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Madden NFL 18 - cover
Tom Brady graces the cover of Madden 18

The first bit of news regarding this year's Madden NFL football game has been released by EA. As is typical, the first bit of news is the cover athlete. This year, none other than Tom Brady will grace the cover of the game.

The cover shown seems to be labeled as a "G.O.A.T. Edition". "G.O.A.T." -- if you're unaware -- means "Greatest Of All Time". I'm not entirely sure if this label is supposed to refer specifically to the cover athlete, or if it's supposed to represent a belief within EA that Madden 18 will be the greatest Madden game of all time. writer Dan Hanzus followed-up EA's cover announcement by writing a "Power Ranking" of all Madden covers. I'm not quite sure what his criteria for judging these covers is, as the justifications written below each choice seem more like fluff to me. As far as I can tell, he's basically just ranking his favorite players that have been on Madden covers, rather than the covers themselves.

This lead me to contemplate my own standards for a good Madden cover. Personally, I don't like the use of an individual cover athlete for a sports video game. I do agree with Hanzus that the covers featuring Madden himself tend to be pretty bland, but I don't dismiss them off-hand.

Personally, my standard for a good cover (for any game, let alone a sports game) is that the cover be representative of the game itself. This applies to Madden games as well. A game cover should effectively be an advertisement for what's in the game. And in the case of an annually-released title (like sports games, Call of Duty, Rock Band in its time, etc.), the cover should advertise what's new in this year's game. For me, the best Madden covers are the ones that showcase new features of the game. So when EA has contests and votes to decide the cover athlete, I roll my eyes. It's such an arbitrary process.

Covers for Madden '95 and '96 stand out as particularly good covers featuring John Madden's image,
as they both highlight scenes of football being played.

Since I would prefer that the cover showcase new features of the game, rather than an arbitrarily-chosen individual athlete, I'd much prefer to see a scene on the cover, rather than an individual player. For this reason, I actually like some of the old covers featuring John Madden. The Madden '95 and '96 covers stand out to me as particularly good game covers for this reason. The '95 cover, in particular works really well, as the imagery invokes the idea of Madden himself watching the action unfold and providing his trademark commentary for it.

I'd like to see EA move towards using scenes like this on their covers, instead of just single athletes. Ideally, such a scene should be representative of some new feature or mechanic in the game. The '96 cover is a great example, as it shows Carolina Panther and Jacksonville Jaguar players, both of which were new expansion teams being added to the NFL (and to Madden) that year. The cover is, effectively, telling any potential buyer what is new in the game, without you even having to turn the box over and read the marketing spiel on the back.

As far as covers featuring individual athletes go, there are a few that I like. Hanzus ranks the Odell Beckham Jr. cover (Madden 16) as number 1. I don't disagree. The reason being that the image of Beckham making a spectacular catch is very representative of that year's game's big new back-of-the-box feature: the new receiving and catching mechanics. It doesn't hurt that the image itself is also pretty slick.

Madden 16 and 10 covers stylishly feature athletes who represented that year's new features.

My second-place vote would probably go to the Larry Fitzgerald and Troy Polamalu cover of Madden 10. A big new feature of this game was the addition of new receiver route-running logic and WR / DB jostling animations. The inclusion of Fitz and Polamalu emphasizes the interaction between elite receivers and defenders. Also, I like seeing defenders get some recognition. This was also the year that PRO-Tak was introduced, and so another idea for a good cover would have been to include a scene of multiple defenders tackling a runner.

NFL 2k3 - cover
NFL 2k3 featured Brian Urlacher.

My third place would probably be a toss-up between Madden '05 (featuring Ray Lewis) and Madden '04 (featuring Mike Vick). Madden '05 introduced the Hit Stick and a slew of new defensive features, mechanics, and rebalancing, so featuring a defensive player is a no-brainer. Ray Lewis was one of the best defenders in the league at the time. I would have preferred that the defender selected have been Brian Urlacher, but Sega beat EA to that one by featuring Urlacher on the cover of NFL 2k3.

Those defensive upgrades were pretty necessary, since the year before saw the addition of the Playmaker controls along with a handful of new offensive audible mechanics that turned virtually every game of Madden into a shootout. And nobody in 2003-2004 exemplified the term "playmaker" quite like Mike Vick. So again, this is a good choice, as it's highly representative of the content of the actual game.

Neither cover is particularly flashy, but the 2000's was a period of particularly stale sports game covers. Most sports games of the time featured a simple image of the cover athlete in front of a mostly-white background. Sega's NFL 2k games had similarly bland cover art, as did contemporary college football, basketball, hockey, baseball, and golf video games. So I can't really blame EA or the Madden team for having stale covers if every other sports game had similarly stale covers as well.

Madden '04 and '05 made good choices for cover athlete, but were pretty artistically bland.

If I were to rank Madden covers

Madden 16 - cover

#1: Madden NFL 16 featuring Odell Beckham Jr.

Excellently emphasizes the new receiver catching mechanics added to the game. The image itself is also very sharp, stylish, and energetic, which gives it the upper-edge against the next-best cover...



Madden 96 - cover

#2: Madden NFL '96

Shows a scene including Jaguars and Panthers players. Both teams were added as expansion teams in 1995, and so were new to both the NFL and Madden. This is probably the best of the John Madden covers with respect to representing new content that is being added to the game.

Had the picture of John and the background scene been stylized in this cover the same way as the Madden '95 cover, this would probably be my number 1 pick.

Madden 10 - cover

#3: Madden NFL 10 featuring Larry Fitzgerald and Troy Polamalu

Emphasizes new WR / DB jostling interactions. Including two players also emphasizes the fact that this feature is an interaction between two positions, rather than something that the user does with only the user-controlled player.


