For your consideration, two football plays.
One. With less than a minute before halftime, San Francisco’s Raheem Mostert was on fire. Stationed back behind the 25-yard line, the running back waited patiently for QB Jimmy Garoppolo to snap the ball. Once he did, Mostert would be in the wind. Then it came: the snap, the turn, the handoff. Mostert cradled the ball, bobbed right down the original running lane, juked, and then weaved left, sprinting through a sea of yellow helmets and into the end zone for a 49ers touchdown.
Two. Running back Chris Johnson was bouncing, ready to make something happen on the gridiron. Drew Brees walked up and took his position under center, with Johnson back behind the fullback. It was over in a flash. Brees snapped the ball, turned, and gave it to Johnson who threaded a path through a clump of bodies into the Jaguars’ secondary and all the way into the end zone. Touchdown Arizona Cardinals.
The first play unfolded two weeks ago during the NFC Championship game between the 49ers and the Green Bay Packers, in which Moshert rumbled for 220 yards and 4 touchdowns to secure the red and gold a spot in Super Bowl LIV against the Kansas City Chiefs. Garoppolo threw the ball just eight times.
The second—in case Drew Brees playing for the Cards didn’t tip you off—took place in the finals of the Madden 20 Club Championship in December of last year. In the end, the Arizona Cardinals’ Michael “Volterax” Bryant took down the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Drini Gjoka 28 to 13, securing a first-place finish in the months-long tournament and winning $100,000. Volterax ended the competition with negative passing yards.
In other words, the running game is ascendant, both in the real NFL and its virtual counterpart. While an air raid offense where quarterbacks and wide receivers connect on 40-yard passes is electric, running backs and fast-footed quarterbacks keep teams afloat, wear defenses out, and help control the clock.
In the real world, the 49ers’ running attack, built on the legs of running backs Moshert, Tevin Coleman, and Matt Breida, superstar tight end George Kittle, and fullback Kyle Juszczyk’s blocking, is one of the biggest talking points heading into the Super Bowl this weekend. CBS, NBC Sports, and nearly every other sports outlet have been posing the question: Can the Chiefs stop the 49ers’ run game?
Outside pivotal games against the Los Angeles Rams, the Seattle Seahawks, and the Arizona Cardinals, the 49ers’ run game has led head coach Kyle Shanahan to a thirteen-win, three-loss season and the team’s first Super Bowl berth since 2013.
EA Sports’ Madden games are, of course, not perfect simulations of real-world football. But in this instance, art and life have converged. As Volterax’s championship run demonstrated, focusing almost exclusively on a strong running game is a viable, if not vital, path to victory. Drini put up a valiant effort, but it was no match for Volterax’s dominance on the ground.
The Madden Club Championship sees tens of thousands of players compete for the crown. Each player has to choose a team they want to represent, beat out thousands of other competitors for the chance to represent that team on the big stage, and then beat out the representatives of the 31 other teams in a bid for the trophy. Players can build their teams with any NFL player they want, but they have to fit everyone in within a salary cap. Different players have different approaches to how they build their offense and defense.
“When I played cap was $950,000, and it’s increasing to $1,325,000, so it was harder to have a good offense and defense,” Volterax tells me. A New England Patriots fan, he chose to represent the Arizona Cardinals because he didn’t want to face off against Madden veteran and fellow Patriot scum Michael Skimbo early on. “But I stacked my defense and went with the cheapest [receivers] and [quarterback] and stacked my blockers and running back. I felt like I had the best running game and defense going into the tournament, and that worked out.”
Like the 49ers, Volterax’s key to winning was his running back, Chris Johnson, and his support staff of blockers that opened up running lanes. His plan didn’t just work out. It excelled, and he came out on top of 75,000 other Madden players who took a shot at the Club Championship. He put cleats on the turf so much in hopes that legendary Titans and Cardinals running back Johnson would break a tackle and take it to the house on almost every play.
