A large mural of John Madden overlooks the central staircase of the EA Orlando office - an eyebrow and finger raised, as if about to dispense some wisdom to his players, or perhaps the development team.
It’s easy to assume that a licensed name in a title is just that: a name. But the three-decade influence of Madden over video game football is still felt. The legendary coach and broadcaster offered his expertise to the Madden NFL series from the 1980s until his passing in late 2021 - and since then, the developers have pushed further to honor the vision of the man they affectionately refer to as Coach.
“I know that this year, we looked at his real football philosophies and what he thinks the game should be about,” says Aaron McHardy, exec producer of Madden NFL gameplay. “Recreating 11-on-11 football authentically was one of those things he was adamant that we get right. If it’s ‘in the game’, it [should be] in the game.”
When you boot up Madden 23, you’ll see Coach walk out and stand proudly “as his 3D self” - an homage that art director Terence Newell has put lots of time and energy into making as accurate as possible. And right from the start, you’ll be playing in a recreated Oakland Coliseum, where John Madden led his Raiders to a Super Bowl Championship.
“We’ve got two representations [of John] from two different eras,” McHardy says. “And we looked at the iconic imagery of him and went on to try to get those articles of clothing so that we could get the representation completely accurate.”
From the way Madden wore his shirt tie, to his double-pronged belt and classic Adidas turf shoes - all were meticulously scanned and recreated. And the tribute isn’t only superficial. McHardy describes the devotion to accuracy and authenticity that Coach preached as the team’s north star when it came to developing Madden 23. Focusing on fundamentals and giving players control were top priorities. That starts with Fieldsense, which allows plays and collisions to branch in new and dynamic ways, incorporating player movement and physics. This, in turn, enables what EA refers to as Hit Anywhere.
“Our players are telling us that they don’t want our game to be what they call animation-based,” McHardy says. “What they mean by that is they don’t want to be stuck in these canned animations where you lose control. So we now have these technologies that we can use to understand all of the physical interaction that happens with two players who collide in a football context. And then use our new branching technology to find new ways to branch out of those canned animations, which means nothing is predetermined and baked in the game.”
McHardy gives the example of a player jumping into the air to catch a ball. In previous years, the outcome of the catch was effectively set in stone, from the time the player leapt until their feet reached the ground. That is changing in Madden 23. Now other players can engage anytime during that process, attempting to fight for the ball at the point of attack, or knocking it loose during the fall.
“It greatly improves the visual authenticity and how the game feels when you play it because you're seeing things that you’re used to seeing in the real world,” McHardy says. “But it also has a real game impact as well. Because you can think differently about how you defend in the game. It's not just about trying to go for the interception every time anymore. I feel like the defensive side of the ball is coming to life a little bit more because of those mechanics.”
There are changes coming to offensive play as well. Ball carriers have a new trick in the form of 360 Cuts, designed to bring the explosive agility and redirection of NFL players to the digital field. Quarterbacks, meanwhile, can now mimic the pinpoint accuracy that has defined the elite passers of the league, thanks to Skill-Based Passing. Users can opt out, and stick with classic controls, but McHardy is confident that most users will find the new passing tools powerful and easy to learn. “We’ve also layered on some deeper mechanics for some of our more advanced users and people who want to get into the real skill of it,” he says, “and test the boundaries of whatever receiver you’re throwing to.”
Madden’s mural might be in Orlando, but lately the NFL has made a big international push - with a game in Munich, another in Mexico City, and three games in London over 2022. I had to ask: will we see international cities in Madden NFL 23?
“I think the way that I’ll answer that is, here on Madden, we’re always trying to get as much authenticity as we can into the game,” McHardy says. “And you know, for EA Sports, if it’s in the game, it’s in the game. It’s kind of what we live by. So we’re going to continue to push to do that.”
Madden NFL 23 launches August 19 worldwide on Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PS4, PS5 and PC.