Fans play Madden in the concourse during Baltimore Ravens training camp at M&T Bank Stadium on July 31, 2021, in Baltimore.

Fans play Madden in the concourse during Baltimore Ravens training camp at M&T Bank Stadium on July 31, 2021, in Baltimore.
Photo: Scott Taetsch (Getty Images)

Madden developers must be shitting their britches right now. Despite being the third-best-selling game of 2022 in the U.S., the Madden developers are finally doing something they’ve never done before — putting effort into their product.

I’ve long been a Madden hater. I can’t remember the last time I played an objectively good Madden game. 2008? 2004? I didn’t despise Madden 18 or Madden 20. I don’t know. Regardless, the Madden franchise has reached its precipice. Now, we see if it will fall.

I’ll give Madden props though. The first step toward fixing a problem is realizing you have a problem, and the team over at Electronic Arts has figured that out. The game is broken. It’s not fun, it doesn’t work on a technical level, and it’s not a very good simulation-style game, but it’s the only NFL game so people will consistently eat it up. The admittance of fault gives me some hope for Madden’s future. Now the question is “What changes will Madden make in order to better themselves?”

The answer is more complicated than you might realize. This feels like when a metalcore band promises to release its “heaviest album yet” or only for it to be butt rock. Obviously, listening to the community is an important part, but it goes deeper than that. Madden has been so bad for so long now that fans of the series just want a lot of material to return. I’m not saying the return of things like minicamp minigames, the “Tony Bruno” radio show, Create-A-Team/Stadium, and assistant coaches wouldn’t be appreciated — I’d love it if some of these returned; they should’ve never been removed in the first place — but the disappearance of those features have fans clamoring over the wrong aspects of the game and have overshadowed Madden’s greatest flaw — the game is meant to be abused.

Running only plays that work

Think of the best Madden players you know. Do any of them run an actual offense or defense, or do they run a small handful of plays that they know will work? Every year, the game becomes less of “two players diagnosing their opponent’s tendencies” and more of “what are the best plays to get huge gains every time?” On offense, these are like five or six plays that, after a few motions and hot route tweaks, will always have a person downfield for a big gain. The AI on defense can’t comprehend all of these moves and every year, players figure out how to convince the AI that they don’t have to cover a specific receiver. That leaves somebody on a streak wide open, and players can do this consistently. When they see it works, they just run that play over and over and over and over until the opposing player figures out how to stop it, rather than having the defense’s AI pick up on the fact that they’re consistently running that play.

This prevents high-level players from running zone coverage on defense almost entirely, since zones are easier to manipulate than man coverage. However, there lies another problem. How do you beat man coverage on crossing routes? You blitz the quarterback. This defensive meta has created a paradigm of micro-blitzing and defensive manipulation of the offensive line to consistently get to the quarterback in little to no time. The offensive line should realize that out of certain defensive packages, specific blitzes often get run, certain people tend to sack the quarterback. They should adjust.

On offense, I shouldn’t have to max-protect every play in order to get a throw off. On defense, once I give up a big play, my players should realize that play and adjust. You’d think that Madden’s awareness statistic would encompass such attributes on both sides of the ball, but it doesn’t.

Now, if you’re going to defend running very few plays by saying “Well why would I run a play that doesn’t work that often?” That’s a decent counterargument. To that, I say, “Madden, give players the option to design their own plays.” NFL video games have enabled this feature in the past. The NFL Head Coach franchise was famous for letting players run whatever wacky nonsense their heart desired. That game was from 2008. It’s been 15 years. I know Madden could do this if they wanted to. I’m getting off point though.

How to solve awareness issues

So, what are some solutions to these awareness issues? For one, limiting pre-snap options would be a good start. Some quarterbacks should be allowed to make whatever changes they want at the line as we’ve become accustomed to — Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes — but most quarterbacks don’t have the reputation to move everyone around willy-nilly and change their coach’s/coordinator’s plays up entirely. You think Zach Wilson can just draw up whatever play he wants after getting to the line of scrimmage? No. He’d get excommunicated if he tried something like that. If you’re going to market yourself as a simulation-style NFL game, then make it so. There should be some audible options, but not to the extent that Madden has allowed. This change would also make the quarterback position all the more important. When drafting a franchise, do you draft a quarterback early in order to get someone who can let you run whatever offense you want immediately, or do you take the risk on a younger quarterback and hope you can develop him into someone like that?

I’ve already touched on defensive awareness a little bit, but let me go a little deeper. In an online franchise mode, scouting your opponent could be a really pivotal part of defeating them. The game already keeps track of how often players run plays from certain formations, but in the real world, that data would be available to everyone. If my opponent only runs one or two plays out of the pistol, I should get that information handed to me before I play them. If I knew what plays were their go-to’s, I could go into practice mode and learn how to counter them. This would incentivize diversifying your offense, and punish running the same glitch plays repeatedly. Access to how much of your opponents’ playbook you get could be determined by how much you invest in your franchise’s coaching staff, film study, or scouting department. Easy money. Madden does already do this to an extent, but not nearly as in-depth as it should. However, even if Madden revamped this feature to provide detailed accounts of my opponent’s tendencies, that would bring up another issue.

