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Before I begin this essay, I would like to invite my readers to become supporters through Patreon and be able to vote in a poll to decide the next topic in this series. I have several broad outlines for topics, but no actual draft yet. So I'm asking my Patrons to decide which of those topics I should cover. The poll closes at the end of October, at which time, I expect to start work on the draft for the next topic.

I'd like to take this moment real quick to sincerely thank my current Patrons. Your support really helps, to by offsetting the maintenance of this site, and the cost of software licensing that I use to create content for this site and my YouTube channel.

I also want to provide a short disclaimer that the original video was posted before I had a chance to play any of Madden 23. I have since played several matches in Madden 23, and can confirm that none of the problems discussed in this video have been fixed or addressed. In fact, issues with fumbled footballs teleporting into the hands of the recovering player seem to have gotten worse in the newer game. In just a handful of matches, I've already seen multiple examples of the football teleporting through the bodies of prone players and into the hand of a recovering player who is a full yard or two away from the football. It's bad.

Anyway, onto the actual topic!

This essay is also available in video format on YouTube.

The previous topic was about Longsnapping, and included proposals for adding both ratings-based and skill-based botched snaps into the game. Botching a snap might lead to a bad kick, or a kick being blocked, or the snap sailing over the head of the holder or punter for a fumble. But even though I want botched snaps to be represented in the game, there is one caveat. One of the biggest and most long-standing A.I. and animation problems with Madden is its lose-ball scenarios, and putting bad snaps into the game might not be a good idea unless Tiburon and EA also address this long-standing problem.

But hey, Madden already has muffed punt returns, onside kicks, strip sacks, and just regular old fumbles in the game already, so once again I ask: why are all these other things in the game, but botched snaps are a bridge too far?

Anyway, some of the issues with the pass rush that I mentioned in the Pass Rush essay would also be alleviated by better loose-ball logic. The excessive strip sacks of Madden 17 and Madden 21 might not have been such a big problem if the players were smarter about recovering their own fumbles, and if scooping and scoring weren't so easy for defenders. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's now look at how Madden fails to model fumbles, fumble recoveries, onside kicks, and other loose-ball situations.

NFL botched snap Photo credit: Sports Illustraded
Adding botched snaps to the game would exacerbate existing issues with fumbles and fumble recoveries.

Totally Oblivious

Based on my gameplay experiences with Madden over the years, the god-awful implementation of lose-ball situations seems (to me) to be mostly a problem with Madden's reliance on pre-canned animations. The reliance on canned animations breaks lose-ball situations in 2 distinct ways. The first is at the point of the fumble itself, in which the fumbling player (and the player who caused the fumble) are often locked in canned animations and are therefore completely oblivious to the fact that the fumble happened. And secondly, the player who does eventually recover the fumble only has a few animations available, and they really do not line up correctly or look good, or lead to believable outcomes.

Lets start with the first way in which Madden fails to simulate loose-ball situations: players not recovering their own fumble. This is largely the result of the player being bound to a pre-canned tackle animation, and sometimes also a pre-canned recovery animation. Despite the fumble keeping the play alive, the player is unable to branch out of the canned tackle animations in order to react to the fumble. He is stuck following-through with the tackle animation as if he still possessed the ball, and then also stuck casually getting up off the ground as if the play were over. It is only after the completion of this animation that his awareness of the play suddenly snaps back on and he can react to the fumble and go after the ball. But by then, it's almost always too late for him to impact the play.

Even if the fumble lands in the player's lap, he can't recover it.

The same is often true of the defender who caused the fumble. He also gets stuck in the tackle animation and a recovery animation, without being able to branch out of it. While these animations are running their course, neither player recognizes that the fumble has occurred, and neither player is able to react to the fumble or attempt to recover it. Even if the football literally falls into the lap of the runner or the tackling defender, they are both utterly incapable of attempting to grab the ball because they are either completely unaware that the play is still alive, or if they are aware, they are locked into animations and can't do anything about it.

In real football, players will routinely try to corral the ball as it is popping out of their hands, and even if they are down on the ground they will try to crawl, scratch, and claw to reach for the ball and grab it or fall on it. Now that does not mean that players always have a chance to actually recover the ball. A fumbling QB with a 300-pound defensive lineman laying on top of him might not be able to do much of anything except lay there, but he'll at least try to regain control of the ball while he's going down.

