The Fall of the Madden NFL Franchise: A UX Nightmare

(If you want to skip straight to the UX part, scroll to the heading “Madden 23”)

How is someone supposed to run a play with the camera stuck here?!

I’ve boycotted purchasing Madden since Madden 13, although, my dissatisfaction didn’t start there. I am known amongst my friends and peers to champion “The Fact” that the best Madden ever made was Madden 07, and the exclusivity deal + unsuccessful transition into the seventh-generation of consoles was the beginning of the downfall.

Granted, this part is written from the perspective of my 15 year old memories, it has been deeply etched in my mind as the time I had the best experience with a Madden title.

At this point in the Madden timeline, the Franchise Mode was relatively robust with the ability to import saved draft classes from the NCAA Football Dynasty Mode. This provided the game with one of the most realistic simulation football experiences for Madden from a team management standpoint. Of course, this was no longer an option after the class-action lawsuit from former collegiate football players effectively ended the licensing and production of the NCAA Football franchise at 14 (the best football game ever), as former collegiate players formed a class-action suit to get paid. Ironically, this was the same year that NCAA Football began to edge away from Madden and become the better football franchise. Hopefully, now that NIL is a thing and EA Sports College Football is in the works, the actual King of simulation football may return as, although my hopes have been tempered after reading that it will be run on the same engine as Madden.

Building upon the feature introduced in Madden 06, players could create a player using a randomized parent generator that would determine how good the player was starting out. If you’re unfamiliar, think “legacy kid” (both parents played professional or collegiate sports) vs “Rudy” (parents were average citizens with a high school sports career at best). One of the most realistic features in a character creation and allowed you to create a storyline (even if only in your head) while controlling just your player. Some people may complain about the lack of in-game story elements, but part of what enabled me to enjoy sports games was using my imagination to create story lines along with great gameplay mechanics, versus following a pre-written storyline that has pre-defined results. My friends and I would swap the funny stories we came up with for off-the-field issues that might effect our players performances after they had a bad game or something.

I distinctively remember having a long career with a linebacker, which was so memorable as prior to this, I would only control D-Linemen on defense because it was difficult for me to navigate any other position unless it was in pursuit for a tackle. In other words, the game mechanics and player movement were perfect, and set you up for success once you learned to maximize reading the offensive line to determine the play type. This is what Madden wanted, a simulation game (as close as to the real thing as possible) that teaches players football.

The fabled “Hit Stick” introduced in Madden 06 was revamped into the “Highlight Stick” to accommodate for smaller players, adding to the realism. “QB Vision” became an optional feature, which was introduced in Madden 05 to many fans’ dismay. I liked it, although the bias was real, as it was a clear nerf to mobile QBs like Michael Vick and played into the “prototypical Quarterback” stereotypes…but that’s another topic for another day.


The enemy of competition. The growth of stagnation.

When EA signed an exclusive licensing rights deal with the NFL for simulation football in 2004, 2K Sports was effectively kicked from the party. Mike Mika, who was working on NFL 2K, described the agreement as “like a nuclear bomb going off in the game industry.” The nuclear fallout has been worse than anyone could have possibly imagined. This happens right at the cusp of 2K Sports creating very compelling alternatives to Madden for 3 years, and partnering with ESPN to become ESPN NFL Football for 2K4 and 2K5. Critics mostly rated Madden to be the better game, although the visual aspects and presentation is what won with 2K. I am certain that this was a catalyst to the current state of the Madden franchise today.

ESPN NFL 2K5 may still have a chokehold on Madden developers, as it came in priced $30 cheaper, significantly cutting into Madden 05’s sales and forcing EA to drop the price from $49.99 to $29.99. This is what we like about capitalism, when it’s a consumer dominated market, businesses have to bend to the demand of the consumers. Now that EA effectively bought their right to monopolize simulation football, that was the last competitor they ever had to face, and it shows.

Using Madden 07 as a benchmark, go back 16 years, and it’s 1991. Tecmo Super Bowl was the best football game, prior to Madden coming to an agreement to create the franchise that would become the Kang of simulation football. To this day, you can find Tecmo Super Bowl in vintage arcades (I recently saw it at an establishment called Cidercade), re-released on current-gen consoles, and at some point during my Madden boycott, I bought a vintage dual NES/SNES system to play the copy I still own. Granted, I was born the year that game came out, so the fact that it is something I’ve played and still enjoy is a testament to have great of a game it is.

