So here's some good news for Madden fans: Madden 18 is looking great from a gameplay standpoint, and Longshot has been getting a lot of positive buzz. The bad news: Career mode fans are likely to be disappointed as Madden's devs once again kick the proverbial can down the road.
EA didn't go into too much detail during E3 on what they call Connected Franchise Mode or "CFM," but it was apparent that their focus is mostly on the transition to Frostbite and the development of their story mode. The biggest update fans can expect is a draft board—a new feature that will let online league players set their preferred player if they can't make it to the draft. Otherwise there will be the usual tweaks, but not too much else.
Madden 18's career mode is in some ways quite confounding. It has received a number of smart updates, but has otherwise remained fundamentally the same since at least 2013's Madden 25. The biggest updates have been to the UI and the way the offseason unfolds. Owner mode and player mode have remained virtually untouched.
This basic structure was put into place with Madden 13, which was the first year to introduce player XP-driven progression—a still frustrating approach that often results in unsatisfying player growth. Owner mode followed the next year, and the updates since then have been very targeted in nature. Subsequent games have brought with them a smart practice mode that lets you choose which players and formations to buff, as well as stronger free agent and draft functionality. Madden 17 introduced "Play the Moment," which made it much easier to get through games quickly and play multiple seasons. These very targeted updates have helped to improve career mode even as it has remained functionally the same.
Such updates have helped Madden's CFM to remain quite enjoyable, but it's lacking in other areas. Owner mode in particular is a dreadful, broken mess, its only redeeming feature being that it lets you move a team to one of a handful of select cities. Its mechanics are based on economics that flatout don't matter—owners don't care about ticket sales or hot dogs, they care about TV deal revenue—and its next to impossible to reverse a financial death spiral as a team like Jacksonville even if you play well.
Owner mode has festered for four years as the bulk of EA's attention has been focused elsewhere, and in the meantime other sports games have raced ahead. NBA 2K introduced an owner mode in which you can download user-created uniforms and arenas, enabling you to create virtually any team you want. NHL is introducing the ability to expand this year. Both have better, smarter owner modes that can serve as useful templates for Madden.
Beyond that, there's still much that the core franchise mode still lacks—real player personalities, for instance, or the ability to start a league with legendary players on your roster. FIFA has randomly-generated Football Manager-like storylines, and it includes the ability to assign teams to any league you want. Wouldn't it be nice if it were possible to, say, put the Packers in the AFC East, just for a change of scenery? Sure, that would be impossible in real life, but this is fantasy. Anything is possible.
NBA 2K is even further ahead than FIFA in the career mode department. It lets you take as much or as little control as you want; start a franchise at the same point in the season as the real NBA (with stats to match), and expand and contract. It has advisors who will offer their thoughts on free agency and drafting; players who complain about playing time, and even the ability to start a franchise with a legendary team like the 2004 Minnesota Timberwolves (heh). It's the gold standard for sports game franchise modes.
I'll say this for the core of Madden's franchise mode: it's smartly presented, moves at a good clip, and includes excellent online functionality. I'm no fan of the XP system, which is inscrutable and frankly kind of a pain, but it works. The practice mechanics are excellent. Nevertheless, it falls far short of perfect.
Career Mode Quandry
Whenever CFM fails to receive a meaningful update, fans turn their ire toward Ultimate Team—the heavily monetized mode that has lately become the face of sports games.
Madden's developers bristle at the idea that they don't care about career mode, but they also acknowledge that there are only so many resources to go around. And since Madden 25, EA has made it clear that their priorities are gameplay and Ultimate Team—the franchise's bread and butter. XP definitely isn't going anywhere. That said, there's still plenty of room for improvement within the existing framework.
As I see it, the biggest challenge facing Madden's CFM is longevity. After winning the Super Bowl, many people quit playing simply because they've accomplished their one major goal for the year. EA has tried to enhance Madden's longevity by introducing concepts like Legacy Scores, but such rankings for the most part feel arbitrary and meaningless.
I should add that this is a problem that all sports games kind of struggle with. NBA 2K has done the best job of addressing this problem, making it so you can earn points and even eventually buy the team. FIFA, I suppose, also has a kind of built-in longevity in that you can take control of a fourth division team and shoot for a Champion's League spot, or do something silly like play as the LA Galaxy in the English Premier League.
Both NBA 2K and FIFA work because they have long-term goals to pursue that go beyond the bounds of the regular season. If Madden NFL were to evolve its franchise mode in any meaningful way, I would want it to be in that direction. One possibility that I've been wanting for ages: in-game achievements. Beyond that, simply finding a way to acknowledge your accomplishments within the framework of the game would be nice. Sports games have an annoying way to resetting back to zero after you win a championship, forgetting that the previous season ever happened.
Absent that, Madden can take a significant step forward by taking a hard look at owner mode and player mode and making them actually fun to play. With the overall gameplay being in a very good place, and Longshot looking like it will be a hit, the time is ripe for EA to take a hard look at career mode.
Alas, that won't be happening in Madden 18. But with certain aspects of CFM looking quite outdated these days, EA should know they can't procrastinate forever. Next year is as good a time as any for the series to take a major step forward in that department.