What is particularly frustrating is that Tiburon does have animations for this kind of thing in the game, except they never use them in appropriate situations. I have seen exactly one animation in Madden of a QB spinning around to try to reach for a loose ball after a sack. Except that it happened on a sack in which the ball came out after the play was blown dead. This is the only time that I ever recall seeing an animation like this, and it wasn't even called a fumble on the field! Or at least that's what it looks like. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm giving Madden too much credit here? Maybe he's not reaching for the ball, but just smacking the ground in frustration.

I've only seen an animation like this once, and it wasn't even a fumble.

Which also brings me to the point that players are taught by coaches to try to recover a lose ball, even if they know that the play is, in fact dead, on the off chance that the referees fail to blow the whistle. Football players are taught and drilled to pick up or fall on a football that is on the ground. This is why you'll often see defensive backs pick up the football after an incomplete pass, because if you see the ball on the ground, you get it!

But you know who isn't oblivious to the fumble? The other players around it. They all react instantly to the fumble happening. Sometimes they react so quickly, that nearby defenders are already reaching to pick up the ball before it has completely fallen out of the runner's hands yet.

Scoop and Score

This brings me to the second major way that Madden fails to simulate lose-ball situations: the poor animations for recovering the fumble. As I mentioned before, football players are taught to pick up or fall on a lose football that is on the ground. In fact, they are mostly taught to fall on it, like a soldier jumping on a hand grenade, and cradle it in a fetal position. The reason for this is that falling on the football and cradling it is the safest and most reliable way to secure the recovery and maintain possession of the ball. Reaching down for the ball, especially while still in motion, makes it much harder to grasp the ball and hold onto it, especially with up to 21 other people also trying to swipe the ball out of your hands.

For whatever reason, Madden has (for decades) neglected to utilize animations of players doing what they are taught to do in real life: falling on a lose football. It's particularly annoying because Madden does have animations for this sort of thing; the game just rarely ever triggers one, favoring, instead, to over-utilize animations of players reaching down and scooping up the football -- often without breaking stride. Since these animations rarely (if ever) line up correctly with a football that is bouncing or rolling around, the software will usually resort to teleporting the football into the hands of the player who succeeded at his die roll for picking up the ball, because physics and relative positioning be damned.

The football will often teleport into the hand(s) of the recovering player.

Madden simply does not have robust animations for falling on the football. It does not have animation branches that allow down players to crawl on the ground to try to grab the football. It rarely plays animations of players losing their balance while scooping up the ball and falling and rolling with it. And it also doesn't have animations for players failing to maintain possession of the football, resulting in it squirting out of their hands, or accidentally kicking the ball with their feet, or pushing it around on the ground in a failed attempt to grab it. That is, unless the game glitches out, FIFA A.I. activates, and everybody forgets what sport they're playing and just starts kicking the ball around without anybody ever attempting to reach down and pick up the ball.

Because the game has so few options for fumble recovery animations, it over-uses the scoop animation, which also leads to excessive scoop-and-score opportunities for defenses, especially in the cases of a strip sack. Defensive linemen don't exactly have a reputation for being the most dexterous individuals on the field when it comes to handling the football. Yet in Madden, they are able to flawlessly scoop up a fumbled football, mid-stride, and sprint unobstructed into the end zone. Picking up the fumble doesn't even seem to consume all that much (if any) of a player's stamina meter, meaning that a 300-pound Defensive tackle will have enough gas in the tank to pick up the ball and outrun the pursuing offensive players to the endzone. This plain and simply does not represent the sport of football.

The ease with which defenders can scoop and run is further confounded by the fact that fumbled footballs never bounce around unpredictably the way that real life footballs are infamous for. They just land on the ground and sit there, waiting for the first player with a successful recovery die roll to telekinetically force pull the ball into his hands.

Scoop-and-scores are far too frequent in Madden.

In fact, the scoop-n-score problem on strip sacks has been so egregious since Madden 17, that, in order to keep games more competitive, I usually slide, dive, run out of bounds, or let myself be tackled after picking up fumbles in the backfield instead of simply walking into the endzone for the go-ahead score, especially if the fumble occurred in a lot of traffic and should have been more hotly-contested.

This has been a completely neglected aspect of the game for about a whole decade now. The last (and perhaps only) attempt that EA has made to address this was when they introduced the "Fight for the Fumble" button-mashing quicktime tug-of-war mini-game, back in Madden 10. It was an awful mechanic, but at least it tried to represent a more realistic pile-up to recover a fumble. In its defense, using a scripted cut-scene was a brilliant idea for covering up the limitations in the animation libraries. It's just too bad that when Tiburon dropped that feature, they didn't think to go back and flesh-out those limited animation libraries that originally caused them to resort to such a trick.

