The mistake was obvious as soon as I snapped the football.
My opponent had been chasing Robert Woods all day, watching him catch the ball on a sweet corner route that ran him to the sideline, open as the sky. Now, on fourth-and-5, with 15 grassy yards ahead of me to a game-clinching touchdown, I saw Woods again. Ten yards out, cutting right at a 45-degree angle.
My opponent did, too. Controlling speedy linebacker Luke Kuechly, he sprinted with perfect precision, sliding in front of Woods right as I threw the ball. But he’d guessed wrong, missing another receiver, Cooper Kupp, streaking in the opposite direction, to the spot my opponent just departed.
The more you play Madden NFL, the more these moments of offensive clarity catch your eye. Outsmarting a human player makes you feel like you’re Bill Belichick on Sunday, especially if it’s been a competitive game — as this was. But as the ball flew toward Kupp, he didn’t raise his hands to catch the pass. Instead, it donked off his head and levitated atop his helmet as he stumbled into a computer-controlled defender, who promptly morphed halfway into Kupp’s body before grabbing the magic ball for an interception.
It was an appalling way to lose the game. But anyone who’s played Madden is familiar with the rage that comes with an unexpected, inhuman glitch ruining a game. Or the disappointment of realizing that the graphics and presentation haven’t improved in any meaningful way from the previous year’s iteration. Or the annoyance of playing a franchise mode that’s been unchanged forever. Or watching 45 minutes of your life disappear because of another server crash.
For being one of the world’s most popular sports games, with backing from a veteran developer and arguably the biggest, most influential video game publisher in the industry — Electronic Arts — Madden sure has a lot of detractors. You’ll find them in every corner of the internet. Many, like me, are longtime players who have faithfully shelled out $60 annually for a game that feels ever more broken every year. And while Madden NFL 20, which dropped last month, was marketed as a shiny and significant improvement to the previous year’s game, that’s how each title is marketed, and the exhaustion within the fanbase is practically a meme by now. If sports games are trash for playing like lazy roster updates, I suppose Madden must be a landfill.
“Made the mistake of buying this piece of shit for the first time in 3 years. Wish I would’ve changed my $65 into pennies and spent the three hours I wasted playing this game shoving pennies up my ass,” noted one particularly eloquent redditor.
Nobody has captured the existential despair of shitty Madden quite like Ryan Moody, a YouTuber whose channel serves as a living diorama of glitches, atrocious AI, poor design, evidence of lazily recycled code and other frustrations. He’s worked with EA in the past, serving as a “game changer” (aka a guest game tester) and giving feedback to the development team. Moody more or less gave that up as he became more and more critical of the Madden series with his commentary videos, highlighting game-breaking problems while narrating how things could be this bad in his typically exasperated tone.
“The number one thing that anyone would want to see is just more consistency. If we could play a game where, say, 1 out of 30 plays something strange or an error happens. Okay, maybe you can rationalize that, it’s just a video game,” Moody tells me. “But it’s so much worse than that, in so many ways.”
Moody’s channel, and his countless screeds against year after year of Madden, serves as a sort of thesis as to why investing into this beloved, historic video game franchise feels more and more like a waste. He often compares modern versions of Madden to much older games, like All-Pro Football 2K8, as an indictment of how smooth, realistic, satisfying gameplay is missing. Instead, Moody is one of many who blame EA for selling a product that’s regressed, and for chasing profits from pay-to-win microtransactions and the exploding, lucrative e-sports industry.
The issues with the game crashing or glitching, and the lack of polish and variety in the popular franchise mode (where you own a team and work to win championships over the course of multiple seasons), are all serious gripes. But it’s perplexing to see a game that feels increasingly dependent on triggered animations, rather than well-crafted player logic. Moody calls it “animation-dependent dice rolls,” alluding to the random nature in which, say, a receiver catches a jump ball in the end zone while one-on-one with a defender. Maybe that’s why it feels like glitchy things happen not as accidents, but as a fundamental part of the game’s code — code that attempts chaotic good but instead just feels sloppy.
“There needs to be a discernible skill gap. You can’t sell me this extreme competition of e-sports skill, but then, when an average user plays the game, just offer a very highly animation-dependent outcome. But EA pushes the motive,” he says.
Who’s or what’s to blame? A lot of people, myself included, can’t help but point to EA’s exclusive licensing agreement with the NFL. I remember a time when multiple football game franchises existed, notably the excellent 2K series in 2004 and 2005. But that was the end of the line for competition; the contract not only made the NFL (and the Players Association) hundreds of millions of dollars, but it left EA with a de-facto monopoly.
The insinuation is that the dev team and Madden leadership have begun to get complacent, and perhaps that’s rooted in some truth. Still, hundreds of people work on a sports title like Madden 20, and by all accounts from people who understand game development, it’s truly hard, time-consuming labor to create what we see each year.
And so, maybe the best source to figure out what’s going on is former Madden creative director Rex Dickson, who departed in 2018 after announcing that it was “best for all parties.” In a podcast recorded this April, Dickson laid out a series of problems the development team faced, and what happened when he tried to respond to criticism. Each department for the game has “a different target audience,” he said, with resources spread thinly to create a lot of ideas that EA executives could pick and choose from. That picking and choosing often leaves behind the demands from the core fanbase, instead showing a preference for new features to attract casual gamers. Thus, instead of fixing gameplay and crafting a more realistic (or at least consistent) experience, the onus is on the dev team to bring fresh ideas, Dickson says. Even worse, developers get overworked when higher-ups demand last-minute changes or additions to drive pre-sales.
For his efforts, Dickson is celebrated as a hero of sorts, by fans who delve into wild theories about all the various ways Madden is broken. And his comments serve as a look into other titles, including EA’s mega-popular (and still criticized) FIFA and even the lauded NBA 2K franchise. EA routinely ranks as one of America’s worst companies, which is because of a lot of other things beyond the control of the people who make Madden run. I spoke to “Shawn,” who worked at Tiburon (the development studio, now owned by EA) in the 2000s in the sports production department. (He asked to remain anonymous because he still works in the industry.) “The glory days are gone,” he tells me over text. “And by glory days, I just mean 90+ rated games, Sports Game of the Year awards and record sales.”
What he hopes to see is the kind of work Zach Timmerman, producer for NBA 2K, has been able to pull off at competitor dev studio Visual Concepts. “His design instincts allowed NBA 2K to reflect the NBA culture of fun individualism from both a signature animation standpoint as well as the shoes, tats, etc. that are exclusive to each player in the NBA. 2K nailed it,” Shawn says.
Direction is everything, yet Madden seems to wander aimlessly from year to year, searching for new bodies to bring online. But for now, the notion that a studio like Visual Concepts, or anyone else for that matter, could have rights to make a competing football game are moot. EA and the NFL appear to be in this for the long run. At this point, my own compulsion to re-up on this sports game each year seems like addictive behavior. But apparently glitchy, broken football is better than no football at all.