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How EA Sports has improved and screwed the Madden series

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Posted by: Cliff Bakehorn

The Madden series is to Electronic Arts as Mario is to Nintendo. Since it began in 1988, the franchise has seen its fair share of ups and downs -- not to mention the notorious “Madden Curse”. Nevertheless, it consistently rushes to the top of the sales charts with each annual release, captivating NFL fans, and inspiring the entire sports genre.

Madden NFL 11 – the series’ 22nd installment – is just around the corner. With that in mind, let us reflect on the history of Madden and assess its impact on the gaming industry, the sport, and the world: How has EA Sports screwed and improved the Madden series over time? The Early Years (1988-1993)

John Madden Football started it all back in 1988, and the series was far from being a household name like it is today. Without the official NFL licensing or the likenesses of real players, the older Madden games relied on some imagination to compensate for technical restrictions, but they set the framework for the future and provided a solid foundation to work from.

John Madden was more concerned with the authenticity of the game and its potentially constructive benefits, but Electronic Arts managed to make it entertaining to boot: Before long, the first 16-bit installments came out and brought more life and color to the virtual sport.

The ’92 and ’93 seasons were huge improvements for the Madden series: Instant Replay was added in ’92, along with the infamous ambulance that would occasionally run over injured players on the field.

Taking Stride (1994-1995)

The ’94-’95 seasons for EA Sports’ franchise were largely innovated by numerous gameplay features like a battery-save feature and perspective-switching of the camera for kickoffs, punts, and turnovers. Nonetheless, the most important addition to the series can be seen in the title: the NFL license.

Acquiring the official licensing for teams and players brought the excitement of professional football to gaming like never before. In fact, Madden NFL ’94 was the first game to use the iconic EA Sports tagline, “It’s in the Game.” Although there were some bugs involved, like the Giants/Jets rosters being swapped, this season was huge for Madden and EA Sports. As a side note, Madden '94 on the Sega Genesis was my first experience with the series, and I was in love with it long before I understood all of the nuances of football.

Building on the Basics (1996-1999)

Unfortunately, the transition to the 32-bit generation after the mid-90’s was ugly on the eyes. The first fully-polygonal Madden game (Madden 64) was the first installment on Nintendo’s 64-bit console, but it abandoned the official licensing and sacrificed authenticity along the way. The PlayStation versions were better but their grainy, gritty visuals are simply headache-inducing today.

The next few seasons were solid, and the game-changing additions consistently revolutionized the genre. The opposing AI was improved, cooperative play was enabled, and season modes were introduced. The presentation was enhanced with commentary by Pat Summerall and Madden himself, but the most important new feature was Franchise Mode. This mode arrived in ’98 and allowed armchair coaches to monitor every single detail about each player and learn a thing or two about trades and salary caps over multiple consecutive seasons.

Last but not least, new creation modes were thrown into the game for players who wanted to customize and build their own playbooks, players, and teams from scratch. Fans of NCAA Football could even bring their best players from those titles into the NFL Draft in their Madden Franchises, which formed a bridge between the two titles that greatly benefited them both.

Unfortunately, trouble was looming, and it smacked EA Sports square in the chest on September 9th, 1999.

…America’s Team? (2000-2004)

The Madden series always had legitimate competition before the launch of the Sega Dreamcast, but none of them proved to be a bigger thorn in EA’s side than Visual Concept’s NFL 2K series. At the time, the NFL license was spread out across the market, giving gamers other options like Game Day and NFL Quarterback Club. They quickly faded when the battle essentially came down to NFL 2K and Madden. For the next five years, the two franchises traded punches back and forth, and the sides were almost even by the time NFL 2K became ESPN NFL Football in 2004.

Despite the rise of the “Madden Curse” and the heated competition with NFL 2K, this was a very prosperous era for the Madden franchise. Many gamers believe that the tug-of-war between Visual Concepts and EA Sports was highly beneficial to the market, and it is hard to argue when you consider the resulting effects: Both football games were becoming more like their real-life counterparts. Broadcast-style menus and statistics broke down each game into great detail; eventually there were end-of-the-week shows in Franchise mode that provided news, highlights, and Players of the Week. The animations were becoming more realistic for each player on the field, and stadiums were bustling with fans, cheerleaders, coaches, and sidelines populated with the entire roster. Instant replays of breathtaking football moments could even be saved and re-played for friends.

The ‘02, ‘04, and ’05 seasons were some of the most important years in its history: online play came in the ‘02 season, while on-field mechanics were overhauled with “Playmaker” controls in ‘04 and ‘05. Offensive mechanics in ’04 introduced more audibles and hot routes as well as slick movement controls with the analog stick. It has been discussed to death amongst Madden fans, but ‘04’s Michael Vick remains the most dominant, overpowered player in Madden history. Ray Lewis set the tone on the cover of Madden NFL ‘05, which brought the Playmaker ideas to the defensive side of the ball. The glorious “Truck Stick” arrived in ’05, and big hits in Madden were nearly as satisfying as the spine-snapping tackles in NFL Blitz.

After the unfortunate death of the Dreamcast in 2001, the 2K series spread to multiple platforms. In EA Sports’s case, it was more like a virus: sales and reviews were split, but the online factor favored NFL 2K, and Madden went a year without an answer for online gameplay. ESPN NFL 2K5 appeared to have the Madden series in a death-grip when it was released at just $19.99 on launch day. EA Sports was in a pickle: They had effectively lost possession of their own niche, and they needed to pull out all the stops to regain control of the game.

