The onset of Madden season every year brings with it a phenomenon that seems increasingly rare these days: online franchises. With perennial sports titles like MLB The Show and NHL having dropped the mode entirely and given little indication of welcoming it back anytime soon, there are fewer opportunities out there to experience the thrill of trying to prove you can lead a team to greatness better than a bunch of other real people. It’s unfortunate that those other games have taken to phasing out such a fun and competitive (not to mention, realistic) way to play sports games in favor of more lucrative card-collecting or career modes, especially because online franchises provide a great gateway to establishing relationships with new people from across the globe and forming friendships that can last years or, if all goes well, perhaps even a lifetime.
So how does someone find an on online franchise to join? There are a lot of resources at your disposal online to find leagues that are recruiting new members, from reddit to the forums of this very website. Inevitably, wherever you’re able to find an open spot to helm a team, it’s still going to probably feel like the first day at a new school and you’re not sure which table to sit down at in the cafeteria to eat lunch. That’s fine. It’s going take a little while to get the lay of the land and learn who are the most outspoken people in the league chat (whether you’re using Discord or GroupMe or whatever other newfangled chat app kids are using these days). You’ll want to know who’s running the league, which members like to talk the most trash (or smack, if you will) and which others like to generally keep to themselves. Once you’ve taken some time to figure out the various personalities, you’ll have a better idea of where you fit in with the group and which people are closest to your own sensibilities. That’s how you find your people.
I first started playing in online Madden franchises about three years ago, averaging about five seasons per game cycle and sometimes participating in multiple leagues. Overall, I probably have a total of about 20-25 online seasons under my belt at this point. In all that time, I’ve never been good enough to so much as sniff a Super Bowl; my biggest brush with glory was coming one dropped touchdown pass away from a conference title game and the pain of that moment still stings. But even though winning a championship is obviously the goal of any football team, it’s really the excitement of competing against the same players each season that continues to keep things interesting. As you begin to learn the tendencies of the other players in the league, particularly those of your division rivals you’ll face twice a season, the chess match only intensifies. Don’t be surprised when you find yourself developing unique game plans for each opponent and anticipating familiar plays based on previous match-ups.
Naturally, not everyone is going to stay committed to the league for the long haul and there are bound to be some different names in the league each season, each taking their turn as the new kid looking for a table to eat at in the cafeteria. People leave for all sorts of reasons, sometimes stemming from game-related disputes that will often involve the alleged breaking of some sort of league rule (whether written or otherwise), but sometimes people just have a lot going on in their life and no longer have the time to play Madden games as regularly as a league demands. I’m not above making a rash decision to ditch a league myself — I’ve hastily left leagues in shame and disgust after suffering horrific blowouts, and also other times due to simply not having enough free time in my life. True story: last year I even left my main Madden league when my favorite team, the New York Giants, lost to the Carolina Panthers on a 63-yard field goal in a controversial real-life game that made me never want anything to do with football ever again (spoiler: that lasted all of about a week and a half).
But a strange thing happens when you spend such a large chunk of time playing Madden games against and chatting with the same people season after season and year after year, and it’s that those online relationships begin to grow and then spread across to other games. Whether it’s Fortnite squads or the Rec Center in NBA 2K19 or EASHL in NHL 19, there’s always enough overlap with games other people play to allow us to broaden our horizons together. When I started an online society in The Golf Club 2019 (shameless plug alert! Please join my Legacy Leagues Golf society on Playstation!) with one other member of a Madden league, I wasn’t really expecting all that many people to be interested. But to my surprise, people I’d met through Madden began to slowly but surely express a desire in joining, eventually allowing us to build up enough of a core group to make events fun and competitive while gaining enough popularity to start attracting outside members from international places like England and France.
Have I ever met any of these online friends in person? Nope. Despite the fact that one guy I’ve been in Madden leagues with since pretty much the very beginning lives only an hour away from me and we’ve made vague plans to get together multiple times, it’s still never happened. And maybe it’s better that way; there’s something special about a friendship that exists entirely online. They obviously don’t demand quite as much of your attention as a real-life relationship requires, and yet the bonds that are formed over time are undeniable. I have an entire group of people who have gradually developed their own set of inside jokes together, consoled each other through tough times and congratulated each other on graduations, promotions and the births of children and grandchildren. Would I like these people as much if I met them in real life? Judging by some of our occasional conversations about politics, I’m honestly not so sure. But I’m certainly grateful that I joined a Madden online franchise when I did as it allowed me to find these people to chat with on a regular basis, and after a rough day that alone can often be enough to make life just a little more bearable.