Madden NFL - title

I don't think I've ever played a football game that feels like it truly nails special teams play. Madden has been especially bad at this phase of football for a very long time, and has largely neglected it year-in and year-out. Every now and then, a release comes out that focuses on special teams, but the upgrade is never as comprehensive as it should be. I was considering making a video about all of special teams, but that's too big a topic to tackle in a single video, so I decided that it would be best to make shorter videos that each focus on specific aspects of special teams play.

While drafting the script for my previous video about pass blocking and pass rushing, I had started thinking about issues with blocking and rushing in special teams, and thought I'd do a video about one specific specialist position that has been a personal crusade of mine for quite a few years now. I'll surely discuss more of Madden's special teams failings in future videos. But for today, I want to talk about how Madden completely fails to do justice to an oft-overlooked and under-appreciated specialist position: the longsnapper.

The full video on YouTube contains additional commentary and examples.

I'm looking at this specific position for two reasons:

  1. I played on special teams in high school and worked alongside our longsnapper. He spent extra time before and after practices honing that skill.
  2. And the 2nd reason I'm covering this topic is: unlike other highly specialized positions like holder and kickoff coverage gunners, Madden actually includes Longsnappers as a position in the depth chart, but has never included any mechanics or rules that actually make the longsnapper a meaningful position on your team, or which differentiate who is a good longsnapper versus who is not.

As for my high school teammates on special teams: there were several of us who never would have seen playing time if not for our special teams duties. Instead of resigning ourselves to a life on the bench, as some other reserves had done, we carved out niches for ourselves, so that we could see more playing time. We worked hard to earn our positions, and the coaches noticed the hard work (especially if it was extra-curricular in nature), and they rewarded us with extra rotational reps on both offense and defense in relief of tired starters. My experience has lead me to respect special teamers, probably much more than most football fans.

Some of us reserve players would have never seen playing time if not for our specialist roles.

A Knee-Jerk Reaction

I remember proposing a "Longsnapping" rating on a YouTube comment or Madden forum like 6 or 7 years ago, and received absolutely vitriolic responses that largely boiled down to "having the outcome of a game decided by a random fluke like a botched snap would be horrible game design." It's a sentiment that does makes a certain degree of sense. Determining the outcome of a match by a die roll does seem like it would be bad video game design -- at least, outside of digital craps.

But hold on a minute. Is it really bad game design...?

Running backs have a rating that determines their likeliness to fumble. Quarterbacks have several ratings that determine the accuracy of passes. Receivers have several ratings that determine their likelihood to catch a pass. Linemen have ratings that determine if they whif on a block. Defenders have ratings that determine the likelihood of missing tackles. DBs have ratings that determine whether they blow a coverage. Kickers have ratings that determine if they miss a kick. Every player has ratings that determine if they get injured on any given play. All of these ratings can affect the outcome of a play or an entire game based on a random die roll. Heck, even coaches have ratings that determine how much players develop in the offseason or how likely free agents are to sign a contract. Ratings semi-randomly deciding the outcomes of games or entire seasons is apparently OK for literally every other position both on and off the field, but somehow having a rating that determines if a snap or special teams hold is botched is a bridge too far?!

Nobody complains about other positions having ratings that can randomly decide a game.

To be fair to the critics: if you're playing a 5 or 6-minute quarter pick-up game online or in Ultimate Team, and each team is only getting between 3 and 5 possessions the entire game, it does make sense that you wouldn't want your one and only attempt at a punt or field goal to go awry because of a fluke like a botched snap. In such a shortened game, it would swing the game wildly in one direction or the other, with little-to-no time or opportunity for a team to overcome such an unfortunate outcome. (I keep saying, every installment in this series is probably going to refer back to that first essay about quarter length.)

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Madden NFL - title

In the previous essay in this series about how Madden fails to simulate football, I discussed how QBs in real football go through their progressions to find open receivers to throw to. And then the second half pulled a bit of a bait-and-switch and turned into a pitch for the return of the QB Vision mechanic, or something analogous. Surprise!

