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

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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This series of blog post will also presented as a video essay on YouTube.

My first foray into long-form video analysis was a cathartic, hour-long, breakdown of how EA and Tiburon's design philosophy causes its Madden NFL video game series to feel disappointing and stagnant. That video was mostly about how EA's insistance on releasing the game annually forces them to come up with gimmicky features that they can plaster on the back of the box and on marketing material to try to re-sell the game every year, while neglecting the core problems and bugs that are the real thing holding the game back.

The fact that Ultimate Team is the biggest money-maker, and the impetus of the game's design efforts certainly doesn't help. You'd think that wanting to have a competitive, e-sport-level product would lead to the developers (and the competitive players) emphasizing and demanding solid, robust gameplay. Apparently not.

I will discuss how and why things are done in real football.

I'm starting up a new series of blog posts and video essays dissecting the failures of the Madden NFL video games' ability to simulate the sport of football. I'll start by talking about how and why something is done in real football (with an emphasis on NFL football). Then I'll dissect the ways in which modern Madden games (that is any Madden since 2008) completely fails to model that respective aspect of football. If relevant, I'll even address the silly ways that EA and Tiburon have tried to cover up the problems with band-aid solutions. Lastly, I'll even propose my own suggestions for how EA could potentially resolve the issues I'm going to bring up. So there will be some constructive criticism to go along with the complaining.

Before I begin the critique, I want to say that I'm not making this content simply to shit all over Madden or EA for the sake of shitting all over Madden or EA. Not that they don't deserve it. I'm doing this because I love football, and I love football video gaming, and I want our football video games to be better -- whether those games come from EA, 2K, or any other developer. I've also written reviews and done video breakdowns of the successes and failures of the indie football games in 2019, but I'm not going to go into the same level of nit-picking with those, since they are from studios that are severely limited by a low budget and lack of manpower. Madden, on the other hand, is developed by a corporate conglomerate with 30 years of experience making sports video games, hundreds of millions of dollars to throw around, and has a staff of hundreds of people working on it, almost a hundred of which are programmers. Bottom line is that EA has lots of money and the resources, and they have the exclusive rights to the NFL at least through 2026 (and used to have the exclusive rights to NCAA football as well). EA could make the definitive football video game. They just choose not to.

EA Sports logo NFL

Besides, almost everything I'm going to say in this series will likely apply to indie games as well. Those indie games have been getting consistently better, so there's a chance they might get more of this stuff right before Madden manages to. So I'm going to be directing most of my criticism towards EA's multi-million-dollar Madden series because I expect Madden to be able to do these things right.

...

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Madden NFL 18 - title

Oh boy, booting up Madden 18 for the first time was like watching a slow motion train wreck -- before the train had even left the station. After a few start-up questions to set my play style and difficulty level, the game immediately loaded into a demo game of a Superbowl rematch between the Falcons and Patriots. Except it crashed to the PS4 menu before the game could load. I booted it up again, sat through setting my initial preferences again, and then waited in anticipation to see whether the demo game would actually load.

It did, but instead of a tightly-choreographed narrative tutorial like in Madden 16 and 17, it loaded into a normal Play Now game, but with pathetically sparse commentary and lazy SuperBowl presentation. Now, Madden 17's tutorial wasn't great. The player banter was cheesily-written and poorly-acted, and completely misrepresented the actual content of the game. But at least it had scripted scenarios that put the player in position to try out some of the new features. Madden 18's introduction couldn't even be bothered with trying to be a tutorial. It just throws you into a game with a few tooltips popping up in the corner of the screen that you may or may not have time to read, and which may or may not be actually relevant or useful.

The demo game exposed the persistence of legacy issues with loose ball and onside kick recovery.

The actual game exposed several legacy issues were still present. Loose-ball physics and fumble recoveries appear to still be an ongoing problem. A fumbled ball just magically sticks to a recovering player's hand, and an onside kick was sucked right into the waiting hands of a member of the receiving team. So much for my hopes that the Frostbite Engine might be a panacea for fixing any legacy physics issues...

The game ended, I was given a "What's New" teaser video that explained the settings and options that I had already chosen before, and then I was put on the main menu where every piece of content was locked out. The only thing that I was allowed to do is replay that same Falcons-Patriots Superbowl rematch. You see, this year's Madden game pulls that annoying trick where it installs just enough content to allow you to boot up the game and play a tiny piece of demo content while the rest of the content downloads and installs in the background. I hate this feature! I don't want to play an incomplete game. I'll play it when it's fully installed and ready to go. In the meantime, I can read a magazine or play something else. Don't tell me the game is "ready to play", when it isn't!

What I got was a buggy, poorly-performing game scenario that I didn't want to play, and which did nothing but showcase that major legacy issues still remain, that the commentary might be sparse and lifeless (fortunately it isn't), and it couldn't even be bothered to actually teach me any of the game's new features.

"Ready to play", my ass... At least install the Skill Trainer so I can do some tutorials!

And I thought Grand Theft Auto V's tutorial was bad.

When the game finally was ready to let me actually play, I spent some of my early time in Ultimate Team to get my feet wet and see if that mode had become worth playing. No, it still isn't...

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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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