This year, the football videogame Madden NFL celebrates its 25th iteration, and the appropriately named Madden NFL 25 spends a lot of time celebrating itself in the loading screens. John Madden Football debuted for the PC and Mac in 1988, before moving to the consoles of the early ’90s. It’s weird to think that the Madden games are almost as old as I am. I’ve been playing the games intermittently ever since I was a kid, and I’ve never known football without Madden alongside it.
In its current form, it’s a marvel of modern videogame engineering, millions of dollars of production, processing power, and year-over-year tweaking. But Madden is a beast of a game. It’s a fitting metaphor for triple-A videogames, especially those franchises that have endured many iterations. Madden itself improves by so little each year, and is so burdened by legacy features. There are about a dozen different modes to play — including a season simulator as a player, coach, or owner (all of which come with a character designer that allows you to scan in your face on the Madden website) — none of which seem to form a cohesive experience.
What is experience is Madden supposed to give me? How do I play this game? Am I even playing?
Madden is not really a game. It’s a simulation of a game, or maybe more accurately, a simulation of watching a game on TV. Pick two teams to face off and you’re greeted by commentators Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, who make broad generalizations about match up. Just like an NFL broadcast, there are replays, references to commercial breaks, and lots of corporate sponsors (Snickers, Papa John’s, Verizon, to name a few). It’s bizarre watching coaches challenge the call on a play and waiting for the refs to review a replay because there is no reason for that to exist in a videogame — the system knows when a pass is complete or not, but it pretends not to.
Madden is also weird to look at. The player models look good, detailed, but their glassy eyes make everyone look dead inside. The stadiums are beautifully rendered, but the thousands of fans that inhabit it look like lo-res clones of one another, bearing two different color shirts to represent each team. The coaches on the sideline look like insane pasty-skinned zombies with clipboards (for example, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll looks like a terrifying X-Men villain). Really, Madden looks bereft of humanity.
But where Madden really breaks down is as a thing you interact with. The best sports games don’t attempt to simulate the sport, but capture the spirit and strategy of a sport in a game that is fun. Electronic Arts’ Big series did this best, with their over-the-top, trick-focused snowboarding series SSX and the underrated NBA Street, a three-on-three variation that translated the fundamentals of basketball rather than the entire NBA experience.
Madden, in its attempt to be faithful to the behemoth that is American football, is an obfuscated experience. Nothing about the game is intuitive or simple. Since there are so many different positions in football, the game has the player switching control schemes depending on who has the ball. It’s extremely difficult to pick up as a novice, and even though I’ve played Madden games before, in Madden NFL 25 I found myself regularly pausing the game to reference the controls (there are nine pages of button layouts). I tried the training modes, allowing me to run drills so I could focus on certain positions, but even then, it was remarkably bad at teaching me anything about football. Now I know how to run a read option, but I had to google what a read option even is.
It’s possible Madden was built for diehards. Admittedly, I come to the game as someone who loves football, but doesn’t know it all that well. I can name major players and tell you about their dramas, but I couldn’t distinguish a Nickel formation from a Dime formation (I just imagine one is twice as valuable as the other). You call plays in Madden, but there’s a setting called AskMadden that allows you to choose between three plays instead of the entire playbook (I use this for defense).
But as much as I complain about Madden NFL 25 violating the basics of good videogame design, I stayed up until 2 a.m. playing it the first night I got it. I visited my family in Boston over Labor Day weekend, and the day I got back, I played for four hours straight. I can’t tell if I enjoy playing Madden or if I just enjoy the idea of football. Madden panders to the enthusiasm of the sport, and does that very well.
Madden isn’t really a videogame because the NFL is more of a TV show than it is a sport. Modern American football is designed to be consumed more than it was made to be played. Perhaps it makes more sense for Madden to simulate the television experience more than the sport itself because that’s clearly where the priorities are: the NFL has more required television timeouts than any other sport, and according to the Wall Street Journal, in a 174-minute broadcast there are only 11 minutes of action and about 60 minutes of commercials.
Madden is essentially a big, long ad for the NFL, broken as a game, fragmented as an experience, and against all odds, a lot of fun to play. In some ways, sports are only as exciting as we want them to be. Madden convinces us that there is nothing more exciting than football.
- Madden is Maddening
- It’s a Madden Madden Madden Madden World
- Truly, Maddeningly, Deeply
- The Madden Mountain
- From the Mixed Up Files of John Madden
- Madden Love
- Pretty Maddens, All in a Row
- He Jukes to Conquer
- Any Given Console