Sports are narrative. During an episode of the podcast Talking Simpsons covering the classic episode "Bart Star," in which Bart joins youth football, I said I got into sports because I was enticed by the idea of a story in which the ending is unknown. An inspiring underdog might complete an unlikely run to a championship... or they might get crushed like an ant. Just last week, Ajax looked all set to complete its fairy tale run to the Champion's League Final, only to have their heart broken in literally the final second. You just never know whether or not your team will have a happy ending..
Madden NFL's franchise mode has been lacking that sense of narrative thrust for a long time now. Ostensibly intended to put players at the helm of an NFL team over the course of multiple seasons, it has tended to come off as something of a glorified spreadsheet. The players have been defined by stats, and more recently, team roles and abilities, but have had precious little in the way of personality.
By comparison, Madden's direct competition has made solid strides in making its players feel like real people. FIFA has had transfer sagas for years now, and its players will get angry when benched. NBA 2K's players are similarly emotional, as are its various assistant coaches and advisors, many of whom have their own agendas. And of course, there's Football Manager, which has turned player interaction into an art form over the years.
Interactions like these matter because they make you forget that you go through the same repetitive actions over and over again for hours at a time. Winning the Super Bowl ultimately doesn't mean much when you're doing it with a bunch of robots. When you're managing a bunch of conflicting personalities though, a distinct narrative arc can start to emerge that endears you to your players, and thus makes you want to keep playing over the course of multiple seasons.
Such arcs have been largely absent in Madden, the only real exception being during free agency, where player interest is gauged based on factors like recent success and coaching. That appears to be finally changing though. Two weeks ago, EA formally unveiled Madden 20, including some of its most important features. In an interview with Game Informer, EA shared a feature called the "Scenario Engine," which aims to organically introduce storylines throughout the season.
"If a star player found out he was placed on the trade block, how would he react? If you cut ties with a future Hall of Famer in favor of a hotshot rookie, what would that do to the locker room? Recreating these scenarios required the creation of a personality system that gives the players some degree of agency. Team players like Julian Edelman may be more likely to take roster disruptions and drops in their usage rate in stride, but more volatile personalities may trigger crises that coaches/general managers need to resolve. Some of these may be gameplay based. If a talented receiver like Martavis Bryant is frozen out for three games, he may demand you get him the damn ball. If you don't, maybe he demands a trade."
From the sound of it, Madden 20 is going for something similar to FIFA, where storylines are automatically generated through a mix of chance and player interactions. In FIFA, players will sometimes randomly become homesick, or they will suddenly become linked to a different club. If you refuse to play them, their morale drops, hurting their stats.
This doesn't sound so different from the systems in Madden 20, where franchise tagging a player may cause them to demand a trade. It can be a worthwhile system, but only if there are real consequences to the player interactions. In FIFA, disgruntled players who suddenly demand a transfer can usually be ignored until the following season resets their morale. Even if you're a relatively small club, you're rarely at risk of a big club suddenly swooping in and stealing a player you really want to keep.
Another problem that FIFA has had for several years now: the stories are repetitive. A new season will start, and as soon as you see a particular message or new story, you know precisely how the narrative will play out. It all adds up to a system that quickly begins to feel artificial, even if it's ultimately better than nothing.
In crafting a scenario system of its own, Madden 20 has a chance to fix some of these longstanding complaints, and maybe offer a path forward for FIFA as well. Some of the early details sound promising.
"When we looked all year at storylines like Le'Veon Bell's holdout or Antonio Brown demanding a trade, we really didn't have anything in Madden right now to bring leadership and managing the locker room, and personalities, and cohesiveness that's needed on a football team either from a player perspective or a coaching perspective," creative director Mike Young told Game Informer. "The Scenario Engine is intended to create dynamic storylines week to week based on how you're playing, who you are, your record, your stats, and the personalities around you. It fires off stories that could be one-week stories, but there are also several storylines that are branching."
A multitude of short-term and long-term storylines sounds like just what Madden needs to shake up its otherwise sterile franchise mode. Additionally, the scenario engine will take into account factors like player roles, with locker room leaders being able to call team meetings during extended losing streaks. Some storylines may offer additional XP or morale boosts, or potentially trigger a "breakout game" for young players.
Done wrong, it could be a confusing mess of interlocking systems with no clear sense of cause and effect—a persistent problem for Madden's past franchise modes. Done right, it could make the mode feel alive in a way that it hasn't in years.
Personally, I welcome this new "Scenario Engine." Simulations are nothing if not a series of interesting choices, and managing player personalities ought to make franchise mode more interesting in the short-term. Longer term, I'd like to see Madden figure out a way to introduce goals that go beyond simply winning a Super Bowl, even if it's as simple as a trophy case.