I'm only one card away from completing the set for John Randle - one of the great Vikings defensive linemen of the '90s. Over the past couple days I've been sitting in the Auction House for an hour or more at a time trying to snipe a Legends Badge at a low price. To an outside observer I probably look completely insane, but this is pretty much the Madden Ultimate Team experience in a nutshell.
Having spent approximately a month on what fans call "MUT," I can comfortably call it one of the strangest gaming experiences I've ever had. It's a mode where the actual game is secondary or even tertiary to the process of hoarding cards and gold. Watch a Madden Ultimate Team stream and it will invariably focus on opening pack after pack amid comments of, "Sick pull, bro!" The rest of it is spent in the Auction House trying to snipe cards and turn them around for a profit. The Madden Ultimate Team "metagame," such as it is, involves investing properly and taking advantage of the rise and fall of the market. Tellingly, my partner hates it, referring to it as "that eBay game" while pointing out that I never actually play the game. She's right.
So why am I still playing? In all honesty, I'm in too deep. I've invested dozens of hours into buying and selling cards and grinding through solo challenges so that I can field a "Vikings United" team with Daunte Culpepper, Steve Hutchinson, and John Randle. I'm almost there, too.
At some point, though, the crash will happen. It always does. The spell will be broken and I'll be wondering why the hell I put so much time, effort, and yes, money, into building this dumb fantasy lineup, especially when there's next to nothing I can actually do with it . I've already promised myself that I won't be doing this again for Madden 17 - not without some serious changes, at least.
But for now? I've got a Culpepper card to buy.
The Rules of Acquisition
How did the culture around Madden Ultimate Team come to be? I've spent quite a bit of time pondering this question as I've built my team. The best answer I can come up with is that Madden does a particularly good job of tapping into that really addictive segment of gaming that is built around acquiring the perfect team or deck.
Compared to other variants of Ultimate Team, there are a ridiculous number of cards to acquire in MUT. There are the four tiers - bronze, silver, gold, and elite. Then there are the legendary cards like John Elway and Derrick Brooks. After that you have your programs like Schefer's Stars, Team of the Week, and Football Outsiders, all of which offer upgrades over the base version for players who do particularly well in a given game. Stefon Diggs, a young receiver who is a budding star for the Vikings, just got his own Team of the Week card, and you better believe that I immediately went out and spent 9000 coins to acquire it.
Unlike in Hearthstone, there is no real concern about balance in Madden Ultimate Team. Players like Flashback DeSean Jackson are so good that they can basically get open at will against all but the greatest cornerbacks. As such, new cards are meant more to keep the market churning and people opening new packs. EA has quite correctly calculated that people will want to get their favorite players on their team, and that some will spend a lot of money to make that happen.
One consequence of that drive to constantly acquire the latest and greatest players is what I'd call "pack culture." Come Thursday or Friday everyone will settle in to open dozens of packs and show their prizes to their friends - essentially the bro culture version of Pokémon cards. The best pulls get posted on Reddit and other forums, where they are greeted with a wave of, "Damn, nice pull!" and "Buy or sell?" The rest are thrown onto the market and priced to sell, which savvy investors can scoop up and sell at a nice profit later in the week. Then the cycle begins anew.
This cycle has thus far comprised the bulk of my Madden Ultimate Team experience. At its best, it can be exciting as you steadily build up a fortune and use it to acquire players who would ordinarily be untouchable in a mode like Connected Franchise Mode - superstars like Odell Beckham Jr. and legends like Randall Cunningham. At its worst, its boring, time-consuming, and intensely frustrating. To get that "sick snipe" you have to be trolling the Auction House at 1AM - the sort of habit that can trigger some pretty intense self-loathing in an otherwise functional adult.
What's hilarious is that in a few weeks pretty much all of this effort will be rendered worthless. Soon EA will be releasing their annual Road to the Playoffs promotion - effectively an expansion pack that will send the prices on formerly expensive players tumbling. Everyone is already planning on selling their team so that they can be ready for the next wave.
With luck, I won't be there to see it for myself.