When playing someone online, after every play, the game shows you what they just ran…but it doesn’t really. Let me explain. The game shows you *air quotes* “the base play” they ran, but doesn’t show you all the adjustments they made at the line. While the play might start as curl flats in single back with two tight ends, with just a few pre-snap adjustments, the wannabe Peyton Manning on the opposing sideline can make those curls turn into streaks, slants, or — when certain plays have superstar abilities — corners and posts, with four people on one side of the line of scrimmage. Does the game show you those new routes or the new formation they audibled into? No. It just says “Yeah, they ran curl flats.” Well, if that’s the case, how did I just get burned on a 63-yard touchdown where every receiver ran a deep crossing route?! Show me what beat me, so I can learn and adjust!

Those are my biggest problems with the gameplay. I’d like to see those fixed, but I understand that those abusable systems are ingrained into the Madden experience, and I doubt those problems could be mended within a year. Here are some other issues I’d like to see fixed though.

X-Factors run rampant

At the start of each season of franchise mode, there are about 50 X-Factors in the league. In Madden 23, there were 51. Whatever number it is at the start of the franchise should never be exceeded. The number should be allowed to decrease, but it should never exceed its original point. I’ve noticed that once a player gains X-Factor, they cannot lose it. That’s bullshit.

The same players who were X-Factors in Madden 20 aren’t all X-Factors in Madden 23. That’s how it should be. Players should lose development and abilities based on a variety of factors: Scheme, age, overall (nobody under an 85 overall should have X-Factor), and performance. That’s not how the game works though. I constantly abuse this system. Once I develop a player to X-Factor development, they ride my bench for the rest of the season only coming out for really big games. They can’t lose their development traits, so why put any more time into developing them? They immediately get replaced by other players who I can develop. That’s stupid. If I bench an X-Factor for multiple weeks in a row, he should either lose that development to encourage me to play my best players or get so disgruntled that he sits out and/or requests a trade. It should also affect his performance on the field.

Furthermore, as a player gets older and starts declining, they should lose their development. While superstar and star attributes can be knocked off players once they fall below certain overalls, X-Factor attributes are not treated the same way. In Madden 20, I was obsessed with Bobby Wagner’s “Enforcer” ability. It basically made every Wagner tackle super powerful and made forcing fumbles incredibly easy. Eventually, as he got older, he lost that ability, and he became of no use to me. He had regressed from a 99 overall to a 76 with zero special abilities…he was still an X-Factor. Just no.

At the start of every new season, the number of X-Factors, superstars, and stars should be exactly the same as it was at the start of the year before. For every person who improves their development, somebody must lose that moniker. That’s the circle of life. It happens in the NFL. Make it happen in Madden.

Cosmetics

All other issues I have with Madden are cosmetic. Bring back mascots and assistant coaches, and for goodness’ sake, give EVERY player a realistic character model. Mac Jones doesn’t look like a creepy uncle.

Austin Ekeler doesn’t look like a fifth grader with a weirdly smooth head.

Actually put some time into making these incredible athletes look like their real-life likenesses.

I hate when I see fake players on my sidelines all doing the same animation after a play ends. I built that roster. Show me the guys I have! Customization should go way more in-depth when I’m creating a coach or player for franchise mode. Easy, basic stuff.

Above all else though, make sure the game works. I’m not even talking about the franchise mode debacle that happened over Christmas. That’s obviously an irreparable wound, but I’m tired of seeing TikToks where players juggle the football 40 yards in midair just for it to fall incomplete. I’m tired of seeing highlights where the ball just magically appears at the fifty-yard line for no reason. I’m tired of seeing clips where a player gets tackled only for them to get back up and keep running after going through their end-of-play animation. That is unacceptable. It’s okay if it happens occasionally, but every Madden player I know can think of multiple instances where the game just didn’t work. If it happens once, shame on you. If it happens 45 times, shame on me for buying that shitty game every year. You know what I mean?

The quickest way to improve

Madden is not irredeemable. While I believe the quickest way to improve the game would be nulling EA’s exclusivity deal, that’s unfortunately not going to happen any time soon. There are redeeming factors about the core gameplay, but there are so many issues that need to be fixed before I’m ready to call this a polished product.

In all likelihood though, EA won’t address any gameplay issues. That’s what worries me. Sure, they’ll probably bring back certain features from past games, make certain animations look smoother, and maybe even give us the option to play against all-time teams. However, that doesn’t solve the core issues. It may satiate fans for the time being, but those additions would only mask the underlying problems that will eventually come back up. Then, the cycle begins anew. I don’t want that. Fans don’t want that. EA definitely doesn’t want that. So, in order to prevent that from happening, you have to give me a little something. Show me that you’re willing to make some of the big changes I’ve mentioned above. I don’t care about features or cosmetics or game modes nearly as much as I care about simulation-style, realistic football. That’s what people want most of all…oh, and the ability to play with friends cross-platform. That’s a super obvious one as well.



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