Box Score: Tackling the biggest problem in online sports

Box Score is a weekly column that offers a look at sports games and the athletic side of the industry from the perspective of veteran reviewer and sports fan Richard Grisham.

The radio is abuzz with playoff predictions, and the cover of the latest sports magazine is emblazoned with burning questions: which undefeated team will win the championship, and who will be the top pick in the upcoming draft? Rival coaches are verbally assaulting each other with incendiary language so obscene it’s utterly unprintable (then hugging it out immediately afterwards), superstar players are traded every day, and franchises are relocating themselves mid-season. All the while, the league Security Council surveys the madness with glee.

The real NFL has got nothing on the 4th String Madden League. Featuring a cast of industry insiders and average Joes, it’s recognized as the best sports game community in the world – not because of supreme talent (although there’s plenty of that), but because it’s based upon two philosophies that are sorely lacking in the gaming world at large. Simply put, fair play and good humor rule the day; if you abuse glitches or money plays or just play like a tool, you’re out – and someone else immediately takes your place. Its brilliance is in its simplicity.

For too long, legitimate sports gamers have been chased out of the online arena by jerks that play to win via exploitation and take themselves oh so seriously. It’s caused famous “retirements” – notably, Bill Simmons’ buddy Gus Ramsey announced on the Sports Guy podcast that Madden 11 is his swan song because of the staggering number of online idiots – and ruined matches for people across the world. After years hosting the Sports Anomaly podcast and having countless discussions on the topic, 4th String founder (and longtime games writer) Todd Zuniga decided he’d had enough.

“The 4th String Leagues were born out of furthering the relationship with our podcast listeners beyond Twitter, and it's grown into a duolith (that's not a real word, I know) of two-league fun, brilliance, and alternate-world good cheer,” Mr. Zuniga told me over email this week. “I feel like I have 31 best friends (30 of which I've never met), who I can humorously trash-talk. It's a very special community, made more special in that anyone's welcome. Because if you play like a humpcloth, you'll get booted, and we'll find someone else out there who loves competition, but doesn't have to win to feel like a champion. I've won two playoff games in nine seasons over three Maddens, and there's no videogame experience I've cherished more.”

Bolstered by Zuniga, EGM alum Greg Ford, and Sports Anomaly co-host Mike Suszek, the 4th String leagues evolved from a small, single online franchise in Madden 10 to a multi-league, wait-listed community. A league-specific podcast, Twitter account, weekly Vegas lines, and “4thSL Illustrated” mock magazine rife with in-jokes engage everyone. Passionate league-wide emails on dozens of topics are common, ranging from permanently booting players that don’t “get it” to prepping for the draft and infamous game write-ups laced with eye-bulging profanity. Oh, the profanity.

The 4th String leagues now boast a veritable who’s who of participants, including Garnett Lee of Weekend Confirmed, Kat Bailey of GamePro, and Mike Phillips of The Fanboys and Player One Podcast. I was lucky enough to nab a hotly contested 4th String Madden franchise a couple of virtual seasons back, after numerous frustrating attempts in other leagues that ultimately fizzled out. I realized quickly how different 4th String was, as I suffered through an 0-16 campaign in my first full season. Instead of an inbox full of taunts, I found encouraging emails loaded with tips. Over time, I honed my skills and even won a division title, thanks in large degree to help from key community members.

“Without a doubt, the leagues we’ve built have been the best online experience I’ve ever had,” says Mr. Suszek. “It's not the same kind of competitive vibe you get out of shooters, or playing random folks. The league is a community, where some of my favorite games have been narrow losses. You'd think people that are nuts about sports would be jerks, as the stereotype goes. In fact, I've found that to be the opposite.”

At a time when the online gaming community at large is suffering from an immense amount of anger, cheesiness, and exploitation, 4th String is an oasis of fair play and levity. If only the real NFL were so interesting.

Richard Grisham has been obesessed with sports and video games since childhood, when he'd routinely create and track MicroLeague Baseball seasons on paper. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and four-year old son, who he'll soon be training to be an NFL placekicker. As a freelance journalist and writer, his work has appeared in GamesRadar, NGamer, and 1UP.