“The pursuit angles [defenders take] on defense is a huge part of why the run is so successful,” Madden player Kyle “Drag” Riederer tells me. “Tackling is still pretty poor even though it’s improved with patches. Runners are also rewarded for having bad run stick/vision. Often people will run directly into the offensive line with no penalty and break it for a huge gain because defensive players dumb out [and won’t tackle].”
Like in other esports, in Madden the metagame leads to dominant strategies that top players take advantage of to win. This year, with the latest entry of the NFL franchise, it’s all about the run. “It mostly creates an issue in competitive play because it shrinks the skill gap,” Riederer says. “People are able to keep running the ball because they know eventually, they will break a run. While its good that more people can compete, the randomness of the game makes it harder to make a consistent income while competing.”
Volterax didn’t win the championship just by exploiting Madden’s faulty physics engine, though. He game-planned extensively throughout the season last year, practicing against his opponent’s schemes, carefully approaching the salary cap, and using his stick skills instead of the CPU to create tackles and find running holes.
After Volterax gained a two-score lead late in the third quarter, Drini had no choice but to look downfield for big plays. Quarterback Philip Rivers dropped back, hoping to find one of his receivers for a big gain. He let it loose, only for it to bobble off the hands of the Jaguars and into the arms of the defense for a decisive interception. It was Volterax’s game. Drini was just playing in it.
That same scenario happened twice, and twice it ended in an interception, proving that Drini couldn’t hang with Volterax’s strategy. The run game, which the majority of competitors prioritized in the top eight brackets, was too much to handle.
“There are ways to stop every run. It just takes knowledge, so it can be very tough for the average player who doesn’t know the ins and outs of the game,” Volterax said. “There are other players who also put in a lot of time just like I did, but I feel like I built the best team and executed my game plan exactly how I labbed it up.”
While opinions on how fair the run game is in Madden differ, many in the community agree that the competition is heavily influenced by random factors. “I think the current state of competitive Madden is it’s going through growing pains. It has grown as an esport over the past three years, but unlike other esports, there is still too much CPU/RNG involved rather than skill,” Madden player ERock tells me. “For most esports like Call of Duty, it’s competitor versus competitor. With Madden, there are 11 players on each side of the ball. A person can only control one of those 11 players, so there is still so much of the game [spent] hoping the CPU does what you want it [to].”
Madden esports, and the community within it, has grown year-over-year according to EA, but some of the technical issues that have plagued the franchise have grown with it. Look at any Madden forum, subreddit, or other online gathering place and you’ll find players complaining about how dominant the run is this year, citing examples of how broken it can be.
“There is a meta for every season, and this year the run game is strong, but RNG is the X-factor,” ERock says. “If you’re playing a good game and, boom, you fumble and that can change the whole game. You can only prepare so much, and then you just have to pray the RNG is with you.”
The combination of the low salary cap, a physics engine that doesn’t always recognize tackles, and Volterax insane game-planning skills have led to a championship run where Volterax rarely passed the ball in the 200 plus games he played in. But according to newly crowned Madden champion Volterax, the run game may not be dominant going forward.
“The salary cap was [just raised earlier this week], though, so we might be seeing more of a pass-heavy attack from players in the future,” he said. “Because the defenses are going to be much better.”
Back in the real world, this weekend’s matchup hinges on a very different unknown. The 49ers’ running game may be stellar, but no virtual recreation of the NFL can replicate the things Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes can do between the end zones. If Kansas City manages trump the 49ers’ defensive rush and build a lead, then San Francisco will have to play catch up by passing the ball. In that case, Garoppolo will be throwing a lot more than eight times.
Header image credit: EA Sports via EGM
Aron Garst is a freelance journalist who covers games and esports for ESPN, Gamasutra, WIRED, Polygon, Kotaku, and plenty of other sites. He has an unhealthy obsession with battle royales and Animal Crossing.