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How the Madden Video Game Franchise Got Lazy and Stale

Thanks to an exclusive license agreement with the NFL, the developers behind Madden haven't had much in the way of competition for years, and their games have suffered as a result.

by Grant Pardee
Dec 3 2014, 2:35pm

Screengrab from YouTube user Chris Smoove

For over a decade, EA Sports' Madden franchise has been the only football game officially endorsed by the NFL—a big deal since gamers don't want to play games where they control a bunch of invented teams and made-up players. But not too long ago there was variety, in the form of Sega Sports's NFL 2K and Midway's NFL Blitz, and that competition made all of the games stronger, like some classic pro-capitalist textbook shit. But these days Madden has what amounts to a monopoly, and as any pro-capitalist textbook will tell you, that can lead to laziness and stagnation.

After this many versions of the same football video game, every update amounts to a roster update and some spit shine. Though the core gameplay rarely changes, when it does it tends to be of the "one step forward, two steps back" variety, fixing one problem area while another facet that had been seemingly fine suddenly goes to shit.

Worse is that the core gameplay as a whole is offputtingly complex, requiring a level of memorization that makes you wonder why you aren't spending your time learning a second language instead. And that's just the controls. The football strategy is just as complicated, which seems like that might be a good thing, but let's be real: This is a video game you will play with your friends while you are all stoned. The most football strategy you should need is "zone or man coverage?"

If I wanted to ask a friend to play me in Madden, they'd first need about a week or two of catching up on the Madden mechanics, and unless they're a hardcore football junkie, they'd likely also need some time to understand the various complexities and terminology of modern NFL football. It is the polar opposite of a "pick-up-and-play" game.

Recent Madden editions have been riddled with poorly designed menus, unbearably long loading screens, odd bugs, freezes—shit, you name it, it's happened in Madden.

Madden fans tend to agree the best years for the franchise were on the PlayStation 2, specifically years 2003 through 2005. I'll help jog your memory: The cover players for those years were Marshall Faulk, Michael Vick, and Ray Lewis, respectively; the pop songs playing endlessly on a loop were Andrew W.K., Blink-182, and Green Day.

And it's not merely nostalgia clouding our judgment. Those games actually were superior to recent versions. There were options, but not too many options; new features, but not too many. Everything was just right. The upgrades to the gameplay were actually helpful, like the Hit Stick, which allowed you to give an additional "umph" as a defender or running back with a flick of the PS2's dual joystick controller. The franchise mode added features like being able to relocate a team or change its name or make PR moves for the sake of the team and star players. There was depth to the gameplay in all the right places. During this golden age of course,  the franchise was feeling unprecedented heat from a new rival: the NFL 2K series.

Developed by Visual Concepts and initially published under the Sega Sports banner, NFL 2K began as an exclusive on the Sega Dreamcast because EA didn't want to invest themselves into what they assumed would be another failed piece of Sega hardware. EA was correct about that, but what they didn't count on was that the 2K sports games would become so critically and commercially successful.

After the  ​Dreamcast died in 2001, Sega became a multi-platform publisher and that's when the rivalry really began. Sega incorporated ESPN branding to establish further legitimacy, and the heat was on. Madden's status as the top dog video football franchise was not only in question, but it was looking vulnerable.

What made the 2K games great? Like the best sports games, they were immediately accessible—anyone could pick them up and be OK at them—but there was real depth to the gameplay too. It found the perfect balance between Madden's heavy sim approach and the pure arcadeyness of Midway's NFL Blitz or old-school Tecmo Bowl.

The pinnacle of the NFL 2K series was their last effort—ESPN NFL 2K5. Even ten years past its release date, the game still holds a ​legendary status among video football fans. There were innovations in only the fifth iteration of the 2K franchise that would take the Madden series wouldn't catch up to for years. One big example is the running game. Sure, running backs were still juking, stiff-arming, and spinning far more than you ever see in real-life football, but they also had added contextual animations like squeezing through blockers. There were also great additions in the presentation and feel of the experience, such as actual halftime recaps with commentary about the game you had just played. Sure, these were pretty basic, but so are real-life halftime recaps. There was also the introduction of the "Crib," which allowed you to give your professional athletes some personalized bling. (Visual Concepts continued to refine this popular feature in the NBA 2K series.)

So what happened to NFL 2K? Back then, it looked like it was going to win that particular gaming war—sensing blood in the water, Sega released 2K5 months ahead of Madden, and for half the price at $19.99. This was unprecedented and a clear declaration of war. One EA developer later told ​Grantland that Sega's aggressive move "scared the hell out of us." This forced EA to reduce Madden's price that year to $29.95 to stay competitive.

But in December of 2004, five months after 2K5's release, EA signed an  ​exclusive agreement for an undisclosed amount of money with the NFL to make Madden NFL the only series allowed to use NFL teams and player names. EA also signed an agreement with ESPN to become the only licensee of the ESPN's brand in sports games on all platforms.

Those deals essentially cut the throats of all competing NFL games. Shortly afterward, Sega sold off Visual Concepts and retreated further into irrelevance. Although it was originally said the deal lasted through 2013, it is  ​not actually known when EA's licensing deal will expire.

Ten years later, Madden remains the only option for video game football with the NFL license. The first year under the exclusivity deal, Madden '06, is widely regarded as the worst effort in the entire franchise. The releases since have been better, but are still frequently spotty. The latest innovation is Madden's version of fantasy football in which you are continually encouraged to purchase virtual cards from their online shop in order to win more games. Hey, buy our $60 product so we can nickel and dime you constantly!

Without the NFL license, versions of 2K and Blitz each made courageous attempts to compete using only the NFL Players Association branding with made-up teams and leagues. All-Pro Football 2K8 and Blitz the League both featured retired players like John Elway and Lawrence Taylor but failed to generate any kind of real competition to Madden.

EA's Madden team clearly sees this current status quo as one they earned legitimately. A ​video from this year's E3 conference showed Madden's creative director calling out challengers to "buy the license and make a game," even though that would be impossible under the terms of the exclusivity agreement.

And so Madden remains a state-of-the-art video game franchise, one of the most popular on the planet, a best-seller every year, regardless of product quality. In that way, Madden's story seems to be the perfect parallel for the NFL as a whole. For people who want to play video game football, it will have to do.

Follow Grant Pardee on ​Twitter.