I also briefly talked about how the goal of the defense is to cover the primary receiving threats long enough for the pass rush to disrupt the play. In the best of cases, the defense can cover the receivers long enough to sack the quarterback, or force him to make a bad throw into coverage that is intercepted. But sacks and interceptions aren't really the goal of the defense. The defense will, of course, be happy to take them when they happen, but no defensive play is really designed to force a sack or an interception.

The full video on YouTube contains additional commentary and examples.

Truth is that a lot of relatively mundane outcomes can be complete successes for the defense. Forcing the QB to throw before he can make his reads and set his feet so that he throws an inaccurate ball is a success. That is true whether the QB deliberately throws the ball into the sixth row of the stands, or if his rush to release the ball puts it inches out of reach of the receiver's outstretched fingertips, or if his inability to set his feet results in a weak, wobbly ball that bounces harmlessly at the receiver's feet. Or maybe the defense tips the pass or knocks it down such that the play gains no yards. All of those outcomes represent unqualified defensive success.

Defenses don't need sacks or turnovers to "win" a series.

If a defense can do this for three consecutive plays and force the offense to punt, then the defense did it's job, even if it isn't flashy, doesn't show up in a Chris Berman highlight reel, and doesn't light up a stat board. Heck, even forcing a check down that is completed for positive yards, but which does not result in a first down is still a success for the defense! Especially if it happens on 3rd or 4th down.

Of course, the defender who wants to pad his stats with a sack or interception, and get a big payday next time contract negotiations come along, might disagree.

EA's Madden video games apparently disagree as well. Since the pace of play in Madden is sped up to facilitate the shortened length of quarters, gaining yards and making first downs is really easy for the offense, but yet sacks are paradoxically too common.

Get used to hearing statements like that. Quarter length and game pacing was the first essay of the series for a reason! -- because it really is so fundamental to almost everything that is wrong with Madden. I would not be surprised if every single essay of this series will refer back to that first episode at least once or twice!

For much of Madden's history, pass rushers either have no impact on the play (because the QB can see the entire field and can hit any receiver on the field with the press of a button), or the pass rush downs the quarterback for a seven yard loss on a sack. Sometimes two or three times in a row if the game's scripting or an X-Factor ability decides that the defense should win this particular possession.

Playing Madden on 15-minute quarters, it's not uncommon to see each team pile up 5, 6, or 7 sacks by the end of the game. For reference, good NFL defenses usually average 2 or 3 sacks per game. You can adjust the difficulty level or the "Pass Blocking" A.I. sliders to reduce the frequency of sacks, but then this leads to the opposite problem of the pass rush being almost completely irrelevant, and QBs having the opportunity to complete more deep shots that inflates completion percentages, passing yards, and final scores.

On 15-minute quarters, it is not uncommon to see each defense record 5 or more sacks.
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Madden NFL - title

The third (and presumably final) update for Madden 21's long-neglected franchise mode is finally live. Madden franchise players finally have the full Madden 21 franchise mode to play with -- in March ... a full month after the SuperBowl and the end of the NFL season. Obviously, this is too little, and too late for me to bother changing my review of Madden 21 or to change my mind about my long-standing frustration with the lack of attention that EA is paying to Madden's franchise mode.

This update will supplement some of the superficial changes made in the earlier updates with some slightly more substantive upgrades. On the superficial end of the spectrum, it adds a league history that tracks SuperBowl champions, seasonal awards, and other information from year-to-year. On the more substantive end of the spectrum, it also makes some long-overdue revisions to CPU teams' trade logic. CPU teams will supposedly be better at evaluating trade proposals, will value elite offensive linemen more highly, and can no longer be tricked into thinking that a reserve player is a starting-caliber talent simply by moving the player up on your depth chart.

Good thing I had already completed my trades for Quentin Nelson and Deshaun Watson to the Bears before this update went live; otherwise, I might not have been able to get either player -- let alone both. Not that it matters, I probably won't be putting much more time into Madden 21. I'll likely have to play a few more games to capture footage for the next installment(s) of my "How Madden Fails To Simulate Football" video series.