Madden 05 - cover

#4: Madden NFL 2005 featuring Ray Lewis

Emphasizes the new Hit Stick feature for defense. The actual image is a bit bland, but that was characteristic of EA's sorts covers for pretty much that entire decade. I would have preferred a scene of Lewis laying the smack down on a runner -- like the image in the next cover.


Madden 95 - cover

#5: Madden NFL '95

I think this is just a good-looking cover, and gives the impression of Madden himself exuberantly calling the play. The scene in the background is a good action shot, and I've gotta give a shoutout to the one and only cover that highlights the big guys in the trenches!


Madden 04 - cover

#6: Madden NFL 2004 featuring Mike Vick

Emphasizes the new Playmaker controls, and if any player in 2003-2004 exemplified the word "playmaker", it was Mike Vick. Again, the actual image is fairly bland, but it's hard to hold that against the cover because every EA Sports cover of that era is similarly bland.


Madden 06 - cover

#7: Madden NFL 06 featuring Donovan McNabb

This was the year that Madden introduced the QB Vision Cone, so including a QB makes sense. Someone like Payton Manning might have been a better choice than McNabb, but aw well.



Madden 25 - cover

#8: Madden NFL 25 featuring Barry Sanders

This game was a celebration of Madden's 25th anniversary. I would have preferred a collection of great players spanning Madden's lifecycle (Jerry Rice, Derrick Brooks, Devin Hester, Mike Alstott), but Barry Sanders is about as iconic as it gets.


A public vote is a terrible idea

I don't want to talk about the best covers without also addressing some of the covers that I think most thoroughly failed. I'm not going to go to the trouble of ranking them because I feel that all the covers that aren't part of the good rankings above are all pretty bad.

Early 2000's versions of Madden seemed to select much more arbitrary athletes. Madden 2002 featured Dante Caulpepper, who was coming off a career best season. But this game was released in the year that the Houston Texans were added to the league, and one of its big new features was the expansion draft. A Houston Texans player probably would have been a much appropriate decision (David Carr, perhaps?), but they chose Caulpepper instead.

The Richard Sherman cover of Madden 15 also particularly annoys me. Since 2011, EA has been using a public vote to select the cover athlete based on a short list of players that EA selects. Sherman was the vote winner for Madden 15. A public vote is (in my opinion) the absolute worst way of deciding on cover athlete. The only way that I accept the cover vote is that if each athlete eligible was put on the list specifically because he represents some significant change in gameplay or some new feature. In the case of Madden 15, this was not the case.

Madden NFL 15 - defensive line play
Defensive line play was the big emphasis of Madden 15, yet voters chose Richard Sherman as the cover athlete.

Despite almost the entire focus of design in Madden 15 having been on defense, Sherman was one of only two defensive players on the short list of cover athletes (the other being Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechley). Kuechly would have been a much better selection because the majority of the new defensive features were at the line of scrimmage. Yeah, there was supposedly some improvement of DB and coverage A.I., but the most noticeable features were the new defensive line moves and the ability for a defender to steer a blocker to close holes or contain the outside.

I would have much preferred to see a scene of a defensive lineman (like Jared Allen or Ndamukong Suh) ripping or swimming through an offensive lineman (something along the lines of the Madden 96 cover). A linebacker like Kuechly or J.J. Watt would also have been a good candidate for a similar scene.

I wish EA would drop the publicity stunt of public cover votes and go back to designing covers that highlight the new features of the game. To me, it's just another example of EA pandering to internet fanboys rather than putting any honest or genuine work into making a quality product. I don't remember reading anything about a cover vote for Madden 18, so maybe EA is putting artistic integrity ahead of silly publicity stunts.

So where does Tom Brady's cover fit in?

Obviously, it's too early to tell if Tom Brady's Madden 18 cover will turn out to be an example of a good cover. We have little information about what might actually be in Madden 18, but EA did also recently release the first teaser trailer that might give us an idea of what to expect:

The Madden 18 teaser seems to showcase presentation upgrades, and possibly a new single-athlete career mode?

The most obvious addition in this teaser seems to be new presentation features and probably some pre-game player introductions (hooray for re-adding a feature from over a decade ago and selling it as "new"!). People who have been paying attention should also be excited about the game moving over to the Frostbite Engine, which is (as I understand it) a far superior engine than the Infinity Engine that Madden has been running on for the past four or five years. The Frostbite Engine has been used for other EA Sports games (such as their soccer games) for a couple years, and has been pretty successful there.

The second half of the trailer shows something a bit more substantial. We see a brief clip of a young man in (what I assume is) a hotel room, overlooking Lucas Oil Stadium. I presume that this is a tease for some new story mode similar to the mode included in the recent NBA 2k games. This would be a variation of the old SuperStar mode (or Campus Legend / Race for the Heisman / Road to Glory from NCAA Football), and would allow users to control a player's career from start to finish.

If there is some kind of new story mode focused around a single athlete's rise from obscurity to super-star, then Tom Brady makes sense as a cover athlete. He was a sixth-round draft pick who started his career as a backup to Drew Bledsoe, only to go on to have a legendary (and occasionally controversial) career that very well might be capped by his unprecedented comeback victory in this year's Super Bowl. So preliminary indications are that Brady's cover deserves a spot in my list for being a good cover that is representative of the new game's feature set. Maybe it'll be my new #4 or #5 cover? Only time will tell.

Madden NFL 18 - story mode?
Madden NFL 18's teaser seems to suggest that some kind of story mode will be included.

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