Commentary
The line between gamesmanship and sportsmanship in Madden NFL games is as simple as winning and losing.

We've played MADDEN NFL head-to-head for decades, but online play changed the game for good and tipped the differences between gamesmanship and sportsmanship upside down. 

Before Madden NFL 2003, we had to gather to play. Friends played friends, head-to-head Madden games were character building social engagements, and lopsided losses became initiation ceremonies; ONLINE play changed that.  It also changed the way we think about playing each other.


The post-online head-to-head Madden world is very different.  Things have changed.  Now, Random 1 competes against Random 2, regardless of location.  Rookies get matched against grizzled Madden vets.  Opponents might not speak.   Today's blowouts don't result in revenge matches; just anger.  Learning to lose isn't the lesson it once was and nor is Madden the social engagement it used to be.  The results aren't always pretty without the friendships and the couch that used to connect us.

Cheating has changed too. Long ago, a glitch in a game with friends was reason to laugh; that same glitch in a 'wager game' was reason to scowl.  Rules of engagement were clearly established, simple, easy to predict.  Not anymore. Glitches aren't funny anymore. 

Glitches pose such a threat to online players, our entire community's value structure evolved.  We use terms like SIM, Tourney, or Freestyle to describe our head-to-head gaming tactics, competitive ideals, and football gaming philosophies. We gravitate toward the group that best mirrors our competitive ideals of gamesmanship and sportsmanship, but we have more common ground that we think.

Definitions for gamesmanship include words like winning, outwitting, and cunning. Sportsmanship definitions include words like losing, courtesy, and fairness. Gamesmanship explicitly excludes cheating. So does sportsmanship. The theme in the definitions specifically relates to winning and losing, and how we do each.

Sportsmen have been adored for their gamesmanship. The ability to change a game's momentum in clutch situations is a talent few possess. Today there are several players enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame who were known for both their gamesmanship and fiery disposition. Sportsmanship matters, but gamesmanship matters more.  After all, there is no Sportsmanship Hall of Fame.  Good losers are appreciated, but not celebrated or immortalized. 

Occasionally someone of the highest level gamesmanship and sportsmanship is captured on film.  Walter Payton reach heroic proportions.  Devastating blocks, trucking, or shaking defenders; it didn't seem fair.  His respect for the game and his opponents meant an uncanny devotion to perfect his craft and unwavering drive to be the best.  That characterizes his gamesmanship.  His sportsmanship was also a testament to how we should strive to play any game together.  After plays he often helped defenders to their feet.

Only gamesmanship matters when we play the computer though. The AI doesn't actually think, have tendencies, nor will it catch on to patterns. Won't get upset; whether plays are defeated by solid football or cheated with glitches. Won't quit when the score gets out of hand, nor will it lobby for new rules after the game. The CPU won't slam a controller, press reset button, nor judge if we do. If the CPU loses it gets ready for the next game.  The computer displays the ideal qualities of a true sportsman.

Pummeling the computer may be fun but humans do things the computer won't. 

Transitioning from versus computer to humans is tough.  Aside from technique, games against the AI won't prepare Madden players to face humans.  Games against the AI exclusively can adversely effect our ability to thrive during live competition.  The computer won't pick up on subtle user patterns like humans will. Humans think, adjust, call plays with purpose, have tendencies and habits. Adapting to live competition requires live opponents.  Live competitors need to have good gamesmanship and sportsmanship. 

Pride is the problem. We all believe we're know football.  We believe we can hang 255 points on the AI.  Pride makes us believe we should translate beating the AI to beating humans.  Pride makes us accuse  Obviously, anyone with that kind of production must be doing something beyond the realm of sportsmanship. No one is that good, right?

Before we accuse anyone of cheating, we should remember not all Madden players are created equal. All Madden players have strengths and weaknesses as individual as the players themselves. Humans will expose any strategic weaknesses. Sometimes these weaknesses are so glaring that it seems like an opponents are cheating.  Mostly, the only thing being exploited is the connection between the couch and the controller. 

Gamesmanship is more than just a skill set; it's also how they are applied to win.  Players with high gamesmanship are not the players with the least weaknesses, they just disguise their shortcomings.  Players with a weakness against inside pressure may instinctively scramble from pressure. Players who lack offensive patience are always on the lookout for quick scores. Those tendencies get magnified in head-to-head games.  Pitting two players of equal gamesmanship together both players emerge with a positive experience. When the gamesmanship is unbalanced, one player's experience is negative.

Still the line between gamesmanship and sportsmanship is blurred. Some of us exhibit excessively aggressive gamesmanship styles, without crossing the line. Aggressive gamesmanship might be viewed as poor sportsmanship. The terms we use to describe ourselves (SIM, Tourney, and Freestyle) do little to adequately reflect our gamesmanship or sportsmanship values.

Some players consider themselves 'SIM' because they don't resort to tactics they believe cheap. Players who identify themselves as 'Freestyle' or 'Tourney' players may opt to use tactics 'SIM' players feel are cheap.  It is important to note, neither group advocates or encourages cheating. These terms identify ideals of gamesmanship, not sportsmanship.  Sore losers infiltrate each group then spins poor grace into the illusion of good sportsmanship.

Commonly used football tactics seem more effective in Madden than in real football. Communities, divided over the use of these tactics, have long debated the value and ethics of A-gap blitzes and scrambling quarterbacks to name a few. Madden players have been accused of cheating whether it's true or not.  Meanwhile, players with the least gamesmanship are dissuaded from competing on the grounds that all good players cheat. It's a vicious cycle that falsely indicates that one cannot be a great Madden player without taking short cuts that exploit game programming.

Gamesmanship and sportsmanship are different in focus. Players possessing good gamesmanship strive to become better players with every outing a win or lose - by working harder. Players possessing good sportsmanship strive to accept the outcome of every outing a win or lose - by giving their best effort. Striving for one does not require sacrificing the other, possessing one quality does not mean having achieved the other.

Madden players blend sportsmanship and gamesmanship.  We create an environment where our gamesmanship make plays during the game and our sportsmanship doesn't make disparaging remarks about opponents. When our gamesmanship speaks our opponent's sportsmanship goes on display.

In Madden, there are no referees to govern gamesmanship. Some penalties get called, some don't. Without an entity to enforce all of football's rules, sometimes users cross the line and attempt to cheat. It's unavoidable. Even when Walter Payton played, he went up against players that attempted to cheat. He neither pointed the finger, lost his cool, nor compromised his ideals.

Sportsmanship never wavers. Its compass always points true.  Sportsmen play with ethics and honor as a matter of principle.  Oddly, it is only after someone crosses the line that sportsmanship gets tested.  Some of us compromise our ethical standards based on the circumstances of their opponent's play.  They falsely claim sportsmanship. Their gamesmanship may be stellar, but the willingness to throw out the rules of ethics and football depending on their opponent's actions prohibits them full claim to sportsmanship.

As gamesman, we can strive to be great at Madden while being good sports. Likewise sportsmen, can exhibit great manners while displaying our skills. Contrary to some reports, sportsmanship and gamesmanship coexist in Madden communities in the same way that Walter Payton exhibited both as a football player. In the end we benefit from knowledge that our labels of SIM, Tourney, and Freestyle Madden players merely describe our methods, not our character.

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