Why are people drawn to watching and being invested in NFL, NBA or Premier League? There are many reasons: the statistics and competition are compelling and drive viewership, but they are not the main reason most people tune in. The reason why the above-mentioned sports/leagues have some of the most-watched live broadcasts on the planet is simple and timeless; the stories, narratives and their possible outcomes ensure that viewers stay glued to the screens. We, as fans of this type of entertainment, cannot get enough of these leagues because of the guaranteed drama they provide. This is what Matthew Davis, Michael Young and Santino Giuliano, writers of the single-player career mode in Madden21 aka Face of The Franchise, not only understood but seized with the zeal of Tom Brady on Super Bowl Sundays. The story in the career mode was finished, and this time the player was not abandoned halfway through, this is what I believe sets Madden21 apart from its more recent predecessors.
Let’s not kid ourselves that Face of The Franchise – hereby dubbed FOTF – mode on Madden21 is flawed. Some would say it’s unplayable, but I firmly believe that it’s a gigantic step in the right direction for a game mode that has rightfully been ignored or ridiculed by the Madden Community for years. We cannot discount the negative impact of Ultimate Team and how the focus on microtransactions has robbed many of a worthwhile Madden Career Mode over the years. Little touches like living in a dingy apartment at the start of your career and moving to better digs as your career progressed, to starring in movies and commercials that remunerated you differing amounts depending on your on-field exploits. Madden 06 even lets you pick your parents, and depending on their interests and skills, your overall rating at the beginning of your career would be affected. Another example of the missteps in Madden21 also includes a lack of flexibility in the story when the player outperforms the script. I brought my team back in the second half of a National Championship game then proceeded to get benched in favour of my teammate which was, funnily enough, the exact same teammate who had a heart condition! The same teammate who almost died during a game and had us losing after the first half of the championship game?! Witnessing such unrealistic reactions makes it difficult to suspend my disbelief.
As illustrated above, the career mode in Madden has moved away from immersion being the focus to making storytelling the star of the show. This shift to storytelling began with the Longshot Career Mode in Madden18. Most people were too busy being distracted by the shiny new idea; it was new to Madden but FIFA and NBA2K had already produced their own versions in years past. This in turn made people fail to notice one glaring hole in the new way the career mode was presented. The story was incomplete. Incomplete in Madden18, Madden19 and Madden 20.
For those unfamiliar, there are three ‘endings’ In Madden 18. The first conclusion sees Devin Wade get drafted while Colt Cruise remains undrafted. The second sees Devin Wade go undrafted, Colt Cruise gets drafted and Wade signs as a free agent. Finally, the third ending sees Devin Wade go undrafted, Colt Cruise gets drafted and Wade signs with his favourite team. All three endings make the same mistake: getting drafted is not the end of the NFL story, it’s the 40% marker at best. As for Madden 19 & 20, there is a point where the storytelling stops and the player is left to play game after game of the career until the end without the movie-like cut scenes at the beginning. This sudden change feels jarring and makes the experience seem rushed and incomplete. On a personal level, this led to me quitting the career mode as the main motivation – ‘The Story’ – that was driving all the football was suddenly gone. Madden21 thankfully fixes this by actually committing to a vision and following through to the bitter end.
No doubt, the year 2020 will be remembered for the Covid Pandemic by most but something else happened in 2020 that I believe led to the conceptualization and eventual creation of Madden21’s FOTF. The Last Dance was released, an American sports documentary centred around the greatest Basketball player to ever play, Michael Jordan, and highlighted most of his career. The Washington years don’t count… The reason The Last Dance played such a big role in the Madden21 campaign is down to a multitude of factors, Madden21 starts by introducing an aged player sitting to be interviewed. Like The Last Dance, there is a lighting crew, a comfortable chair and the career is experienced in lengthy flashbacks that include many interjections from the interviewer trying to glean the players’ perspective on said flashback. The responses to each question also impact certain effects on the following flashbacks, examples include better passing accuracy or less trust from teammates for the following game.
Coming round to my original point, Madden21 doesn’t suddenly let go of the player’s hands (narratively) and leaves the player that had become accustomed to a story scenario every five games or so to go back to playing match after match without the added spice that was showcased at the beginning. Instead, the narrative cut-scenes follow the player all the way to the presentation of that hideous mustard jacket – The NFL wants us to believe it’s gold but c’mon, look at it – at the hall of fame!
On its own, the narrative experience is below par, the fact that these Madden Games have an annual cycle can’t help the ability of the developers to make branching narratives possible in a meaningful manner, even if we consider the massive budgets available to these games. But compared to what came before it, this is a fair improvement. In a franchise that has underperformed consistently for so long, an improvement in one of its most neglected modes is a win that deserves mentioning especially considering the early reviews already rolling in for Madden22 FOTF.