Fumble recoveries have not been updated since the removal of the "Fight For The Fumble" mini-game..

Design or Glitch?

Problems with loose-ball physics and awareness aren't limited to fumbles either. Problems with Tiburon's code also pop up when the ball is in the air. Since at least the introduction of the Frostbite Engine in Madden 18, there has been this recurring problem in which the ball can get stuck repeatedly bouncing off of a players' shoulder or helmet. The players will run along with the ball and the ball will bounce along with him. It will usually just keep bouncing along with the running receiver or defensive back until it is taken out of bounds, usually resulting in an incomplete pass. But sometimes, it erroneously results in a touchback or safety if it goes out of the endzone.

My best guess is that this is another problem with EA's dependence on canned animations and outcome-scripting to run the game. Perhaps the player who is "supposed" to catch the ball doesn't trigger the appropriate animation, and so nobody else is allowed to catch or pick up the ball either.

In The Yard game mode, I also frequently see a similar bug in which tipped passes are incorrectly ruled as fumbles, which can be recovered by either team, and which can even result in a score. I have yet to see this particular bug occur in the 11-on-11 game modes, but I wouldn't be surprised to see it there too.

The "helmet catch" glitch has been around for several years.

This is clearly a glitch in the game, and I don't want to harp on EA and Tiburon for obvious glitches. Even the good entries in EA's sports games have bugs and glitches. Any sufficiently complicated game like this is going to have glitches. I don't want to be one of those content creators who nitpicks every little glitch or logic mistake in the game because I don't want to come off as being "mean-spirited" to the programmers and artists who work hard on this game, and who I believe, at the end of the day, are just as much victims of of EA's abuse and exploitation as we, the consumers are. Let me make this perfectly clear: I do not want any of my readers to harass the developers. Video game developers are already under-paid, over-worked, have swords of Damocles hanging over their heads in the form of the constant threat of lay-offs, and are often victims of burn-out and stress-induced illness -- not to mention institutional sexual abuse. Please don't harass them.

Rather, my series is focused more on how the intentional design of the game fails to simulate football -- that is, the things that the executives at EA and Tiburon force their developers to break on purpose in order to control the outcome of plays or to sell a feature. I prefer to focus on problems with the game that are the result of high-level executive design decisions; not every little programming mistake.

Even though there are plenty of glitches with fumbles and loose-ball situations (such as the "helmet catch" issue mentioned above), the poor loose-ball play is not a glitch; it is a problem with the fact that Madden is so reliant on canned animations. That is by design. Tiburon could design these animations to branch or cancel and allow the fumbling player to attempt to recover the fumble (hopefully with a reasonable transition animation), but they don't. EA and Tiburon either don't see this lack of situational awareness as a problem, or they consider it such low priority that they haven't done anything about it since abandoning the "Fight For The Fumble" mechanic back in 2011.

Tiburon has resources to add Spongebob Squarepants into the game,
but not the resources to fix decade-old issues with the actual football gameplay?

If they can make the time to create a backyard arcade mode that nobody asked for, and then put Spongebob Squarepants in that mode, they should have the time to address this decade-old legacy problem. That is willful negligence, and so I do consider it fair game as a topic for this series.

Onside Kicks

Turning to special teams now, EA's decade-long neglect of lose-ball mechanics has also rendered onside kicks almost completely impossible.

Yes, an onside kick is a fairly rare edge case scenario, so it makes sense that it doesn't get as much development attention as more common scenarios like punting and field goals. But when they do happen, onside kicks are often plays that decide the outcome of an entire match! So when an onside kick scenario occurs in Madden, the game should be much better at communicating to the user how to actually execute the onside kick, and it should have mechanics that are robust enough for the play to have a realistic chance of success and a reasonably-realistic outcome. Neither of these is the case.

Madden doesn't explain how to execute the kick to get that desired bounce, if it's even possible to get that bounce to begin with. So instead, onside kicks usually just travel in a straight line towards the receiving team, and the nearest player is almost always able to just magnetically suck the ball into his hands and run with it. He doesn't have to fall on it. There's no risk of the player muffing the recovery. And there's little risk of the player fumbling the ball if he attempts to actually run with the ball after recovering it.

