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If you've already read my review of Madden 20 on my personal blog, then you know that I consider this year's release to be a massive disappointment. In fact, the last Madden entry that I actually liked was probably Madden 17. Despite my misgivings about this year's game, I do want to start off by talking about something in recent Madden entries that I actually like. Don't worry, there will be plenty of time for me to rant about the problems in Madden 20 later.

While there is certainly value in giving EA a laundry list of complaints about Madden 20 (so that they can maybe, hopefully address the complaints), there is equally as much value in telling EA where they've done right so that they can continue to expand those ideas. So let's start out the NFL / Madden season on a more positive note and talk about how recent iterations of Madden have actually made the preseason worth playing in Franchise mode.

I have a laundry list of complaints about Madden 20, but I'd rather talk about something I like instead.

This blog is a transcription of a video project that I uploaded to YouTube (which will be embedded below). I had hoped to get this out before the end of the NFL preseason (when it would be a bit more relevant and topical), but I was still neck deep in my Sekiro critique. I had to do a bit of research for this post by using some of my Patreon funds to purchase Madden 12 and NCAA Football 13. If you enjoy this blog post (and/or the accompanying video), and would like to see more like it, then I hope you'll consider supporting me on Patreon.

Now that the shameless self-promotion is out of the way, let's talk about the preseason in Madden NFL video games!

Feel free to follow along on YouTube!

Preseason is my favorite part of Madden franchise

Nobody likes the NFL preseason -- or at least, that's what I keep hearing.

Fans don't care for it because none of their favorite players get much playing time. Veteran players don't like it because it puts them at risk of injury. The NFL doesn't like it because the fans don't like it and don't buy tickets to the games. And the networks and advertisers don't like it because not many people watch it.

About the only people who actually like the preseason are the reserve players who get the chance to earn a roster spot, and maybe the coaches who have an opportunity to find out if their backups will be reliable replacements for any starters who get hurt in the regular season.

The NFL preseason isn't particularly popular.

In fact, the preseason is so unpopular that every year or two, there are rumblings about the possibility of the NFL reducing the length of the preseason, or outright eliminating it. The NFL would probably cite "player safety" as the reason for eliminating the preseason, but the real reason would be because it doesn't make them as much money. After all, they'd probably offset the reduced preseason by correspondingly increasing the length of the regular season, putting even more wear and tear on the players' bodies.

So every year, as we enter the NFL regular season, there is an outside chance that next year, there simply won't be a preseason. Or that if there is one, it will only be 2 or 3 games. There are plenty of valid reasons for reducing or eliminating the preseason, and I'm not going to get into that specific topic here. Instead, I'm going to talk about the preseason in Madden.

As someone who enjoys video game football (or at least would enjoy it if the quality of product were better), I would actually bemoan the loss of preseason because eliminating the NFL preseason would do a great disservice to the Franchise mode of the Madden NFL video games. I would not be surprised to hear that most Madden players don't bother with the preseason and just simulate past it -- after all, "nobody likes the preseason", right? But I happen to think that the preseason in Madden is the most interesting and engaging part of Franchise, and might in fact be my favorite part of the game.

Putting some character into football

Put simply, preseason is the only part of a Madden Franchise in which I actually feel like I'm making meaningful decisions about the development of my team. It's perhaps the most "role-play-y" part of the game.

Making roster decisions in Madden often comes down to nothing more than comparing overall ratings.

Yeah, sure, I'm making team-building decisions whenever I draft a rookie, sign a free agent, renegotiate a player contract, or set the depth chart, but these decisions always feel so ... stale and uninteresting. Most of them involve simply selecting the highest overall player rating, and very few of them involve making any real judgement calls. And once you load into an actual game, those decisions mostly become moot anyway.

In-season scouting is pathetically stale.

Take, for instance, in-season scouting a drafting. Scouting in Madden is a simple process of investing points in a college player to unlock three stats. At which point, the game flat-out tells you which round to draft him in. At this point, it's just a matter of looking at all the players on your draft board who should be drafted in that round, and choosing which of those positions is most valuable to you at this point in the draft.

Madden lacks the lengthy and more humanizing (and oh so addictive!) in-season recruiting that the NCAA Football games enjoyed. Those games required you to keep in a near-weekly dialogue with your prospects, learning their wants and expectations and trying to make a good impression for their eventual campus visit. Stealing a high-ranked recruit from the grasp of a rival was immensely rewarding. Losing a commitment to another school after all your hard work could be equally heartbreaking.

The NCAA Football games had a deep and involved in-season recruiting system
that made the prospects feel like actual characters!

It's too bad that those NCAA prospects get de-humanized once they join your roster, and are boiled down to nothing but a collection of ratings. Their wants, likes, and dislikes all disappear, and they stop being characters. NCAA Football 14 further stripped some of the humanity out of the process by boiled it down more to number crunching rather than role play. Whether you preferred the "streamlined" recruiting of 14 over the tedious (but more engaging) recruiting of 13 is up to personal preference, but either way, the process was light-years ahead of any of the team-building that goes on in Madden. But those four preseason games in Madden start to come close.

