The central character in of one of the year’s most-anticipated video game releases is an Army veteran and aspiring football star — albeit a fictional, computer-generated one.
Gamers will guide Devin Wade, the protagonist in the first-ever “story mode” for EA Sports’ Madden football franchise, on his quest to play quarterback in the NFL. Wade’s story begins in typical fashion as a high-profile recruit to the University of Texas, but he ends up stepping away from the game for several years, donning an Army uniform instead.
It’s part of a gameplay path created by Mike Young, creative director at EA Sports and creator of “Longshot,” the story mode for “Madden NFL 18.” The character doesn’t join up out of a sudden burst of patriotism: Young said service offered an escape.
“Part of the story with ‘Longshot’ was that this [time in the Army] was part of Devin’s way to get away. To hide,” Young said. In one scene with former real-life NFL coach and executive (and current sports-radio host) Pat Kirwan, the Wade character — played by JR Lemon — “owns up to the fact that [patriotism] wasn’t really his motivation.”
The character receives words of encouragement from an Army captain, pushing him not to give up on his football dreams. The captain’s played by a former soldier who’s familiar with the concept.
‘I SWEAR IT’S JUST A CONCIDENCE’
The fictional Wade played at Texas and then joined the Army before seeking an NFL career. Nate Boyer, a former Army Special Forces soldier, played at Texas while in service, rejoining the Longhorns for training camp after deploying to Afghanistan. The long snapper signed a free-agent contract with the Seahawks in 2015 but was cut prior to the regular season.
An ESPN SportsCenter feature on Boyer that year came with the headline “The Long Shot.”
“I was in four years of development on ‘Longshot’ and somebody runs into my office and says, ‘Somebody’s already making something called ‘The Longshot!’ It’s on ESPN!’ Young recalled. “And they have almost no information, and I’m like, ‘I really don’t want to change the title. …’”
After getting the details, Young ended up reaching out to Boyer.
“He’s like, ‘I swear it’s just a coincidence, but we’re kind of writing a somewhat similar script for this Madden video game, a story mode for the first time ever, and there’s a lot of similarities with your life and this Devin Wade character,’” Boyer said. “’I’d love to chat with you about it sometime and potentially bring you on as a consultant.’”
A few months later, Boyer got the call. Along with providing some guidance on the military aspects of the show, Boyer auditioned for and landed the role of the Army officer who offers Wade advice: Boyer said it was set to be a colonel, he lobbied for master sergeant, and they settled on captain.
“It was all the motion-capture stuff, wearing those tight leotards with the little balls all over them, little dots on your face,” Boyer said. “And then you’ve got this helmet with a little camera that’s hooked outside of your helmet, right in front of your face, looking back at you. You can see your face. And through all that, you have to interact with people, deliver your lines, kind of imagine this whole world around you, when it’s just green screens.”
Boyer’s first scene included dialogue with NFL legend Dan Marino, he said. And Marino’s not even the highest-profile actor in the production — Mahershala Ali, who earned a best supporting actor Oscar for his role in “Moonlight,” plays Wade’s father.
It’s an early entry on Boyer’s acting resume, which includes a small role in the upcoming “Horse Soldiers,” a drama about the first Special Forces team deployed to Afghanistan, and another in “Den of Thieves,” a bank-heist movie due out next year starring Gerard Butler and Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson.
“I sort of play that mentor for him, for Devin,” Boyer said of his part in the game. “He still has his dream. Go follow it. … That’s sort of what I did.
“I had those thoughts and doubts. Am I quitting on the military, you know? I had those insecurities. I felt at times that I didn’t know if this was the right thing, to go back and play a game. But it was something that I loved. It was a passion that I had and a dream that I had. And I just felt like I didn’t want to live with any regret.”
GETTING IT RIGHT
Along with Boyer, the production sought direct input from the Army to ensure the military details of the story mode remained as true-to-life as possible, Young said. He also received guidance from crew members and others with military backgrounds.
“It’s cool when you see that passion,” Young said. “I’m a photographer, I have been an NFL photographer, and one thing you’d always see in movies, it’s like, ‘There’s no way they could get that picture with that lens on,’ or, ‘A real photographer wouldn’t hold a camera that way.’ So I know everyone wants their aspect to be done right. Because otherwise it’s insulting.
“You’d be surprised at the number of details that matter to people. I guess I shouldn’t have been, because I work in making a simulation football game. The stuff we get for every little detail … that’s kind of what our job is.”
The story mode unlocks features that can be used in other aspects of the game and comes with “multiple endings,” Young said. Wade’s pro career — and that of his friend and wide receiver Colt Cruise, who Young describes as a “poor man’s Danny Amendola.” — will take different shapes depending on a gamer’s decisions and performances during pre-draft workouts.
More than 50 animators worldwide contributed to the project, Young said. The 29-year-old Madden franchise has never included a story mode, and “Longshot” has been a part of the promotional push for this year’s Tom Brady-covered version, which goes live Aug. 25 (some players are eligible for early access as of Thursday).
Boyer’s no stranger to video-game football, dating back to “John Elway’s Quarterback” on the original Nintendo Entertainment System. He called his part in the process “surreal” and gave a frank assessment of his motion-cap acting chops.
“It was hard, man. I’m not going to lie,” he said. “I hope it turns out OK. I hope I didn’t totally butcher it.”