of one developer’s dream… every employee on the payroll is deeply connected to the need to put the very best version of their product out there for public consumption.  And while this process may be invisible and mildly frustrating to most of the video game purchasing public, those who are intimately attached to the long-term success of their game are pulling twenty hour days to insure everyone is satisfied with the final experience.

Waiting through interminable periods of time when nothing seems to be happening is a fairly unenjoyable process.  Having patience is much easier when there is a finish line you can point to or a pre-determined point you can press towards that represents relief.  And in 1 Kings 17 and 18 we find the story of an entirely different type of drought, and within this we will find  some interesting parallels that reflect on our ability to endure the barren plains and empty skies we all must endure at certain seasons in our lives.

If you want to find a person in the Old Testament who has done some stuff and seen some things, there are few that can hold a candle to the prophet Elijah.  These two chapters contain an amazing event that is worthy of its own separate column, but for today we will focus on the ending of the drought found in 1 Kings 18:41.  After years of zero rain, the prophet of God Elijah returned from his disappearance and proclaimed to the king that there was the sound of the abundance of rain.  And as the king went off to eat, Elijah prayed and  sent his servant out to survey the horizon for a sign of potential precipitation.  And… there was nothing there.  Not a cloud, bo change in the barometric pressure reading, not even a shadow indicating a potential cooling off of the sun… nothing externally showed any sign of this “abundance of rain” Elijah had just proclaimed.

If Elijah felt any panic he sure didn’t show it.  He sent his servant back to check again.  Again he returned with the news that there was no evidence of an answer to Elijah’s prayer.  He sent him a third, a fourth, a fifth… in total he sent his servant seven times to look for any indication that the promised rain was on its way.  Finally, on the seventh time the servant returned with this meager report… “There is a cloud the size of a man’s hand coming out of the sea”.  Have you ever prayed a prayer and when you finally saw an answer on it’s way it was so small and insignificant that there was simply no way it would be sufficient for your need?  Well, that’s what Elijah is looking at here.  He promised an outpouring and was looking at a speck.

Elijah, to his credit, was undeterred.  He knew an answer to prayer when he saw one, and he also knew firsthand how the Lord of little was the same Lord of much.  Elijah took the message of that tiny cloud to the king and informed him to “Ride like the wind, Bullseye”!  Well, your translation might have it recorded it a little more like, “Prepare your chariot and go down before the rain stops you”.  But I’m pretty sure that’s how it was said in the original Hebrew.  At any rate, Elijah saw the answer in its fullness before it had even fully arrived, and he responded in faith to it even when the answer tarried and its arrival lacked the overwhelming proof that you would like to see when making a report of this magnitude.

The answer to your prayers may seem like a dot in the distance, or perhaps they are not even visible yet, but as sure as EA will launch a new Madden game each August our Heavenly Father will always have a rain cloud that will show up for you right when it is needed most.  It may not be there the first time you look, the second time, or the fifth time, but it’s coming.  It may look like it’s the size of a man’s hand, but many times our answers to prayer will be delivered through the man-sized hands of others.  And much like the development cycle of your favorite game franchise, the silence you are hearing is not an indication that progress is not occurring.  To the contrary, the most critical work on the project and the final steps of the process are the portions that receive the least amount of fanfare and are accompanied by the least amount of updates.  If a developer is talking then they aren’t working, and if they are busy polishing those last touches on your next addiction then they probably aren’t updating their Twitter.

 

Take heart when you see an absence of clouds in the sky and don’t hear any sounds of thunder.  Elijah, in faith, heard the sound of the abundance of rain while looking at a cloudless sky.  And his faith was rewarded with the opening of the heavens and a refreshing outpouring that answered not only his prayer, but the prayers of the entire nation.  God does not delay our responses as an act of control or cruelty… the truth is there is more at stake in your situation than you are privy to, and a prayer answered at the wrong time is worse than an unanswered prayer.  There is a crucial difference in blessings and curses, and much of this has to do with timing.  Let’s look at one final example…

In 1 Samuel 8 we find the sad story of Samuel, the mighty prophet of God, being asked by the nation of Israel to appoint them a king.  To this point the Lord was their King and He would periodically appoint people to act on His behalf such as Moses, Samson, Deborah, and now Samuel.  But the people demanded a king, and in spite of Samuel’s stern warnings and the clearly stated will of God against this their prayers were answered.  The solution was Saul, a horribly flawed monarch who caused great distress to the country and if it had not been for God’s deliverance by the hand of David they would have re-entered a life of slavery, this time to the Philistines.  If they had only waited, David would have been the first king and would have spared them a great deal of problems.  So we see that a prayer answered in the wrong time can be worse than the situation we currently occupy, and while we may see a clear solution to our predicament, the Lord sees all of the spinning wheels and is determined not to release the response until the fullness of time has truly come.

I have many prayers lifted up right now, and many of them feel like their situation is already past the point of expiration.  But when the Lord says rain is in the forecast, you can take that to the bank.  He may not hit your desired street date, but you can be assured that small cloud on the horizon is the proof that the abundance of rain is coming.  Don’t lose hope… the absence of proof and the lack of audible confirmation is simply the sound of progress in a realm beyond our comprehension.  Ask a tomb that’s sat silent for three days what happens when it finally becomes time for the stone to move…