In contrast, fast forward 16 years from Madden 07, and Madden 23 is AWFUL. And EA knows it. Everyone knows it. Unfortunately, it’s the only option, and many football fans and brand loyalists do not have the will to stop buying like I did.

Before I was able to buy an Xbox 360 in 2007 or 2008, I played Madden 08 for the first time at a GameStop in the mall. I noticed the graphics were greatly improved from my beloved 07, but the gameplay didn’t feel very smooth, at all. Quite clunky to be honest. Still married to the franchise, I endured minimal improvements, the removal of the best features, and incomplete products (now that games can be updated post-release) that were never fully optimized (because you know, gotta start working on the next roster update in the form of a new game).

The dagger was in the introduction of “Ultimate Team” in Madden 10, and it’s subsequent hyper-focus on it’s monetization. At this point in the franchise’s history, it became apparent to players and media outlets alike that business strategy became more important than user experience as Ultimate Team would dominate game updates and in-game marketing.

I’ve played at least the demo of every Madden since I stopped buying, and none of them have encouraged me to buy. Now that Madden 23 is available on EA Play, I decided to finally give Madden another shot. (Feedback is for equitable modes mentioned in the section about Madden 07).

The Good

The only thing that Madden really gets right is it’s storytelling of the history of John Madden and how the game came to be. It starts off with an All-Time NFC vs AFC game, that is strangely only available when you first start the game. They also changed the physiques of the players to look slightly more realistic, as there have been a few editions between 13 and 23 that made the players look like top-heavy boxes. The kicking meter is somewhat realistic as well, which is a feature that has changed numerous times.

The Bad

As eluded to when I mentioned ESPN NFL Football 2K5, it seems that presentation has been a high priority for EA. I can tell that a lot of effort went into the pre-game presentation, in between drives (although repetitive) and being able to choose between 4 celebration types after big plays and touchdowns, none of which is essential to simulation gameplay.

Face of the Franchisemode does exactly what some people wanted and the exact opposite of what I like about player careers. It starts you out as a 4-year veteran (rather than a rookie) and has a storyline set. I created a QB, where the play-types are locked in by choosing 1-of-3 body types, similar to current starting QBs in the league. This limits creativity and enforces the stereotypes of “prototypical QBs” and their variants. Robert Griffin III would not be able to create himself, as his speed cannot be unlocked for a player of his stature. It’s alternative is a potentially online co-op 6v6 mode, which directly opposes the vision John Madden set for the game.

Within this mode, at least once or twice per game, the camera gets stuck in a fixed position where you cannot see majority of the field. The only way out of it is to choose a run play, or burn a timeout so that the camera can reset. Alternatively, you can gamble and throw a pass to a wide receiver in a coverage you cannot see and hope your timing pays off. Absolutely not.

Handing off to the running back is a risk in itself. I decided to hand it off on a 2nd and 6, and the running back ran untouched, only to make an unrealistically sharp cut BACK INTO THE DEFENSE to get tackled for a 3rd and 1. Had the AI not done that, the play easily would’ve netted 12–15 yards. The only possible justification for this is to provide your QB with a chance to get the first down, but at the cost of blatant non-realism? Strange decision.

You also cannot restart a game, while in the FIFA franchise, you can. There reasons why anyone would want to use a restart feature will be covered in “The Ugly.” Also, the inability to play this mode offline doesn’t make sense. Nothing about it makes it inherently necessary to be online, especially when you have the option to play the Franchise mode offline.

Franchise mode lets you operate from a player or coach perspective, and not the General Manager. This is similar to FIFA, although there was a time when you could even change the price of concessions, along with hiring and firing coaches. I personally wanted to let the Texans tank (similar to the actual 2022–23 season), hire DeMeco Ryans, and draft a QB. I cannot do that, as I am attached to the coach.

The Ugly

The AI is AWFUL. Ok, that may be slightly dramatic, but it really doesn’t make sense for Madden 23 to be a regression from any previous title. Considering a player can only control 1 out of 22 players on the field, it goes without saying that AI is what carries the experience.

