27/09/2022

Few names in the world of video games can simultaneously conjure up intense feelings of joy, anger, and indifference quite like Madden. Born in the era when video games were first starting to come into their own as an art form and pillar of popular culture, the Madden NFL series has been around longer than many folks who religiously play the game each season. It carries the exclusive NFL license and is played by real NFL stars, celebrities, and about everyone in between. 

Madden NFL gets lots of love in popular culture and continues to rake in profit for publisher EA, but if you were to ask die hard video game football geeks what they think of the product itself, you’re likely to get some negative responses. Before annual sports game releases with nearly nonexistent updates became a trope, Madden NFL was a pioneer in the field. 

When EA secured the right to be the sole producer of NFL-licensed games, many players bemoaned the loss of competition and what exclusivity could mean for the franchise. Toss in an intense dedication to selling trading card packs via microtransactions and a brutal annual release schedule and you have a recipe for disaster. Much like the American economy, Madden is raking in profits like never before, even if everything feels so wrong. What could be done to correct the course the series has been on for so long and is a comeback even possible?

While EA has been touting the release of its next-gen Madden NFL game on PS5 and Xbox Series S|X, returning players will have noticed that the game looks and plays just like it did the last four or five seasons. A generational jump would have been a great time to start from scratch, but such a prospect is much riskier for the publisher. Next-gen console sales have dragged behind their potential due to supply issues and more money can be made by maintaining the status quo of selling card packs for Ultimate Team. The chances that EA and Tiburon will make real changes to Madden this console generation are probably dead (and we don’t even know if the “next-gen” version will ever appear on PCs).

If we choose to engage in hypotheticals and assume Madden NFL would be getting a rebuild, here’s what I would like to see as a longtime player who no longer feels a reason to play the newest versions of the game. The foundation for a believable sports simulation is how virtual humans interact with their environment and each other. As it stands now, Madden NFL has been using the same canned animation system going back to the PlayStation 2 days and despite all the marketing claims and promises each year, it never feels better or more lifelike.

Hardcore video game football nerds may remember a game back in 2010 by the name of Backbreaker. It was developed by NaturalMotion, the creators of the Euphoria physics system made famous in Grand Theft Auto 4, Red Dead Redemption, and other Rockstar open-world hits. While NaturalMotion was later acquired by Take-Two, it produced a decidedly odd American football game to showcase the power of its physics middleware.

While it lacked any license for real teams and players, featured a soccer-style relegation system for poor teams, and was extremely short on content, Backbreaker featured a version of cyber football that was unlike anything we’ve seen before or since. Player weight, momentum, and size actually mattered. Players couldn’t warp through each other, they didn’t slide over the turf like ice, and their momentum allowed them to slide or roll when tackled. 

It really felt like you could see anything happen with each snap because of the dynamic nature of the physics system. Ultimately, the game failed for the reasons listed above and because it needed more time and polish to compete with a juggernaut like Madden. Still, for a new studio unfamiliar with the sport on their first try with limited time and funds, it was inspiring. Madden NFL needs real, physics-based gameplay and character interactions to help play feel more lifelike and to finally escape the same old animations and tackles from yesteryear.

Older players may also remember ESPN NFL 2K5. Back when any publisher could apply for an NFL license, Sega and Visual Concepts made a serious run at Madden’s throne and arguably delivered the finest digital football simulation ever. It launched with a $20 price tag and turned lots of heads. Enough so that EA and the NFL announced its exclusive partnership, ending the NFL 2K franchise. Sadly, EA also failed to learn anything from its competition, because ESPN NFL 2K5 had the best presentation of any sports videogame for more than a decade after it first landed (and Madden 22 is still hundreds of miles short in that department).

While the focus should be on the field itself, football also happens between live plays. Players regroup, substitutions are made, coaches interact, and much more. An NFL sideline is a busy and interesting place, except in Madden games. ESPN NFL 2K5 had loads of short cutscenes that mimicked real-life broadcasts, including shots of fans tailgating, players angrily abusing equipment after turnovers, and cheerleaders hyping up the crowd. In Madden, we get the same scenes year after year and still no halftime show with highlights and nothing generated by the game to help build immersion in modes like Franchise. When you play Madden, you never feel like the focus is immersing you in the game of NFL football.

Speaking of Franchise Mode, one of the easiest steps that could be taken to improve Madden should be a focus on the long-running management experience. The Madden series has moved on to more powerful consoles every few years, but the Franchise experience gets less involved and more of an afterthought with each release. It still lacks basic feature parity of the Madden games from 2004. Each season, EA says Franchise Mode has gotten attention, but it’s always lip service because they haven’t found a way to shoehorn card packs into it (yet). I’m not asking for the world here, just offer us something more rewarding than what we got on PS2.

I could go on listing all the things that could make Madden more fun and appealing to longtime players and football geeks, but it would be pointless. It’s better to start simple and focus on the big foundational pillars. If EA and the teams at Tiburon can put a focus on a new physics-based gameplay engine, incorporate a dynamic presentation system that leverages broadcast-quality graphics and clips, and give some love to the statistical foundation and feature set of Franchise Mode, there can be reason for hope. A new era of Madden NFL is there for the taking. Do right by the old ball coach and make the game something that can inspire a generation of folks to fall in love with football.