One of the famous anecdotes surrounding Madden NFL’s origins holds that when Electronic Arts founder Trip Hawkins approached John Madden about putting his name on EA’s new football sim, the NFL coach turned television commentator had one condition: it had to be a true 11v11 simulation. Hawkins agreed, and one of the most famous names in gaming history was born.
Madden NFL 23 is an attempt to bring the series back to those humble origins, returning Madden himself to the cover for the first time in more than 20 years and opening with an “NFL Legacy Game” that doubles as a history lesson. It’s a sweet note to open on, featuring some of the greatest stars of yesteryear, from Brett Favre to Randy Moss, and even going so far as to recreate the original Oakland Coliseum from the 1970s (though, bafflingly, it’s not possible to pick the legacy teams in a standard head-to-head). And in its own way, the rest of the package is a tribute to Madden as well, focusing on the less-flashy simulation aspects that John Madden valued so highly.
Coming off two disappointing years in a row, Madden 23 is a consciously stripped-down experience that focuses the bulk of its resources on refining the action on the field. While it’s not much of a step up visually (aside from new touchdown graphics and a wider color palette than last year’s sickly green), improvements to animations, player locomotion, and defensive AI make it feel more nuanced, more polished, and more enjoyable than last year’s often ramshackle version. It’s not quite the equivalent of the Bengals going from the basement to the Super Bowl, but it’s a respectable rebuilding effort for the series, even if it continues to lag behind other sports sims in many respects.
After all, it’s no secret that the past decade or so hasn’t been particularly kind to Madden. The franchise has struggled with a consistent lack of vision, evident in modes like The Yard — hyped ideas from yesteryear that have now been unceremoniously crammed into a closet (or in this case, a sub-menu) as EA tries to get its house in order. This is hardly the first time that EA has “gone back to basics” with Madden, but rarely has it felt so needed as it does now.
In that vein, Madden 23 is filled with the sort of updates that are felt rather than seen. Some improvements are intended to offer a far greater degree of control over your players, which is evident in how much more smoothly they move in this year’s version. On the flipside, the defense is far smarter than before, making this one of the most challenging Madden games in recent memory. The most conspicuous addition, though, is Madden 23’s refined passing controls, which combine with an accuracy meter to offer more control when putting the ball in tight windows. It especially makes a difference along the sidelines and in the end zone, where space is at a premium.
These changes are balanced by a more intense pass rush, which frequently saw me getting sacked if I dared to venture outside the pocket. Tighter zone coverage also makes for smaller windows of opportunity, with interceptions sometimes coming in bunches. It can be a little intense, but after the busted backyard football of the past couple years, anything that forces me to vary my approach is welcome.
It’s also noticeably less buggy this time around, at least on the field. In an interview I conducted with the developers last month, Madden 23 was touted as the “most polished version in a long time.” I have no doubt that videos of random bugs posted to Twitter will try and make a lie of that statement — and I certainly found myself shaking my head and chuckling as characters walked through walls in Face of the Franchise’s glitch-filled opening – but it’s still a fair sight better than last year.
Is that damning with faint praise given the state of last year’s game? Maybe, but you have to start somewhere.
A Reboot to the Face
That mentality is similarly evident in the aforementioned Face of the Franchise mode, which has come to symbolize many of Madden’s struggles. Hyped as a kind of story mode in which you live out the fantasy of being drafted into the NFL, Face of the Franchise has long been undercut by bugs, poor design decisions, and other issues. In my review last year, I wondered what exactly the point of it was given that it didn’t offer much in the way of wish fulfillment while barely having any connection to core modes like Franchise and Ultimate Team. In essence, it was a dead end.
Apparently recognizing this, EA has effectively rebooted Face of the Franchise for Madden 23, heavily scaling back the cutscenes in favor of a simple but satisfying week-to-week routine of picking your schedule, upgrading your character, and playing out your games. Like in previous versions, it’s still the most fun to be a quarterback, but you can play as a receiver, running back, or defender as well. The story, such as it is, follows your customizable avatar as they try to get a fresh start with a new NFL team, but the real goal is to grind your way into the so-called “99 Club.”
As career modes go, Face of the Franchise continues to lag far behind its equivalent modes in MLB The Show and NBA 2K, lacking anything resembling realistic feedback. Throw five interceptions in Face of the Franchise and you’re still a burgeoning star; throw five picks in the actual NFL, and you’re probably getting traded to the Jets on Tuesday. Still, like so much of the rest of Madden 23, it establishes a decent baseline for future iterations.
If I sound overly optimistic, it’s probably because I’m a Vikings fan — irrational belief comes with the territory. But what makes me more upbeat than in previous years is that I can at least kind of buy into the vision that is being presented to me. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a big turnaround from last year, when I was comparing Madden to charmless multi-purpose stadiums like the Metrodome.
Then again, even on its best days, Madden 23 is still Madden. Witness the new free agency mechanics in Franchise mode, which introduce motivations for signing with a team like “warm weather” and “Super Bowl contender.” They’re a smart addition on the face of it, adding a layer of depth without unnecessary complexity… or so it seems. The problem is that the CPU isn’t equipped to handle these new systems, resulting in an unbelievable number of top players hitting the market. These sorts of unintended problems tend to happen a lot in Madden, and they often take months to fix. Even now, EA has no ETA for a patch to address the oddities that have arisen since Madden 23 launched to the public this past week. On the bright side, there are some notable quality-of-life improvements, including the ability to quickly select team friendly vs. player friendly contracts.
Madden NFL 23 Screens
I’ve been a Franchise-first player for a long time now, so I’m very aware of its foibles. It’s been better since the community basically shamed EA into devoting resources to it — I’m actually a fan of the revised scouting introduced last year, which does a surprisingly elegant job of presenting you with interesting decisions throughout the season — but its unsteady Jenga tower of systems always feels on the verge of falling apart at any moment. It has neither the customization of EA’s own NHL games nor the breadth and depth of NBA 2K; it still won’t even let you import legends like Randy Moss. Its main strength is its consistent support of full 32-player leagues going back to 2009, and more recently, its little story events and dynamic player growth.
If I want anything from Franchise mode, it’s that sense of continuity, of narrative — of being carried from one season to the next. Some of that is just being enjoyable to play in general, but I also think often about little flourishes in Football Manager like ownership naming the stadium in my honor after a prolonged stretch of success. FM Mobile is arguably far simpler than Madden’s franchise mode, but it managed to keep me playing for multiple seasons just on the strength of effectively imparting a sense of accomplishment. It makes me wonder if crafting a truly enjoyable management mode might be easier than Madden makes it out to be.
Ultimately, though, Madden’s core issue over the years hasn’t been its Franchise mode, nor has it been its weird bugs and lack of polish. When fans pined for the days of Madden NFL 2005 and NFL Blitz, or complained about Franchise Mode, what they were really saying was that modern Maddens just weren’t that fun to play.
There was always something about the stiff character models; the way the presentation never quite looked right; the stultifying reliance on animation-based money plays. Madden has long occupied the uncanny valley of sports sims, and it’s only gotten worse over the past few years.
When I talked to senior producer Clint Oldenburg last month he spoke frankly about these problems, and specifically about how the gameplay had become a “little too animation-based.” Playing Madden 23, it’s impressive how its targeted improvements to player movement and AI can uplift the entire experience. John Madden definitely wasn’t wrong when he insisted that the series focus on getting the simulation right first.