The CPU AI’s is too smart and too efficient

Understanding that I play on All Madden (hardest) difficulty, the rate of interceptions is exceptionally high. Specifically, when comparing to dropped interceptions. I get it, the hardest difficulty should make you pay for your mistakes. However, it’s not just a matter of misreading the defense. There have been several times where I placed the ball where only the receiver can get it, and the defender displays an almost impossible closing speed and nabs the ball as if they were the intended receiver. This is especially egregious when there’s a mismatch (like a slot receiver against an line backer that doesn’t have high pass coverage ratings). Comparatively, User AI drops these same interceptions. I would love the opportunity to test this on the newest gen consoles, as “FIELDSense” is not available to the 8th generation.

Frequency of user fumbles is also high, especially with a smaller QB. Older Madden games had a “protect the ball” button that would mostly mitigate fumbling when tackled by bigger defenders.

CPU AI quarterbacks will absolutely carve up any defense you throw at it, averaging between 66–80% completion rates. Someone is always open, and the CPU AI doesn’t take the time to go through a progression of reads — they immediately throw it for a completion, rarely into coverage.

User AI is lacking in the run game

As mentioned before, when you’re not controlling the running back, he will make some questionable directional choices. When you are controlling the running back, lead blockers will fill in a gap and completely ignore the closest defender. This not only goes against football logic, it is literally a firable offense in the real league. In this case, it’s just the defense taking advantage of a lackluster offensive AI. Previous iterations of Madden allowed you to control lead blockers, another feature that was subsequently removed. I would understand the defender quickly shedding the block, but for an offensive lineman to COMPLETELY miss a block is not an accurate simulation. Player movements are in addition very clumsy, in that running into the back of a blocker immediately causes the ball carrier to keel over as if tackled in slow motion. In earlier games, the runner would just stall, not completely fall.

One of the most basic, fundamental aspects of the game have been broken

Switching players was best when it was A/X (Xbox/PS). Since A/X has been changed to a secure tackle, and switching players in defensive pursuit has become B/circle, it still doesn’t feel right after all of these years. More specifically, the action isn’t as intuitive and fluid as it used to, as the player switch used to happen immediately and players would be in control of the nearest defender. There are times where a linebacker is within 2–3 yards of the ball carrier, and a safety at least 8 yards away, and the game switches you to the safety. This would obviously create disaster if you expect to become the linebacker and reflexively try to tackle, but instead, you effectively take the next line of defense out of the play. If the CPU AI breaks the User AI’s tackle in that situation, it is almost a guaranteed touchdown.

This simulation is a broken one

I imagine the simulation (when the game advances without a user playing) operates on an algorithm of probabilities based on the in-game and real life stats of the teams and players. In the 2022 season, 94% of field goals that were kicked inside of 40 yards were made, yet somehow, when the game simulates the moments you are not on the field during Face of the Franchise, there’s a MUCH higher percentage (<6%) of drives that end with 0 points instead of 3 when it’s 4th down within the same range.

I emphasize AI in this article because recent advancements provide Madden with a great opportunity to utilize them to make the game a better simulation. Ironically, while Madden has an 11–9 record in predicting Super Bowl winners, the franchise is 3–7 in the last decade and currently on a 3 year losing streak despite a 4–0 start with beginning with Madden 04.

Fans at-large hate it

The Metacritic scores reveal the ugly truth: users have not been happy with Madden for years, going as low as a 0.3 rating for Madden 21. One may say 1.1–1.3 is an improvement for this year’s game, yet Madden 15 has the highest rating of 6.3 for Xbox One. That’s a significant drop off.

Unfortunately, the only thing that would motivate EA to genuinely make changes is not meeting the sales targets outlined in their exclusivity deal, which still has 3 years on the table. Usability and playtesting gains qualitative insights, but as they say, it’s more about what players do vs. what they say. This is a case where I believe the sales metrics create a false narrative, and it’s more like settling in a relationship for someone you hate because you believe there is no use in finding an alternative. In this case, there is no alternative. For fans, their best option would be to rip the Band-Aid off and stop purchasing the game.

