Play Madden long enough and you will eventually develop an internal clock. You can mentally count the seconds as your receiver takes off, sprints down the field, and makes their cut, thus opening a brief window in which you can hit them with a pass. It has become a little less cut-and-dried as the gameplay has become more sophisticated, but Madden has remained fundamentally pretty robotic over the years.
Madden has justifiably caught plenty of flack for this. EA loves to talk about realism, but when your players steer like action figures, it's hard to retain your suspension of disbelief. So it's intriguing to listen to EA lay out its vision for Madden NFL 21 on PS5 and Xbox Series X, which resembles nothing so much as Microsoft Flight Simulator in the way that it uses real-world data to power its gameplay engine.
Scheduled to be released in December, the next-gen version of Madden 21 stands to be the biggest graphical overhaul the series has seen since Madden 15. In addition to running at 60fps, Madden 21 on PS5 and Xbox Series X will feature updates to the lighting, the weather, the playcalling, and reactive sidelines. The PS5 version will make full use of the DualSense's haptic technology, enabling you to feel the footsteps as a pass rusher nears your quarterback.
This is pretty much you would expect from a premium next-gen upgrade. What potentially pushes it to the next level is its use of the NFL's Next Gen Stats—data derived from banks of sensors installed in every NFL stadium. Teams use this information to calculate everything from foot speed to the air velocity of the football, thus offering a complete picture of a player's individual capabilities. Madden 21, for its part, makes it into a kind of de facto motion capture studio, enabling EA to precisely capture elements like acceleration, deceleration, and route running.
Madden 21 Executive Producer Seann Graddy explains, "You can't get NFL players on a motion capture stage for the most part because of risk of injury. This gets us closer to that and how they move."
This new approach has all sorts of practical implications for the gameplay. In the previous-gen version, players run every single route at the same speed; in the next-gen version, they will accelerate and decelerate out of their cuts. In contrast to the sharp, precisely-angled turns found in earlier games, the routes in the PS5/Xbox Series X version will be more rounded. Receivers known for running precise routes, like Adam Thielen of the Minnesota Vikings and Stefon Diggs of the Buffalo Bills, may stand out even more in the next-gen version of Madden.
Wide receivers aren't the only players who stand to benefit from these improvements: running backs will hit holes with the proper amount of lean and momentum, and the speed with which Aaron Donald can crush a quarterback will be more precise. The result will be a game that feels slower but more realistic, with players interacting in ways they never have before.
According to Creative Director Connor Dougan, this technology has been in the works for a couple years now, with the first prototype being developed shortly after the 2019 Super Bowl between the Patriots and Rams. The improved CPUs found within the PS5 and Xbox Series X are what make it possible for Madden 21 to process the huge amounts of capture data produced by Next Gen Stats. It's an ambitious step forward for the series—one that's part of the emerging trend of incorporating real-world data to create authentic experiences.
For Madden fans, this may finally be what frees the series from years of being trapped in clunky animations, with star players at last being afforded the opportunity to shine in ways that feel true to their real-world counterparts. At least, that's the hope. EA loves to talk up its technology, but its implementation of the Frostbite Engine in the previous generation was uneven at best, and this year's release on Xbox One and PS4 was buggier than usual.
The bugs, at least, Graddy blames on the unique challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic, "I would attribute it to the crazy year we've had. We went home in March, and in four months we had to finish the game from home, test the game from home, coordinate with all of our QA testers. We also had a fairly ambitious year with introducing a brand new mode in The Yard; we were obviously working on [Madden 21 for PS5 and Xbox Series X] behind the scenes. You know this because you've been doing this a long time, but console transitions are always very challenging years without a global pandemic, so we had more bugs than we anticipated. I believe we fixed the vast majority of those bugs shortly after launch, almost in the launch window. A lot of those were found in the EA Access period, and I know the media folks have the game during Early Access, so they saw those bugs, but people who bought it during the normal launch window… a significant number of those were fixed. We always want to ship a high-quality game at launch, but I'm confident that most of that was fixed very quickly, and those title updates will carry over to [PS5 and Xbox Series X] as well."
As for the difficulties presented by the Frostbite Engine, EA Sports GM Cam Weber made sure to specifically praise the technology during the media briefing, saying that its integrated tools have enabled cooperation across a host of different studios. Frostbite has frequently been finicky at best, creating enough problems that Respawn Entertainment ditched the engine entirely when developing Apex Legends and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. The Madden team, for its part, seems to feel that they have turned the corner with the technology. We'll see.
Either way, there's plenty of reason to be optimistic about the next-gen version of Madden 21 after a rough run on PS4 and Xbox One. Far from playing it safe, EA is using its established technology base to try and create something genuinely special: a simulation grounded in the vast amounts of data collected by real-world NFL teams. If it works, it could create a sense of verisimilitude unlike any that we've encountered in a sports game… or it could be a buggy mess. This series truly is the Minnesota Vikings of sports sims: all the tools, talent, and money in the world, but none of the execution.
But to extend the analogy a bit, it's worth pointing out that while the Vikings struggled hard at the beginning of the season, their fortunes have turned lately thanks to transcendent talents like Justin Jefferson and Dalvin Cook. Will Madden 21 be able to pull off a similar revival on PS5 and Xbox Series X? Well, it's ambitious enough.
Whatever happens, Madden fans can look forward to an entry that retains all of the features from the previous generation, and will carry over all progress from Madden Ultimate Team, Franchise Mode, Face of the Franchise and The Yard. EA is also offering a free upgrade to anyone who purchased the game on PS4 or Xbox One… at least until Madden 22 comes around.
In light of Madden's recent stumbles, I remain skeptical that EA will be able to make good on its ambitions for the next-gen version of the series, but I hope to be pleasantly surprised. Either way, EA has made some very interesting bets on the future with this version. I'm excited to see how it all plays out when Madden 21 launches on Xbox Series X and PS5 on December 4.