It's football season, which means that it's time for analysts to start throwing out suggestions for fixing Madden (nevermind that, absent some problematic bugs, this is is the best Madden in ages). Enter Chris Suellentrop, critic at large for Kotaku and host of the podcast Shall We Play a Game.
Suellentrop's big idea for Madden? Make it a 22-player football sim. What he is proposing is essentially NHL's EA Sports Hockey League writ gigantic, suggesting that his vision could be a popular eSport. "If it were done right, people might actually start watching Madden NFL instead of Monday Night Football. Instead of listening to canned commentary from Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, we could listen to live, unscripted commentary from football analysts about each play."
In a vacuum, it's a nice idea. In a reality, it's completely outside of the scope of an annual sports sim, and probably a football sim in general. No, it's not the old cliche that EA is bad and 2K could pull it off. It's that there are real structural hurdles to making a game like this.
Hockey fan Koden Curial, who is part of EA's Game Changers program, hinted at such limitations when talking to me about about the virtues of NHL's EA Sports Hockey League, "Pretty much everyone on the ice gets to do something, as compared to FIFA where you might have backfield people who don't get to do anything the whole game. In hockey, everyone can be involved at all times."
FIFA is 11 vs 11 and plays in real-time. Madden is also, strictly speaking, 11 vs 11, but it is split between offense and defense; and for all intents and purposes, it is a turn-based strategy game with numerous stoppages in play. Put simply, a lot of people would be stuck twiddling their thumbs in such an environment.
But what if we made it so everyone plays one offensive player and one defensive player? That way we're back to true 11 vs 11. Even accounting for that, though, and Suellentrop's suggestion that "the right designer" could make playing even left guard and fullback fun, there are other questions that need answering. What do you do for nickel packages when the third come ons for a linebacker? How do you handle three, four, or five receivers? These are all questions that the developers would have to answer; and even if the answer was "have the same 11 players play multiple positions," they would have to design multiple systems to make it happen.
Then there's the complexity of designing a full-blown class-based eSport. Yesterday, I profiled the NHL team's efforts to bring back the EASHL and balance it for the current generation with the help of the fans. They've spent more than a year developing a handful of classes for each position, meticulously balancing each one and giving it a specific role. In a theoretical Madden All-22 Mode, Tiburon would have to do something similar, but they'd have three times the number of classes to balance. I can almost hear them giggling over the thought of the amount of overtime they would have to pull.
Finally, there's the fact that Madden actually has experimented with Online Team Play but has yet to re-introduce it for the current generation of consoles. The reason? It wasn't very popular. You can argue that the limited nature of the mode was the reason, but I think it's more that video game football is hard. Part of the joy of the sport is that every team is a well-oiled machine, and if one part of that machine fails, then everything falls apart. It's not like hockey where you fly up and down the ice and only sort of have to be in the right place; in football, you have to run good routes and know what coverages you should be, with mistakes resulting in turnovers and opposing receivers dancing unopposed into the endzone. And frankly, it's just more fun to be a quarterback. Again, it's not like hockey where everyone has something interesting to do. Maybe a great designer can turn being a center into its own little minigame, but most people want to chuck the ball down the field.
As always, it's worth pointing out that video games aren't designed in a vacuum. It's easy for an armchair designer to say that Madden should have 22-player team play, but actually getting it implemented is something else entirely. It's ignorant of the fact that these teams typically have less than a year to get a game out the door, and that they have to be smart about what they choose to tackle. Call it a failing of the annual sports sim model if you wish, but that's the reality.
Now if someone wanted to make a class-based football sim devoted entirely to the All-22 experience, I'd be interested to see what came of that. If could be an enjoyable novelty, if nothing else. Something tells me, though, that its reach would be pretty limited. Playing left guard is the football sim equivalent of being an air traffic controller in an online flight simulator. At the end of the day, there's a reason everyone wants to be the quarterback.