Madden 24 will be 35th iteration of the game, and since I’m writing this in March, that means they have 5 months until it is released.

As a fan

I would recommend that they take a year off of releasing to do deep research and release a game that is a composite of all of the best aspects of simulation football. Although, that would be a gamble from a business standpoint, assuming that they can recover the unearned income from the gap year.

The shortcut: copy NCAA Football 14. I would be happy with that gameplay repackaged as Madden 24 with updated graphics.

As a UX Researcher

  1. Conduct a qualitative meta-analysis of user reviews for Madden games between 15 and 23.

This would require a huge ego death for the developers, because the reviews are overwhelmingly negative. Nonetheless, this would highlight common themes across the games that would reveal high priority development targets. A non-passionate fan wouldn’t take the time to leave a review, so you can almost guarantee that the these users really want the game to improve.

2. Utilize NFL Next Gen Stat’s Powered by AWS as a main feature.

NFL fans have already been primed (no pun intended) to see this in use with the addition of Thursday Night Football on Prime Video. Not only will this AI help to inform the gameplay, it also creates a $trategic partnership with Amazon that would likely aid in sales or ad revenue. It just makes sense to leverage the partnership with the NFL and utilize the data provided by Amazon. This would also enhance the weekly gameplan feature in Franchise Mode by having the recommended gameplan based on the entire team rather than just one star player, and enable in-game play call suggestions to be based on these analytics to influence player play choices.

There are “full reports” of team tendencies, although they seem to function more as decoration. However, the full report is missing red zone tendencies, Second and Short, 4th down, and Medium distance for all downs. This further implies that the stats are for show rather than use. Likewise, the suggested play calls based on the chosen gameplan have very little variety and situational awareness.

3. Prioritize gameplay mechanics and deprioritize presentation/non-essential game modes. Get the fundamentals closest to perfect, first, then beautify.

Simply put, Madden Ultimate Team would bring in more money if the actual gameplay was enjoyable. I admit my bias against Ultimate Team and how it is cash cow for EA games and evidently is the highest priority (thus making it essential).

In real life, you can break the huddle and snap quickly to catch the defense not fully aligned. Older iterations allowed you to hold A/X pre-snap to speed up the animation — bring this back, as it takes 5 seconds for the QB to get ready for the snap when not in No Huddle, giving you less control and forcing you to choose between 2 extremes.

4. Only release a new game when significant strides have been made

This would rock the entire perennial release model, yet can be worked around. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel or pull one over on fans by reintroducing old features as new, stick with a base game and add new content as DLC. I believe people would be more likely to buy an updated roster every year at $29.99 — $49.99 a year (similar to a season pass). EA has evidence of this with Apex Legends and UFC 4. Granted, APEX is free-to-play, although so is UFC 4 and Madden a month-ish after the Super Bowl via EA Play (baked into the Ultimate Games Pass, thus perceived as a free download). There can be a creative strategy to hit sales targets without shipping a completely new game. This is where studying Rockstar’s GTA or Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky. The former showing that quality over quantity can NET BIG MONEY, player loyalty and brand trust for the latter. Rockstar didn’t have to sign an exclusive deal to blow the competition out of the water.

I only included 3 relatively general recommendations, as they would function as umbrellas and can be broken down into more granular KPIs. Quite frankly, being the exclusive NFL football sim and the only one for the past decade, it deserves a high level of scrutiny. And it’s not a matter of my skill level — my Face of the Franchise record is 12–2, and the first game I played in Franchise mode I won 35–7 (Texans vs Colts) — it’s about enjoyment. It’s not a good look to rest on the laurels of an exclusive deal, forcing players to deal with a non-enjoyable playing experience or having no current football game to play. The latter players likely have no problem sticking to the old titles, and I’m sure EA knows this, as Battlefield 2042 is still facing in-house competition with Battlefield V, Battlefield I, and Battlefield 4 respectively.

We all just want a good football game. That’s it. I understand that it’s easier said than done, but it would be different if it had never been done. Refer back to pass successes and build upon them.

As a UX Researcher moving towards working in the gaming industry, I am happy at the simple prospect of being able to advocate for the people that make these companies money. At the end of the day, value for dollar brings in more future dollars, so let’s create value.

Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn!

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