The NFL season hasn't even started yet, and at least one big element of the football juggernaut is already struggling. Madden NFL 21, one of EA Sports' tentpole franchises, is off to its worst start in more than a decade, scoring an abysmal 63 on Metacritic and drawing fan ire on Twitter. The complaints are familiar: It's too buggy, it's too similar to last year's installment, not enough has been done to fix the franchise mode.
There's been much speculation on what exactly ails Madden, most of it centering on the franchise's lack of competition and the ongoing money spigot that is Madden Ultimate Team. Whatever it is, it's clear that something is amiss at EA. No matter what the dev team does to shake up the experience, the fans remain frustrated.
So what can EA do to get Madden back to scoring 90s on Metacritic? That was the question posed to me in a recent episode of The Sports Anomaly podcast, and my answer was basically, "Stop putting out a new game on an annual basis. Adopt Fortnite's seasonal model."
It's no secret that the annualized sports game model is archaic. Call of Duty, long Activision's annual stalwart, recently enjoyed its biggest success in years with Warzone, a standalone experience designed to persist beyond one just year. Assassin's Creed, another franchise that previously rolled out a new entry every year, skipped 2019. Those franchises that do put out an entry every year tend to feature multiple studios and support teams, giving developers room to do more than simply iterate.
Sports game developers, meanwhile, must focus on iteration, with the bulk of their efforts going to a few "back of the box" features designed to sell fans on the new entry. Madden in particular has lately been consumed with this "back of the box" mentality, throwing resources into ambitious narratives like Longshot and arcade modes like The Yard. Even then, a $60 release with mostly iterative changes is a tough sell for fans, especially amid the ongoing deluge of inexpensive games.
Shifting to a seasonal model and releasing a new base game every few years would make it far easier to impress fans. It would allow EA to weave in truly ambitious new features, like massively enhanced graphics and big updates to existing modes. Most importantly, it would take some of the pressure off the development team, which currently must adhere to a highly regimented development cycle with virtually no room for error.
Much of the seasonal format is already baked into Madden. Madden Ultimate Team has a distinct cycle of promotions tied to the NFL calendar and various holidays, which is designed to carry it past the Super Bowl and through the NFL Draft. New seasons would be an occasion to roll out updated features, rosters, and gameplay tweaks. EA could even implement a proper Battle Pass tied to MUT, Face of the Franchise, and The Yard, featuring free packs, cosmetics, and other perks.
The result would be a healthier, more balanced ecosystem overall; one in which devs wouldn't be constantly hitting the reset button and having to contend with new bugs and balance issues. It would give Madden Ultimate Team a greater sense of continuity, and potentially open the door for new and unique promos. With a lower barrier to entry, the community would be more stable as a whole; a natural ebb and flow of the player population taking hold as fans join in for each new season.
If you really stop to think about it for a second, there are a lot of good reasons for Madden, FIFA, and every other sports sim to adopt something akin to the Fortnite model. Unfortunately, there's one big thing stopping them from doing so: the leagues themselves. While unconfirmed, I've heard from more than a few sources that the NFL mandates that EA put out a new game every single year. The league seemingly cares little about issues like gameplay balance, focusing instead on its role as a promotional vehicle for the new season.
EA likewise has plenty of reason to go forward with the annual release model. Despite being brigaded on Metacritic and seeing its user score drop all the way to 1.4, Madden 20 was the third highest selling game of 2019 according to the NPD Group. In the mind of EA and the NFL, the annualized model is working just fine, even if Madden's reputation is suffering as a whole.
Such views are shortsighted, though. EA may be making huge amounts of money in the short-term from console sales, but the gaming ecosystem continues to shift, with seasonal free-to-play and subscription models becoming more and more the norm. How much more money would EA be able to make if it put out a high-quality service game backed by subscriptions and other methods of monetization? How much longer will casual fans be willing to spend $60 on a glorified roster update?
As long as Madden continues to enjoy the same staggeringly huge revenue it has enjoyed over the past decade, EA is unlikely to change, fearful of losing what it already has. I'm convinced there's a better way, though, if only sports game developers are willing to pursue it.