The only reason I would continue playing Madden 21 would be to capture footage
for my "How Madden Fails To Simulate Football" video series.

A good sign for the future of Franchise?

Madden's current executive producer, Seann Graddy went on YouTube to prior to the patch releasing to sing its praises as part of EA's continuing effort to provide lip service to Franchise players. In this video, he also gave Franchise players a sneak peak at what we can expect in next year's game. On Graddy's computer screen in the background, we can see a "Staff Management" screen showing the Chicago Bears' head coach, Matt Nagy, along with an offensive coordinator named Sam Norris, a defensive coordinator named Bill Lando, and a fourth slot that simply says "player personnel". This means that players should expect to see offensive and defensive coordinators return in Madden 22 -- something that has been sorely missing from the game since (I think) Madden 13.

EA's preview of the 3rd Franchise update for Madden 21 gives clues about what will be in Madden 22.

I don't recognize the names Sam Norris or Bill Lando. The Bears' current offensive and defensive coordinators are Bill Lazor and Sean Desai (respectively). Sam Norris and Bill Lando were not the names of previous coordinators either. I looked both names up on Google, and didn't find any results for Chicago Bears coaches. These are either place-holder names for a feature that is still a work-in-progress, or it is evidence that Madden 22 will not have real-life coordinator names.

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Madden NFL 21 - title

In the past 2 years, EA has added 2 new arcade modes (Superstar KO, and now The Yard), on top of the existing [pay-to-win] arcade mode that has been in the game for a decade (Ultimate Team), and they've experimented with 2 new single-player career modes, but they refuse to make any substantial upgrades or improvements to the core Franchise mode. And they have the nerve to call this a "simulation" football game? And no, I do not consider Face of the Franchise to be a "Franchise Mode", no matter how EA may want to brand it.

Look, if Madden already had a deep, robust, and engaging Franchise Mode on par with the breadth and quality of the mode from 10-20 years ago, then I'd be perfectly fine with the team branching out and experimenting with new game modes. If the Franchise Mode were already so complete and robust that both EA's devs and the fan community were struggling to think of things to add or change, then all these other modes would feel more warranted. But that isn't the case. Franchise mode has been a half-baked, bug-riddled, experience since at least Madden 13. And the wishlists from consumers have plenty of ideas for EA to implement, ranging from hiring coordinators and assistant coaches, to off-season training camps, to position battles, to contract restructuring, to a more meaningful preseason and in-season scouting, and even relatively mundane and simple things like a weather forecast or a U.I. that shows us our player and team goals when we're actually in a match. Year after year, EA and Tiburon tell us that they "hear us" and are committed to improving Franchise Mode. But year after year, we get a "new feature" list that reads like an October patch log for last year's game.

Tiburon did not add anything to Franchise mode, but we got a whole other arcade mode.

In this regard, Madden 21 is the worst offender yet, because there is absolutely nothing new in the Franchise mode at the game's launch. We had to wait until October before EA even acknowledged that Franchise Mode exists in Madden 21, and for them to promise updates.

To be fair, The Yard isn't all that bad

Even though I'm frustrated to see yet another arcade mode that feels nothing like actual football (to the total exclusion of any Franchise mode updates), I have to admit that I'm more likely to play (and maybe even enjoy) The Yard more than Ultimate Team. The Yard is basically a modernized, but less-developed, version of EA's old NFL Street games. Despite still being a micro-transaction-fueled online-multiplayer-focused arcade mode, the fact that it is not built on a pay-to-win gambling architecture makes The Yard feel less cynically manipulative. It feels less like a brazen, anti-consumer scam, and more like a genuine attempt to make a fun game first, then stick an optional micro-transaction economy on top of it. It's still bad, and cynical, and exploitative (especially in the wake of Star Wars Squadrons, which was also published by EA, but had no micro-transactions at all), but it's less bad, less cynical, and less exploitative than the efforts EA has made in the past.

Can someone please double-check my math? Does this one uniform really cost $20?!