A similar process goes on in the Madden preseason. Putting a young player in position to make plays and then seeing him accumulate experience and gain levels is rewarding and feels good.

Working to achieve goals with rookies in order to level them up feels engaging and rewarding.

During preseason, I make an effort to try to play every player on my roster. Every couple drives, I'm going through my entire depth chart and shuffling people around to get playing time for my young rookies and practice squad players so that they can gain valuable game experience. And I play on 15-minute quarters, so I actually have the time to give meaningful playing time to players deep in my depth chart.

I also pay particularly close attention to player goals and drive goals and work extra hard to try to achieve those goals in order to further boost the players' experience. I was disappointed that Madden 20 removed player weekly goals, as I used to make a conscious effort to try to complete those for my reserves in preseason games. I would make a personal challenge of taking user control of that player with a drive goal and trying to achieve the goal with him.

Madden 20 removed player weekly goals for some reason...

In any case, I put a lot of thought into deciding how long to play a specific player or group of players. Maybe my backup QB had a bad drive. Should I give him (and by him, I really mean myself) another chance to turn his play around? Or should I bench him to see if the third-string QB can do better?

Should I leave in my second string defense to try to cement a victory? Or give some experience to the third-stringers and risk blowing a lead?

Should I put that rookie with the hidden Development trait on kick return duty so that he'll see more snaps?

There's just a lot more to think about here, and a lot of decisions that I make have more value. Even if I give experience to players who are never going to play a down for me in a regular season game, improving their ratings does increase their trade stock ever so slightly. And there's always the possibility of a string of injuries that forces me to have to activate someone off of the practice squad -- which I have had to do before.

Practice squad was the missing piece

The practice squad, by the way, is one of my favorite recent additions to the game! A functioning practice squad was the single piece that had been missing for years, which finally allowed Madden's preseason games to be meaningful and worth playing -- and also improved the Draft to boot! The practice squad allows you to keep up to 10 extra players who would not otherwise make your final 53-man roster. These players continue to gain experience with the rest of your team, and can be activated onto your regular roster if a starter gets hurt or if you cut someone who is under-performing.

The practice squad allows you to keep players who would otherwise be cut.

In previous years, players who didn't make your 53-man roster were sent back into the free agent pool, where they would stagnate and never progress or improve. There was no point in playing 60-overall rated players during preseason in those iterations of Madden because the player would just get cut anyway. You were better off just giving more play time to a second or third-string player who would actually be staying with the team.

It also meant that the Draft became pointless after about the third or fourth round. Those 60-overall 5th, 6th, and 7th-round picks had no shot at making a roster spot. It was pointless to draft them and pointless to play them in preseason.

Late-round draft picks actually have a
chance of staying with the team.

Now, however, your late-round draft picks can be stashed on your practice squad. By playing them in preseason, you can gain experience to upgrade their ratings and, after a couple of seasons, possibly earn them a roster spot. If you lose a veteran starter in free agency (or can't afford the cap space), and can't find a decent free agent to replace him, then you'll have that improved practice squad player ready and waiting to fill in as a reserve.

But it could be better!

All that being said, preseason in Madden is still kind of fundamentally broken in ways that still make it almost pointless to play. This is the sad state of modern Madden: even the features that I like the most are marred with problems at fundamental levels.

First and foremost is that the substitution logic is terrible. It is better than it used to be. The addition of practice squad means that you have more backups to play, which means that starting running backs no longer get subbed in as slot wide receivers, and starting linebackers no longer get subbed in on kickoff coverage. Instead, all starters are removed from the depth chart entirely when the backup squad gets subbed in.

Preseason substitution logic isn't as messed up as it used to be.

Unfortunately, the CPU team never bothers to substitute deeper into its depth chart. The CPU's third and fourth stringers never play.

Now, I don't know how the accumulation of experience works for CPU teams' players. Maybe they just automatically progress regardless of how much play-time they receive. If not, those third and fourth-stringers for the CPU teams are never gaining game experience unless some injuries happen.

But even if there is some other progression mechanic for CPU players, the fact that the CPU never subs deeper into its depth chart causes problems for me, because I make a point of subbing deeper into my depth chart. The end result is that I have third and fourth-stringers with ratings in the 60's -- or even the 50's! -- playing against CPU second-stringers with ratings usually in the 70's. It's not exactly a fair contest, and I rarely win preseason games because of it.

Just let me change the CPU's teams depth chart in preseason!

Even if Tiburon can't be bothered to add in a script to sub in third-stringers after the fourth quarter, it shouldn't be too much trouble to let the user just manually adjust the CPU team's depth chart in preseason games. It's not like this would enable unprecedented cheating. The user can already edit every player's ratings, edit the draft class, and even assign which team is going to win a simulated game. Letting me sub in my opponent's third string QB in the fourth quarter of a preseason game isn't going to break the game...