Rules of Engagement
You may read this whole screed as an indictment of a community that will spend literally hundreds of dollars on bundles of cards for a game that will last less than a year. You'd be mistaken, though. People can spend their money on anything they want. I think it's more of an indictment against EA that they haven't figured out a way to make those expensive cards worthwhile.
Oh, I've played games with my team. There are the aforementioned solo challenges - historical scenarios and games presented with little context that exist entirely in the service of earning more coins. There's a head-to-head seasons mode online in which you can try to reach the Super Bowl by beating other players - a mode that can be enjoyable so long as you don't get victimized by an IP boot (this is something that has happened to me on a few occasions). And there are the weekly challenges which, again, exist in the service of grinding more coins. If you've already got a really good team, there's not a whole lot to do with it.
A lot of that is down to the inherent structure of Madden. There are stats to obsess over, but it's a not a game like Hearthstone or even Pokémon where you can experiment with different decks. There's no "team chemistry" component like the one in FIFA, either, so it doesn't really matter what kind of lineup you field so long as it fits into your style of play. Without that fundamental aspect of team-building, a lot of Madden Ultimate Team is a race to see who can either have the best possible cards, or who can utilize the best budget squad.
The rest has to do with the way EA deploys their modes and what they choose to emphasize. With everything geared toward making more coins, there are no in-game achievements or cool unlockables like historical stadiums or special uniforms to be earned. Reaching the upper tiers of head-to-head seasons - effectively Madden's ladder - is fun, but there are no ladder seasons and only a few tiers, the top half of which is dominated by a tiny handful of players who rely heavily on cheesy tactics. By EA's own in-game metrics, 70 percent of players never even get out of the bottom rank of head-to-head seasons. Outside of a tiny elite, actual competition is practically non-existent.
This dynamic makes my head spin. I originally got into Ultimate Team because I wanted an excuse to keep playing Madden after the career modes had gotten stale; but with my desired team nearly complete, there's not a lot of reason to keep playing going forward. Most people seem to realize that at one point or another. After the Super Bowl, MUT's population will decline, leaving only a tiny band of obsessives to continue buying the cards. It won't be long before the mode is a ghost town.
Without the excitement of the football season to keep driving things, Madden Ultimate Team is exposed for the hollow collect-a-thon experience that it is. After that, all one can do is wait until Madden 17.
How can EA make MUT better?
To their credit, EA has tried to find ways to make Ultimate Team engaging outside of the card acquisition dynamic. The introduction of head-to-head seasons a couple years back was one element of that. This year's Draft Champions mode was another. Both have their issues, though, with Draft Champions' extremely limited rewards making it next to useless for grinding cards. To put matters into perspective, you get at most five Draft Champions Badges for winning four games in a row, and it takes 100 badges to complete a set and obtain a player like Patrick Peterson. It's a good idea, but still somewhat under-developed. An approach closer to that of Hearthstone or the FIFA Ultimate Team Draft might be better, yielding much greater rewards in exchange for a small entry fee that can either be paid with real money or in-game currency.
It might also help to have something similar to Hearthstone's Tavern Brawl - a rotating set of challenges in which you either play with your own team or a pre-built team under special conditions, at the end of which you earn a pack of cards. The current Most Feared promotion - a silly but fun set of challenges in which you have to try and cover 8 foot players - shows that EA can play around with the engine in fun and interesting ways. A Madden Ultimate Team Tavern Brawl could be very fun, especially if it were possible to play against friends.
Beyond that, I'm not sure. It would be nice if Madden Ultimate Team had a more developed ladder, but the sheer power of certain cards kind of derails ranked play at higher levels, and EA isn't going to scale back promotions when there's so much money to be made. Still, it would be nice, and a greater focus on competition would go over well in this eSports-driven world that we live in now. The fact that a game as consistently popular as Madden is virtually non-existent in the eSports arena should be telling.
EA obviously has good reason to keep focusing so heavily on monetization, especially with the community spending money at such a vociferous rate. But there's something inherently unsustainable and unhealthy about the MUT community's current focus, and being in the middle of it all has only made that clearer to me with time.
So with my Vikings United team nearly complete and Fallout 4 just around the corner, I feel quite comfortable putting away Madden Ultimate Team for the years. And unfortunately for EA, I don't plan to return.