These days, it's tough to be taken seriously as a mainstream sport without a video game. Which is exactly why Arena Football League commissioner David Baker is so pleased with the upcoming release of EA Sports' AFL debut on the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox, Arena Football. As Baker told us at a recent EA Sports Arena Football press event, a video game means you've arrived as a sport.
"In the past, for baseball, and for the NBA, and certainly for the NFL, you had to have that network television relationship," Baker said. "But these days, in this decade, it's all about having your own videogame. It begins to teach people our rules, not just comparing it to 100-yard football, but all the nuances of Arena Football--of players that play both ways, of how you play on a 50-yard field, of how you manage the clock."
It appears like the timing couldn't be better for an Arena Football game, either. Baker certainly has the numbers to demonstrate the growth of his sport--over the last six years the Arena League, and its associated minor league Arena Football 2, has added a total of 35 new teams at a time, when many of the "major" sports have flatlined when it comes to growth (although, to be fair, several teams in both leagues have either moved or gone bust in this same time period). In addition to team growth, Baker touts the solid ratings of the AFL television deal with NBC and an attendance boost of 41 percent over the last few years.
A game based on Arena Football can doubtlessly go a long way toward opening up the sport to new fans, much in the same way hockey games helped the NHL in the early and mid-1990s. Of course, that kind of success is only attainable if the game is not only fun, but also a good representation of the sport. Odds are that someone playing Arena Football for the first time will have no idea about some of the complex substitution rules, what the difference is between a "Jack" linebacker and a "Mac" linebacker, or which receiver can go in motion before the snap. It's nice to see, then, that EA's Arena Football game seems to be filling both bills--it's a fast-paced game of football that also lays out the AFL-specific rules fairly explicitly.
Take the linebackers, for example. While only one linebacker can blitz (the Mac LB, to be specific), both LBs have to be lined up in a defensive box between the outside shoulders of the offensive lineman and no deeper than five yards off the line of scrimmage. Moving out of the box when not on the blitz will result in a penalty. Now this doesn't sound very complicated, but after years of playing college and pro football games, your initial thought when playing a linebacker is to move him all over the field. In Arena Football, an illuminated box is shown on the field before the snap, which illustrates exactly how far you can move either the Jack or Mac linebacker. Also, if you manage to draw a flag, a box will pop up explaining exactly what you did wrong to help you avoid repeating the mistake. It might seem a bit like hand-holding at first, but when it comes to educating you about the sport, it fits the bill.
If anything, the most recent build of Arena Football felt like it moved even faster than previous versions of the game. We already know that the game is going to run roughly 25 percent quicker than Madden and, thanks to the tight indoor confines and short field, that feeling is amplified when you drop back to make a pass. We spoke with John Dutton, quarterback of the Colorado Crush (and Arena Football cover athlete) about what it's like playing QB in a league where split-second decisions are an every-down reality.
"Our game is so much quicker and faster than the NFL game," Dutton said. "Even [for] me, knowing the game, you have to throw the ball on time or you're not going to complete balls and that's how it is in our league. In Madden, you can roll around, drop back 50 yards, and huck it deep and have a chance. Here, you're going to have to hit and throw it--because guys are going to hit the wall, or you're going to throw it out of bounds."
And that's a pretty fair representation of how things work in the game as well. You simply don't have a lot of time in the pocket to make sustained reads and, as a result, find yourself rarely checking your third read. On the other hand, the passing controls seem very tight--leading receivers is very easy. In Arena Football, you have the option to take control of the receiver directly and run either the prescribed route, or make up one of your own on the fly. There do seem to be some limitations, however. Your QB can be confused if you run a route full of stops and switchbacks; he will often toss the ball to the completely wrong spot. So, it's best to keep your routes as simple as possible. In fact, on average, we had more success simply running the route as designed and trying to make a play once we had the ball in our hands. Still, playing the receiver certainly mixes things up and helps the gameplay feel fresh.
While Arena Football has always been about offense first, as Dutton told us, the teams have become increasingly clever when it comes to their defensive schemes. Blitzes, disguises, and zone-packages are all used with more frequency these days, and if it hasn't exactly kept scoring down, it has at least made the job of calling the right play at the right time more difficult for a quarterback (and a head coach for that matter).
And speaking of head coaches, former AFL player and current coach of the San Jose SaberCats, Darren Arbet agrees with Jay Gruden's (another AFL coach) assertion that the teams pretty much use the same playbooks on the field. "The difference is just the terminology," Arbet said. "Everybody's playbook is similar, terminology is just different. There's only so many things you can do [on the field], so we all just do it."
While on offense, pass plays are your primary playbook weapons (and many are noted with the term "yo-yo" to indicate the wide receiver in motion) and run plays are best used for short-yardage situations. On defense, both zone- and man-coverage packages are available in the game, as well as a variety of Mac LB blitz schemes. If you're unsure of which call to make in a particular situation, you can always use the handy "ask coach" option to have a play suggested for you, as well.
If you're looking to re-create a classic AFL team (who could forget the beloved Chicago Politicians?), or simply get your creative juices flowing by making up an entirely new AFL team, Arena Football's create-a-team option is there to toy around with. As you might expect, it plays quite similarly to team-creation tools found in other EA Sports football games. Once you've got your team name and uniform colors worked out, you can choose to fill out your team with players that have a number of different skill levels--from cream puffs all the way up to iron men. You can also hold a fantasy draft and stock your roster with existing AFL players.
Arena Football is due for release in February of next year, just a few weeks after the kickoff of the 2006 AFL schedule. If the final product turns out to be as fun, hard-hitting, and as fast-paced as the real thing, EA will have a winner on its hands. We'll keep you updated on the game's progress over the coming weeks, and we'll have a full review once it hits store shelves.