Every August, gamers and diehard football fans take their joystick talents to the virtual gridiron when EA Sports’ Madden franchise releases its latest installment. Weeks before the NFL’s real games begin in early September, gamers are adjusting rosters, learning playbooks, and simulating entire seasons in the popular franchise mode or playing online in head-to-head matchups with friends and strangers. Fans of the series anticipate the games’ release date like it’s Christmas morning; Madden 2020 became the top selling game in July 2019, an impressive feat considering only the special edition released on July 30th.
Madden is such a dominant force on the sports video game landscape every summer because it steamrolled its competition years ago. If you are a fan of football looking to hit the digital gridiron but aren’t a fan of EA, or of Madden itself, you’re out of luck, and have been out of luck for well over a decade. EA has held an exclusive marketing deal with the NFL since after the 2005 season, a transaction brought around in some part because of the quality of arguably its biggest-ever pigskin rival, 2K Games’ “NFL 2K” franchise. This series peaked in 2005 with NFL 2K5, a title widely regarded as one of the best games in sports history. A quick Google search will drum up plenty of opinion pieces and videos arguing this sentiment. And in eliminating its biggest-ever competitor, EA also eliminated any outside motivation to improve its franchise, a fact illuminated by another great NFL gaming franchise.
The first installment of NFL Gameday came out in November of 1995. At this point, the Playstation-exclusive was the new kid on the block. Various forms of “Madden” had existed since 1988, when John Madden Football hit the PC and Mac gaming market. It would join the console market in 1990, along the likes of Tecmo Bowl and NFL. But those looking for a truly enriching pigskin video game experience had few options. Sure, running literal laps around opponents with Bo Jackson remains a joyful relic of its era, but these were modest games.
Out of the gates, Gameday separated itself from the pack. It featured revolutionary 3D, 32-bit graphics, the likes of which EA itself could not muster the same year (this fact played a role in EA giving the production contract of Madden from Visual Concepts to Tiburon Entertainment).
EA’s effort for the 1996-1997 season seemed to revolve primarily around cracking the 32-bit barrier, and while they succeeded in this facet, the game was widely considered to be outclassed by NFL Gameday ‘97. A pattern of catch-up seemed to be emerging: if you bought Madden over Gameday, you were buying relatively underdeveloped software.
Game designers tasked with creating yearly titles face some of the tightest development schedule in the business. When you also consider that EA was now playing catch-up to Gameday, they had a very difficult hole to climb out of. Tiburon would spend the majority of its development time and energy trying to crack the 32-bit barrier, with little time for much else. This led to a relatively buggy, unpolished game, especially in contrast to the Gameday franchise, which had more time to fine-tune its already strong title.
Yet again, Gameday released the superior sim for the 1997-1998 season. This was a big release: the game managed to crack the 64-bit, fully-3D barrier — and crack it well, with smooth controls and a dense playbook —while EA was still trying to perfect it’s own 32-bit gameplay mechanics.
The three-peat was far from unnoticed. Sony’s Kelly Flock added gas to the rivalry’s fire, saying “if you want to play next year’s Madden early, buy this year’s Gameday.”
And yet, after three years of giving up huge plays and letting its own franchise get sacked, EA finally delivered in the 1999-2000 season. Madden ‘99 finally matched Gameday in style and substance, offering crisp 64-bit gameplay that was arguably better than Sony’s title. It also offered an in-depth “Franchise” mode that allowed gamers to control an NFL franchise for 15 seasons, now a staple in all modern sports franchises.
EA held firm in its top-dog status for at least a couple years — thanks in equal parts to supurb gameplay and cultural relevance, including buzz-worthy cover athletes and soundtracks featuring Madden-themed remixes of hit songs — while the GameDay franchise found itself playing catch-up until its final release: NFL GameDay 2005. This was also around the time that EA was getting seriously pushed by the NFL 2K franchise, which led to the lucrative deal that, to-date, leaves EA as the sole company allowed to make NFL-licensed games.
If “no more “NFL 2K” games” is a micro reason to get annoyed at EA’s business handling, GameDay pushing EA to make better games in the ‘90s offers a more macro reason. Sony’s three years of making superior games clearly helped EA in the long run by forcing Tiburon to step its own game up.
There’s another reality where the competition between EA and 2K Games could have pushed the genre to new heights. Current installments of Madden generally receive respectable marks from critics. Without some significant leaps forward in gaming hardware capability, it’s hard to imagine how many different places an NFL simulator can go beyond the usual suspects: tweaked gameplay, improved graphics, enhanced online support, and a slightly different single player narrative structure. But take 2K Games’ first-person mode as an example of innovation forced by competition. The mode wasn’t perfect, but it represented the sort of outside-the-box thinking that can lead to great gaming conventions down the road, made in part to stand out in a crowded NFL gaming market that included Madden.
With another year or two to work out the bugs, it’s anyone’s guess as to how it would improve, and what sort of adjustments EA would have to make in its own game as a result. First-person football could have become the new standard, improving year after year, getting taken to new heights by the burgeoning VR-market; or it could have shown its hand to be nothing more than a headache-inducing gimmick, no matter how many times it was polished. The shame is in lost potential; we’ll really never know what it could have been. To-date, EA has not attempted such a mode.
This should come as no surprise, considering EA’s reputation as a coldly capitalistic development house, often bleeding gamers dry through micro-transactions and issuing relatively rushed releases. And there’s not much gamers can do about it, unless both the NFL and EA voluntarily open the market back up, which seems about as likely as Andrew Luck playing for the Colts again. Let the Madden/GameDay rivalry of the ‘90s serve as a reminder of what competition can bring out of developers.