Onside kicks are poorly explained and full of broken physics and animations.

Not only is recovering the kick trivially easy for the receiving team in Madden, but the ease of scooping up the ball in stride means that the receiving team even has a shot at trying to return the onside kick, possibly breaking through the line of coverage gunners and having a free path to the end zone for a walk-in score.

In EA's defense, plenty of other "good" football games don't get this right either. Some other games might have different input methods that are are a bit more intuitive about how the angle at which the ball is being kicked. Other games might have better animations for picking up or falling on top of loose balls, but they don't always look accurate to the sport.

Heck, Legend Bowl doesn't even attempt to model onside kicks, instead allowing the kicking team to opt to attempt to convert a very long 4th down from within their own territory, and simply turning over the ball if the conversion fails. That's certainly one way to handle it! But that's not the rule in the NFL -- at least not for the foreseeable future -- so Madden is stuck with having onside kicks, which barely work.

All Pro Football 2k8 has the best-looking onside kicks of any football game I've ever played.

I think All Pro Football 2k8 has the best-looking onside kicks of any football game I've seen. The ball gets a good bounce, and the ball often gets bobbled around before somebody falls on it. This was an improvement over NFL 2k5, which also had a good bounce to onside kicks, but it was far too easy for players to snatch the ball out of the air. The problem with All Pro 2k8 was that kicking in general wasn't very intuitive and it lacked decent user feedback.

Fielding other kicks

Issues with fumbles and fumble recovery also extend to other attempt to field a kick, such as fielding punts or field goals that are short enough to be caught in the field of play. Madden includes fair catches, and the necessity of calling for a fair catch varies from year to year. In either case, if a punt is muffed for whatever reason, the returner needs to be able to try to recover it, and the coverage gunners shouldn't be able to simply pick the ball up mid-stride and walk into the endzone.

In fact, some competitive players will exploit the poor recovery animations by deliberately backing their returner away from fielding a punt, so that they can let the ball hit the ground, and then magnetically pick it up in stride at full sprint in order to give their returner a running head start against the coverage team. Returners should absolutely not do this in real football, as this is a recipe for turning the ball over. College and NFL punt returners know that if the ball hits the ground, they need to just cut their losses and get away from it. Even if it bounced deeper into the return team's territory, it is safer to just take the loss of field position for your offense than to risk muffing the recovery and giving the opposing offense the ball in prime scoring position.

NFL returners will wave at return blockers to get away from a bouncing punt.

Furthermore, real life returners will also call out and gesture for their teammates to keep away from the ball, so that their own blockers do not touch the ball. If any member of the return team touches the ball (either deliberately or accidentally) it becomes a live ball which can be recovered and advanced by the kicking team. Madden has no mechanics for telling a punt returner to let a kick bounce, let alone any mechanics for the returner to tell his blockers to get away from the ball so that they don't touch it and make it live.


The future of this critique series?

The football video game market is going to get awfully crowded in the next few years with big publishers adding new games in addition to the myriad indie titles that are already out. In addition to Madden, Axis, Legend Bowl, Sunday Rivals, and a few other indie games, we'll be seeing the return of Maximum Football from Modus Games, EA will be releasing its rebranded college football game, and 2K will be releasing one or "non-simulation" NFL games. And with the XFL supposedly starting back up in 2023, we might eventually see a licensed XFL tie-in game at some point. This begs the question: what will happen to this particular critique series once Madden isn't the only big dog in the yard anymore?

The honest answer is: I don't know yet.

If EA Sports College Football uses the exact same engine as Madden and suffers from the exact same gameplay issues, perhaps I'll rebrand this series as "How EA Sports Fails To Simulate Football". And if we start seeing the same issues cropping up in other studios' games, such as 2k or Modus, then perhaps I'll have to further broaden the scope to "How Video Games Fail To Simulate Football". But for the time being, I will continue to focus on Madden as the only licensed, simulation football game from a major publisher. Expect this series to continue into the foreseeable future -- at least until EA actually addresses the underlying issues.

Hope to see you back for the next essay! The topic of which will be selected by a poll of my Patrons.

I may have to expand the scope of this series after EA releases its college football game.

Other How Madden Fails To Simulate Football

Quarter LengthQuarter Length
Quarterback ProgressionsQuarterback Progressions
Pass Rush vs ProtectionPass Rush vs Protection
The Case For LongsnappersThe Case For Longsnappers
Fumbles and Loose-ball situationsFumbles and Loose-ball situations

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