No real evaluation

The second fundamental problem with preseason in Madden is the fact that you already know all your players' ratings. You don't have to play them in order to find out if they're any good -- you already know how good they are. Instead, you only play them to accumulate experience and hopefully level them up.

Madden 20 did take one small step to alleviate this problem. Some rookies now have their Development trait hidden until he's played 500 live snaps. Even though you know that player's current ratings, you might still want to give him the extra play time to find out how high his ceiling is.

You have more reason to give extra snaps to players with a hidden development trait.

It's a subtle, but significant change that actually forces the user to make judgement calls when it comes to make the final cuts. Do I cut that 54th player with the unknown Development trait because his overall is a couple points lower than the veteran backup above him on the depth chart? Do I stash him on the practice squad so I can continue developing him next year? Or do I cut the slightly higher-rated veteran so that I can give my rookie play time now, start accumulating experience, and find out if he has the potential to be a star?

It's a good first step, but if you ask me, Tiburon could have gone a lot further. Years ago, I proposed an idea for making all rookie ratings hidden by default. I encourage you to check out the full blog, but in summary, the idea is that as the player plays more games, his ratings are revealed as a range of possible ratings, and then eventually narrowed down to their true value as the player gets more playing time and practice evaluation. This process may take several years of practice and development, so you have to make judgement calls about how to utilize the player in the meantime. Maybe you experiment with putting him on special teams or subbing him in to spell a starter? Or maybe you just stash him on the practice squad and slowly reveal his ratings through practice?

A mock-up of a proposed rookie ratings screen with the true ratings hidden.

Ratings could even be designed to be revealed to the players' team, but not to other teams. This could help to alleviate problems with CPU teams poaching any practice squad players with a rating over 70. If those teams don't know his ratings, then they probably won't take a risk on poaching him. Your team could reveal his true ratings through weekly practice, but other teams would only learn his ratings if he plays in live snaps in games. Maybe teams can even spend some of their weekly college scouting points to scout other teams' practice squads for potential diamonds in the rough?

Lastly, if the CPU has to play its players in order to find out their ratings, then the CPU would have a basis for evaluating whether to sub in reserves during preseason games. The CPU could put higher weight on giving playing time to players who have more hidden ratings, so that they would actually sub in those 3rd and 4th-stringers, and my preseason games would become more competitive in the third and fourth quarters.

Again, feel free to check out the full proposal for a more detailed description of how I imagine this all working.

Madden 12 tried a similar idea, but it didn't work as well.

In fact, this idea is not unprecedented. After posting a link to that suggestion blog on a forum (at either EA or Operation Sports), another user informed me that Madden 12 had a similar feature. I hadn't remembered this, so I used some of my Patreon funds to buy a cheap, used copy of Madden 12 to try it out for myself. Sure enough, rookie ratings were just question marks, and the actual ratings were revealed slowly over the course of the preseason (regardless of whether the rookie played or not).

I guess this feature was not well-received, since it was ditched the following year. I don't blame Madden players for not liking the feature, or EA for removing it. I doubt the feature got much use or added much value to the game.

You had to cut players every week, so many low-rated players never even got a chance to play.

This was long before we had a practice squad in Madden. If a player didn't make your 53-man roster, he was simply cut. With such a limited roster, it didn't make much sense to keep low-rated players as you would progress through the preseason -- especially if you didn't even know just how low their ratings actually were. But now that we do have a practice squad, players with unknown ratings can be stashed for a year or two for you to evaluate and train them.

Worse yet, the process of figuring out a rookie's ratings was very passive in Madden 12. Certain ratings would be automatically revealed each week of the reseason, until, by the end of the preseason, all the rookie's ratings were fully revealed. It didn't matter if that player saw a single down during a preseason game, his ratings would still get revealed. So the user didn't have to do anything to evaluate the rookie, or change the way they play in the preseason in order to ensure that all their players actually do get evaluated. It was a good idea in principle; just very poorly executed.

Rookie evaluation would work well with
the addition of a training camp feature.

This feature would work much better in modern Madden if Tiburon would have the courage to re-consider it. A multi-year evaluation process would work well with the existing practice squad feature and player experience features.It would work even better if those features were coupled with an actual training camp feature, and maybe also some more in-depth and robust weekly preparation and position battle mechanics. And it would give further relevance and value to the preseason that I already enjoy.

Do you like preseason?

So what do you think? Do you enjoy playing preseason games in Madden franchise mode? If not, have I convinced you that maybe it's not as big a waste of time as you might have thought? Do you like my suggestions for how EA could further improve the preseason? If you have your own suggestions, I'd love to hear them in the comments! Even if our ideas don't make it into Madden, they might still find a way into the indie competition, such as Axis or Maximum Football.

Even if our ideas don't make it into Madden, they might be embraced by Maximum or Axis.

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