The end of August typically signals two things for NFL fans: a new season nearing its beginning and the release of Madden NFL, Electronic Arts’ yearly football video game.
I have been a loyal fan of the franchise for years, but I will not be returning after flushing another $60 on Madden 21. Since at least Madden 17, EA has put out terrible, lazily made products with seemingly no intention of ever fixing the series.
NFL video games peaked in 2004, and it’s been a long fall since then. That year, 2K Sports and Visual Concepts released ESPN NFL 2K5, a game many believe to be the greatest simulation NFL game ever released. NFL 2K5 was revolutionary, featuring more realistic gameplay, true-to-life ESPN presentation, pre-game and post-game shows with Chris Berman, cutting-edge visuals for the time, an incredibly deep franchise mode and perhaps most importantly, a $20 price point.
The competition brought the best out of both studios. While everyone remembers 2K5 as a classic game, Madden NFL 2005 was also a great product in its own right. It featured many similar modes to NFL 2K5, as well as receiving a price cut to $30 before launch to compete with 2K. Both games sold very well, and the competition forced both studios to try their hardest to put out a quality product to entice consumers.
So why am I bringing up games from 2004 in 2020?
After the battle between 2K and Madden in 2004, EA signed a contract with the NFL that made Madden the exclusive simulation football video game of the league, killing off the NFL 2K series, and all competition in the genre. Since Madden 06, EA has not had any competition in the NFL video game market, which has resulted in limited innovation.
Instead of adding features, the series has consistently cut features over the years. Madden 08, while still a great game, cut The Tony Bruno Show — an in-game radio show featuring real-life sportscaster Tony Bruno — talking about the games in your franchise mode. In Madden 13, EA removed the Pro Bowl, mini-camp, create-a-team and create-a-stadium. They also replaced franchise mode with a less in-depth mode called Connected Careers.
The new mode removed many features, including hiring offensive and defensive coordinators, tracking players’ former teams and restricted free agency, all of which have yet to return to the series. Madden 25 (released in 2013) merged Superstar Mode with Connected Careers. Madden has not even had mouthguards in their simulation football games since the PlayStation 2 era.
That’s not to say EA has been completely negligent with the Madden series. Madden 13 introduced Ultimate Team, a card-based game mode that uses microtransactions that has become a flagship mode in all EA sports games since. Madden 20 brought back the Pro Bowl, a feature that had been missing from the game for eight years at that point, and introduced “X-Factor,” which gave over-the-top abilities to superstar players.
While X-Factor was a cool addition, it cheapened the experience by making the game less realistic, and for that reason has no place in a simulation football game.
After all the disappointment of the past, I was not planning on buying Madden 21 but decided to do so exclusively for the purposes of review.
Do not make the same mistake as me.
If you have played Madden in the last four years, you have played Madden 21. The gameplay feels the exact same as every Madden since 17, aside from a few tweaks.
While the gameplay mechanics and glitches frustrate me to no end, my biggest issue is that the game is unrealistic. In my first game against the CPU on All-Pro difficulty, the other team had five turnovers and five roughing the kicker penalties as my team won 45-7. Stats like that rarely happen in the actual NFL. I have no clue what kind of football Madden is “simulating” these days, but it certainly is not the NFL.
The franchise mode is just as shallow as every game since Madden 13, missing so many of the features that made the mode so beloved before. Compared to the modern franchise modes in NBA 2K, MLB: The Show and even EA’s own NHL series, Madden’s is laughable. The amount of features cut in the last 15 years has made Franchise Mode a shell of its former self.
EA couldn’t even get the new cover art right, as it looks like it could be made by anyone with access to Photoshop and Google Images. Speaking of the cover, EA couldn’t get cover athlete Lamar Jackson’s shoulder pads right, giving him huge, bulky ones instead of his trademark smaller pads. Not even the likeness of the game can be produced correctly by EA.
What comes next for football video games? EA and the NFL extended their exclusivity agreement through 2026, but a new NFL game is on the way to the market. In March, 2K and the NFL announced a deal to create multiple “non-simulation football game experiences,” beginning in 2021, since EA’s exclusivity deal only extends to simulation games like Madden and the old NFL 2K series.
At this point, all I can do is hold out hope that 2K’s return to making NFL games can breathe some much-needed life into the football video game genre, but only time will tell. For now, we're stuck with Madden 21.
Like what you're reading? Support independent, award-winning college journalism on this site. Donate here.
More in Sports
With injuries and potential COVID-19 positives tests, more Hoosiers will be getting chances to play.
Ball has been named twice as an All-Big Ten honorable mention.
A matchup with the University of Connecticut suddenly looks very enticing.