The above user scores of Metacritic captured on Friday evening represent a week that has been a public relations nightmare for Electronic Arts (EA). With the release of Madden NFL 21, the latest entry in the company’s biggest annual franchise, the amount of negative feedback has been astronomical. It seems that this is the year that the bottom has finally fallen out after years of consumer complaints and concerns going unanswered and unaddressed. Madden 21 is on pace to be the worst rated Madden in its 30-plus year history by its consumers, already garnering the distinction of being the worst Metacritic user reviewed game of all time. Unfortunately, EA has done all of the right things to earn this distinction.
If you are a younger gamer, you may not really grasp how significant this downfall of Madden really is. This is an annual franchise that dates all the way back to the early 1990s. There is no other sports brand in video gaming that has the number of years under its belt that Madden does and no video game brand in general that has the consecutive years that Madden possesses. It has existed nearly as long as The Simpsons, just to give some context. Madden has literally been the very backbone of EA’s rise to prominence and why it is such a large corporation today, but the brand also reflects the organization’s decline.
I’m really sad to see Madden be in this position. I have played Madden all the way from its Sega Genesis/Super Nintendo days all the way up to Madden NFL 20. There was a time when Madden was a must buy every year. Although I played the versions before it, the very first Madden game I ever bought was Madden NFL ’94 on the Super Nintendo. From then on Madden became an annual tradition and I would trade in games just to be able to afford the newer version each year. I was committed to the Madden brand because those were the years that love, care, creativity and fantastic attention to detail were put into the games. I remember when Maddenisms were a thing and after a big hit, Madden would say, “Boom, he’s on his back.” The features that were touted as being new were indeed fresh and innovative additions to the game instead of being a recycled feature promoted under the guise of being new. I remember the years when Madden first included NFL teams, finally obtained the NFLPA rights to have real player names, introduced its first multi-season mode, implemented training camp modes and the hit stick. Does anybody remember the Tony Bruno Show in Madden NFL 06?
For me, the height of Madden was during its PS2 days. EA made some truly awesome football games during that time and I remember the colossal showdown between ESPN NFL 2K5 vs Madden NFL 2005 being one of the best sports video game battles of all time in 2004. Competition was at its peak as not only were EA and Sega Sports battling for supremacy in the NFL video game market but you also had other options during that era such as the Xbox exclusive NFL Fever series and Sony’s exclusive NFL Gameday series. At one point you also Acclaim’s NFL Quarterback Club series as well in the football sim market. And then, suddenly EA acquired an exclusive license to be the only publisher of NFL video games, virtually eliminating all competition in the market and marking the beginning of the decline of Madden football. If there is one trend that rings true more times often than not in gaming, it is that competition favors gamers and exclusivity does not.
To EA’s credit, the drop in quality didn’t occur right away. For several years they continued to produce really well received games with the Madden brand. In fact, my favorite Madden to this day is Madden NFL 08, which came after the exclusive NFL license deal. But when Madden went to the Xbox 360/Playstation 3 generation, a troubling trend began to emerge. For the debut of Madden on the next generation console, EA would remove a plethora of Madden features and staples only to then reintroduce some of them over time as brand new modes as if they never existed before. Meanwhile, gamers started to note that while the next generation console games would boast better graphics and outward appearance, the former generation console versions actually contained more meat on the bone in terms of content. For instance, the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of Madden completely removed the classic teams while the Xbox and PS2 versions retained them.
Madden Ultimate Team is another significant reason for Madden’s decline. While being introduced as another option for Madden players to explore outside all of the regular modes, Ultimate Team eventually became the flagship mode that EA put its main focus on at the expense of other areas of the game. The reason? Because of how much money the mode was generating for the company. Through Madden Ultimate Team, the publisher was now able to extract hundreds of dollars out of a single individual within a single product. In many cases, the $59.99 price tag was peanuts compared to how much money was made through microtransactions within the $60 game. As this mode received more attention, the quality of Madden’s core gameplay began to deteriorate rapidly and a contingent of dissatisfied users started to emerge with unfavorable opinions on the direction of the franchise. It was also at this point that I no longer bought Madden on a regular basis because I no longer found the game fun to play or able to sustain my attention as in years prior. After playing several exhibition games, the game would then just collect dust. This was in stark contrast to playing through multiple seasons during the PS2 era of Madden. During those golden years, Madden had smoother gameplay, simpler and more responsive controls, better and more intelligent A.I., and many more meaningful features such as create-a-team and create-a-stadium.
After buying Madden religiously over the years, Madden NFL 11 ended my string of consecutive purchases. From there I skipped all the way to Madden NFL 15, bought Madden NFL 16 and then skipped to Madden 20. In all three of my most recent purchases, I was wowed by the graphics in the beginning but the game became stale and there were always aspects of the game that felt broken. You can liken it to an attractive looking piece of steak overwhelmed with predominately nothing but fat. I gave EA a chance with Madden 20 earlier this year when the game was on sale just to see where the series stood. But the game just wasn’t what Madden should be in 2020. Pass defense was atrocious. A.I. was terrible in mimicking what actual NFL players would do in real life situations. The bugs, glitches and clipping were awful. Unnecessary animations hindered momentum in gameplay. Scripting seemed to overpowered the flow of the game, making it seem as if the game itself wanted to determine the outcome rather than the user. At best, Madden 20 was a mediocre game and yet, Madden 21 is worse.
Let’s put all of this in further perspective. IGN.com has been known for years to rate non-handheld versions of Madden games no less than a 7 out of 10. With a 6 out of 10 for this year’s Madden 21, it ranks as the lowest regular console review of a Madden video game in the website’s history. Only Madden’s handheld games have rated worse. Keep in mind that IGN has been reviewing Madden games since Madden 98 and, in my opinion, typically overlooks many of the flaws of modern Madden games. This was the first time that the site was not tolerate of the franchise’s glaring shortcomings that plagued its games for years. You can read the review HERE. Then if you visit Metacritic (PS4, Xbox One), you will find that negative user reviews in comparison to positive ones is at an all-time high for this year’s Madden. EA allowed it to get this bad and gamers have revolted in response. Will the publisher be willing to do what it takes to turn the tarnished reputation of Madden video game football around?
From this writer’s perspective, I will not buy another Madden game until EA has put together a string of at least three years of putting out a decent product. I am completely satisfied at this point playing ESPN NFL 2K5 and Madden NFL 08 with updated and historical rosters. By the way, kudos to all of those roster creators and modders that have done a wonderful job of keeping these classic games fresh. NFL 2K5 and Madden 08 are games that I enjoy and completely satisfy my desire for a NFL video game experience, even in 2020. Not only that, they are just fantastic and deep games to play without having to deal with the disappointment that comes from playing a current version of Madden.
Perhaps it also could be that having an annual release for three decades could be far too frequent for any franchise in general. The same type of Mario games do not get released every year and even Call of Duty switches between Modern Warfare, Black Ops and World War II depending on the year. Maybe Madden would be better served being released every other year or every three years while EA provides roster updates during the years the game isn’t released. The company could also make up the money from the loss of unit sales annually through microtransactions, which already makes EA more money than the unit sales anyway. Those are just some suggestions in order to keep the game fresh because it really can be difficult coming up with brand new ideas every single year for a game that has the exact same core year after year.
I hope that EA interprets all of this as a much needed wake-up call. Historically, the company made some of the best football video games ever seen and I enjoyed hours upon hours of pigskin fun with its games in the past. There was a time where EA could be counted on to deliver a high quality NFL product to its consumers but the company lost its way. My hope is that EA can return to its roots.
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