License-gate (2005)

EA Sports’ next move would prove to be one of the biggest and most controversial stories in the last two decades: they acquired exclusive rights to the NFL, NFLPA, and ESPN licenses, effectively monopolizing and suffocating any hope for the competition in the future. No more ESPN NFL, no more Blitz – only Madden and NFL Street could use the official teams, players, stadiums, coaches, etc.

ESPN NFL Football fans were distraught; even Madden fans were taken aback by the decision. It did little to improve EA’s declining public image, and it actually caused legions of ESPN NFL 2K5 fans to boycott the series entirely. To this day, many stubbornly refuse to play anything with “Madden” on it. Madden fanboys rejoiced, but much of the gaming community essentially crucified the series and its creators.

Rebuilding (2006-2007)

The next two years were clearly a time of rebuilding for Madden. The ’06 season launched the “high-definition era of gaming” on the Xbox 360, and it flopped pretty hard. Gamers felt absolutely cheated by the $60 title; the commentary was noticeably absent, and the effect made it very boring to play the game. Considering the exclusive ESPN license, this was simply fuel that didn’t need to be added to the inferno of pissed-off ESPN NFL fans. There were too few game modes, and the on-field mechanics were panned by critics who hated the new “QB Vision” concept. Although it was an interesting idea that touched on the field awareness of each quarterback, the controls were awkward and interceptions seemed to be more common than ever.

Review scores for the ’06 season were terribly low, which did nothing to help gamers warm up to EA Sports’ series after all of the licensing shenanigans. The next season was another slow year of rebuilding, but Madden ’07 showed a lot of promise. Although the running game had never been terrible in the series, ’07 specifically touched on rushing the ball and using blocking to make smarter plays.

Back in its Prime (2008-2010)

The cover of Madden ’08 featured Vince Young, and put an emphasis on the explosive abilities of the league’s star players with its “Weapons” mechanic. This felt a lot like the concepts explored in EA Sports’ NBA Live series, but it worked well. Madden ’08 wasn’t quite the “championship season”, but it looked a lot like the New York Jets that lost to the Colts in the last AFC Championship. Far from perfect, sure, but the changes that were made obviously paid off and provided even more promise for the next season.

Brett Favre’s retirement antics mingled with the Madden franchise in the ’09 season, when he appeared as the cover star for Madden NFL ’09 in a Green Bay Packers uniform. Disregarding the issues of which jersey he was wearing (Packers/Jets fans could argue about it all day, and buy different copies with different covers if they wanted to), the game itself was fantastic. The visuals broke away from the canned, scripted animations of the past and adopted a much more fluid look and feel. The color commentary from Chris Collinsworth was grating, but at least John “No-Shit Sherlock” Madden was limited to suggesting plays rather than speaking about the action on the field. The handling and controls ultimately provided an intuitive and organic experience that managed to reflect the physicality and roughness of the sport without any cumbersome issues.

Carrying on with the comparisons between Madden and the last NFL season, Madden NFL ’10 was a lot like the Chargers – so close to perfect, so much better than it had been before, but still missing that “something” to go all the way and crown itself the definitive “best”. It was the first game to simultaneously jinx two cover stars, which was more detrimental to Troy Polamalu and the Steelers than Larry Fitzgerald and the Cardinals. There were a lot of new features integrated brilliantly into the successful, familiar foundation, including the revival of many older ones. The new Pro-Tak system made gang tackling mechanics a huge part of each play, and eliminated that “canned” feeling of contact animations in the past. The authentic realism of the game’s appearance had never been so impressive; signature animations for kickers and quarterbacks brought the energy of certain players to life. Each game’s broadcast was enhanced significantly, to the point that there were detailed pre-game previews, half-time reports, post-game stats, and a weekly show that featured stats and highlights from each team for any particular week in the season. Online Franchise/Fantasy Franchise modes allowed leagues of up to 32 people. The “Fight for the Fumble” system was its only major setback; it is likely making friends with QB Vision in EA Sports’ pit of doomed ideas.

Chasing the Perfect Season (2011-)

Although the Madden series has endured its share of peaks and valleys, the future looks bright for EA Sports and virtual football. Although the exclusive licensing ordeal will always burn in the hearts of NFL 2K/ESPN NFL Football fans, it might officially be time to put the issue to rest.

If the demo version of Madden NFL ’11 on Xbox Live and PlayStation Network is any indication, this year’s version should be one of the best in the series. New features like the momentum-based, locomotive running system and the dynamic play-calling system worked very well in my time with the demo. The presentation has been nearly perfected with effects, commentary, video replays, and an interface that truly seems to utilize the ESPN license. Combining all of these mechanics with the better ideas from recent Madden games, Madden ’11 feels, looks, sounds, and seems to be more realistic and entertaining than any football game to date.

Whether you love, hate, or simply don’t care about EA Sports’ Madden franchise, there is no doubt that it is one of the most important video game franchises of all time. Its rippling effects are not limited to other virtual simulations of organized competition; it actually has an impact on the league and community that it represents. Regardless of the best ideas (hit stick, franchise mode) or the worst ideas (QB Vision) that have been introduced and adopted over time, Madden has stood through it just as firmly as Mario, Link, Samus, Snake, or any Final Fantasy character – and that is a victory in itself.

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