That being said, the cost of these purely cosmetic accessories is downright absurd. EA seems to think that a virtual helmet is somehow worth twenty dollars! Did somebody on the U.I. team fuck up and accidentally shift a decimal two places for these micro-transaction costs? 20 cents? Maybe. But 20 dollars? Are you fucking kidding me, EA?! $20 is what I expect to pay for an entire expansion pack, not for a single cosmetic novelty item.

The cynic in me believes that this exorbitant cost is a deliberate attempt by EA at sabotaging their own micro-transaction store. Maybe they think that if they jack up the prices ridiculously high for these cosmetics, nobody will be willing to pay for them. They could then go back to focusing on gambling and pay-to-win loot boxes and blame the consumers, "well we offered cosmetic-only micro-transactions, but you didn't want to buy them. Clearly the market prefers randomized 'surprise mechanics'."

I lost a game by 1 point because the scoreboard became unreadable,
and I didn't know if I should go for 1, 2, or 3 pt conversion.

My first impressions of The Yard were further hampered by several significant bugs. The most egregious was several instances in which the scoreboard overlay graphics became corrupted, and I couldn't read the score. With the weird scoring rules of The Yard, it's much harder to remember and track the current score in my head. In one of these occurrences, I scored a touchdown in my final drive, but was unsure of whether to go for 1, 2, or 3 because I couldn't remember exactly how far I was down. I went for 3 and failed to convert, only to lose by 1.

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Madden NFL - title

I had previously written about how the Madden NFL video game series from Electronic Arts has failed to simulate football by using a shortened quarter length to keep games around 30 minutes long. These shortened games lead to a rushed pace of play, fundamentally change the strategy of football, and also affect other aspects of balance and game design that are not easily fixed by simply setting the game to 15-minute quarters.

This time, I'm going to move away from the rules of the game, and look at more specific game mechanics that fail to simulate how real football players actually play football. This installment, and the next, will look at how real NFL quarterbacks make reads and go through progressions, and then at how defensive pressure packages are used to disrupt those reads and progressions to force the quarterback to make bad decisions. Then we'll look at how Madden completely fails to model these aspects of football, and the various ways that EA and Tiburon have tried to fix or cover up these problems over the years. Some have worked; others have been little more than band-aid solutions.

See this blog in video essay format on my YouTube channel!

How Madden succeeds at simulating football: pre-snap reads

Let's start with some good faith towards EA and Madden and talk about the things that the game actually does get fairly right: pre-snap reads. As a QB in Madden, you'll be looking at whether the middle of the field is open or closed before the snap, and this will give you a reasonably accurate idea of whether the route concept that you called will be successful. If you call a cover 2-beating post or dagger concept, but the defense comes out in a Cover-3 look, with a safety in the middle third, then you will be well-served to either adjust the routes using hot routes, audible out of the play entirely, or call a timeout to regroup and come up with another play.

Madden players can make sure
that a blitzing Mike LB is blocked.

Over the past few years, Madden has also gradually introduced concepts such as reading the Mike linebacker. This determines who the blockers will prioritize blocking, which can be important if the defense sends multiple blitzers. Identifying the most dangerous blitzer as the "Mike" ensures that someone on your offensive line will try to block him. Usually, this will be the inside-most blitzer (the one lined up closest to the center). You can also slide pass protection left or right to deal with an overload blitz, and can also assign a double team in order to neutralize a particularly dangerous pass rusher.

To Madden's credit, it gets most of this stuff right. Hopefully all the mechanics that I just mentioned are still in the game by the time you're reading this, and they haven't been stripped out by Tiburon in order to make room for some new gimmicky feature...

A Madden user can make many of the same reads that a real NFL quarterback would. The game will even highlight the key reads before the snap on certain plays to remind the user how to execute the selected play. Good stuff. I don't have many complaints here. Defenses can even disguise coverages, can fake blitzes, and use other similar tactics to try to fool the human user and force a bad read. Again, good stuff. The problems begin when a CPU QB steps on the field, and only get worse when the ball is snapped.

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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