How Madden’s sales explain something no gamer wants to hear

It’s not the best Madden. It’s not the worst Madden. After more than a dozen years of writing about the football series, I know it never is.

The sales figures of this past week and the review scores of last month make compelling and competing cases, though. Madden NFL 21 is the lowest-rated game in series history; and Madden NFL 21’s sales are up — way up — over the record-setting figures that publisher Electronic Arts posted last year.

Rather than this being the case of some trend overcoming another anomaly, or vice versa, I think the truth is a story that both combine to tell: Madden NFL 21 is a piecemeal update lacking a centerpiece mode, and it sells like gangbusters because it pleases its fans.

Oh, sure, COVID-related buying might play a role — multiple publishers have reported big sales tailwinds that they attribute, with good reason, to the quarantine lifestyle. But I can’t see it as being the whole story when Madden, every year, is thrashed by the conventional wisdom, and when Madden, every August for the past 21 years, has been the bestselling game of its month. You don’t reach that point year after year simply because you’re the only marketplace option.

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This is hardly unique to Madden. EA Sports UFC 4 launched in the same month. It was the second-bestselling game of August. UFC 4’s reviews, although better than Madden’s, also call it an iterative release, more refined than remade over its predecessor, which launched in 2018. And we don’t have the sales numbers for NBA 2K21 yet, but that, too, is taking a critical and community beating. The 60s it’s dragging on Metacritic — for the same reasons Madden 21 is getting torched — are unprecedented, but it won’t surprise me to see the NPD Group, which tracks sales of games in the U.S., listing NBA 2K21 first for September.

I feel like sports video games have gone past the tipping point where an iterative release can provide its major modes of play with anything more than a good streamlining. Whenever I review one of these games, I find myself disappointed that Franchise in Madden or MyGM in NBA 2K doesn’t have anything to recommend it, other than a polishing.

But if I’m going to criticize a game for what isn’t in it, I better have a ready example of what should be there. I don’t. Do you? Fixing trade logic or midseason player progression might be necessary, but those are iterative improvements. It’s possible that developers have simply run out of big, new things to do with the core game.

No one — neither developer nor player — would admit this, but it makes sense. The console generation that’s about to debut will sell like gangbusters at launch, and provide audiovisual fidelity that is an incremental improvement over the current systems, rather than some leap forward. That’s a core feature. Well, similarly, I expect most of what I do in Madden NFL 21 and NBA 2K21 on PlayStation 5 to be the same as it is on PlayStation 4, where 10 yards gets you a new set of downs, and a ball through the hoop is two points, three if from 22 feet, 3 inches. Both games have been dotting that i for more than a decade.

(Here’s where, inevitably, someone wonders why we can’t have sports video games done MMO-style, where there’s a base game and then maybe a subscription cost, with iterative development served through expansions and regular updates. And here’s where, again, I say that if an MMO model made as much money — for the leagues and the players who license the rights to make these games — as an annual packaged-goods approach does, they would have tried it sometime in the past decade.)

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In this console generation, the biggest breakthrough to career mode quality of life was in condensing lengthy seasons into their most action-packed games, and even individual moments. Madden, MLB The Show, and NBA 2K all brought this aboard years ago. Madden and FIFA gave a story mode two or three good whacks and found it not worth the continued bother. Fans are fine with such things being an on-ramp to the career mode (like in NBA 2K) or a background supplement to it (like in MLB The Show).

I know: The sports gamer really does not want to hear this. No one in video gaming does. But sports gamers — dependent as they are on the licensing whims of the leagues and big corporations — especially resent the idea that their tastes and informed appraisal are routinely drowned out by a consumer id that finds good enough, well, good enough.

Yet sometimes, that is exactly what the numbers tell us. These aren’t the best games, and these aren’t the worst games. They never are.

Roster File is Polygon’s news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games.

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