In terms of gameplay debates, the two biggest ones emerging from the Madden 21 beta have to do with how strong “clicking” on for users should be right now, and the introduction of the “film study” ability. I won’t spend a ton of time on the “usering” debate because I think it’s a more straight forward one (and one we’ve had many times in the past). However, the “film study” debate is fresh and so I want to put both sides of the argument out there while also stating up front that I’m in favor of keeping the film study ability in the game — at least at launch.
(For the uninitiated, the film study ability allows defenders with this ability to see the offense’s play art after a certain play is called three times. In effect, it’s the defensive version of Peyton Manning’s “Omaha” ability from last year, only it’s just a base ability now rather than an X-Factor.)
How Good Should “Usering” Be?
Right, let me first quickly tackle this user debate because, again, I have concise feelings on this one. First, I think it’s relatively easy to argue Madden 20 gave users the most control ever in terms of impacting the action. A good user vs. someone letting the AI handle things had a massive advantage. I would even go as far as saying Madden 20 was maybe the most user-dominant year ever.
With that in mind, it’s also easy to say “usering” in Madden 20 was overpowered. Even very average players could user and cover two routes on a lot of passing plays without much trouble. This also meant you could blitz seven and still feel safe in the secondary. You didn’t really have to make a difficult choice most of the time. You could just react and get to the spot even when out of position.
On top of that, the AI was just overmatched and could not really deal with users in any great way. What this also did was make players like Taylor Mays and Troy Polamalu two of the best linebackers in the game. Speed and agility were all that mattered because as a user you could just zip around and get to spots with ease. Now with the beta, the opposite is happening to some degree and some are freaking out. I would say have patience. The skill gap between good users and bad users needs to widen, and you also shouldn’t be able to make every play if you did not set yourself up to succeed to some degree before the snap.
So while Madden was arguably forward thinking in a sense making Polamalu and Mays dangerous because a lot of real NFL defenses are now looking for speed and positional versatility, users being overpowered came at the cost of the passing game being very boring and easy to defend. The balance between what you did pre-snap and what you did after the snap was out of whack.
(I am not saying there are not AI issues right now or the AI is not botching things in the secondary. I just don’t want that to be used as the main reason we need superhuman users.)
In addition, we’re still getting clarity on the new “change of direction” rating and how that plays against agility and speed. Maybe give a slight bump to users in the final release, but overall, I think we need to keep things closer to how they are now than go back to Madden 20 all over again.
The Case For Film Study
Alright, so now let’s talk about this new ability.
On the most basic level, the argument is basically that people want to see more than 2-4 plays called per game. They don’t want to defend an inside run, an outside run and one rollout pass play all game. The most basic argument on the other side is “you stink if you can’t stop a couple plays.”
So I would start here and say it’s valid to say that sometimes you know what’s coming, but because Madden is Madden, it doesn’t matter and you still get beat by it. This is true for a lot of people who play the game, so on some level whether you see the play art or not is moot. Sometimes I know what my opponent is going to do, and I still get beat by it. The meta becomes the meta because even when you know it’s coming, it’s hard for most people to stop it.
The concept of seeing the play art is really more to get in the head of the offense. If my opponent knows I can see the play, maybe that makes him or her decide to do something else. Even if I have zero confidence I can stop the play, my opponent might back down and bail me out by going to something else. It’s certainly more a video game strategy than a real football strategy, but it’s something that plays into the mental side of things all the same.
The case for film study also goes to the idea of what’s entertaining to watch. This is a weaker part of the argument to me because there’s a lot of issues that need to be cleaned up to make Madden more interesting to watch than just playcall variation. It’s not very interesting to watch people call plays against each other or make adjustments at the line because it’s not visually interesting, and it’s barely tactically worth discussing a lot of the time, especially when quick snapping starts ramping up.
The idea that Madden is some deep chess match is a thing when it comes to high-level pro play, but even that sort of chess match is not interesting to most of the audience from a visual perspective, and it’s not happening very much in standard head-to-head games beyond the usual stuff (assuming someone will run it a certain direction, or thinking a pass is going to X receiver on a certain route). This is not even a real shot at Madden because most people who watch the real NFL are not obsessing over pre-play adjustments and kill calls. They’re watching what happens once the ball is snapped.
Returning to the point, what happens after the snap is what drives the entertainment. So if instead of watching 30 runs a game, we start to see more play-action passing and so forth then it’s probably a net positive in that respect. Does it inherently make the game more fun to watch? I still only think that’s a maybe. Plus, there could be other ways to make people run more plays that are not as obvious as play art reveals.
The Case Against Film Study
The best argument against film study that I’ve seen comes from long-time Madden player ZAN. So I will say to just watch that video if you want the entire argument against film study. I also want to mention he is clear in stating he’s looking at film study from a Madden 20 perspective not a Madden 21 perspective. In other words, he admits what he’s saying is not a perfect argument against film study because we don’t yet know how Madden 21 will look at launch.
The strongest point he makes to me is that playbooks are filled with a lot of useless plays. It’s fair. The playbooks in Madden could be much better. What happens a lot of the time is new plays get added, some of the old plays get tweaked, but really we have a lot of legacy plays that no one uses or no one trusts. I do not know what all the metrics say on playbooks for Madden, but I know EA has data saying what plays get called a lot or not at all. If certain plays are not being called at all, then they should be removed. In general, playbooks in Madden have to become much more fluid and they need more rapid updates from EA.
On top of this, ZAN makes the point that instead we should get more repeat concepts within multiple formations to make more plays viable. He talks about money routes and how he trusts a certain route much of the time, so he looks for plays with that route combination — or has a QB with hot route master — to configure certain setups. The same goes for simply looking for plays with three-step drops rather than five or seven-step drops to avoid the insane blitzes that come your way in Madden 20.
If you give users the film study ability, it also eats into playcalling realism from the real NFL. Teams do not run 200 plays a week. They have certain route combinations they run a lot, and what ZAN is saying here is that he goes to the line with certain combos in mind on pass plays, but those are only in so many plays. What he’s talking about is less “cheese” and more read-and-react stuff, and unless these route combinations exist in enough formations, he would need to find new concepts to run. It’s true that certain routes sometimes just suck in Madden, which means users start to focus on the routes with success and use them most of the time.
The new custom zones also maybe stunt the reason for “film study” needing to exist. While I think it’s primarily in the game to stop run cheese, if we’re confident we know a certain play is going to be called, we don’t need the play art if we can now make these zones much more customizable. If we can actually find a way to defend corner routes with more ease this way (or whatever money play/route) — and trust the AI to do its job — then there’s less necessity for film study on that front.
The last big point here is the concept of how much what you do matters before the snap vs. post snap. I mentioned the idea of the chess match already, but this also ties into my earlier mention about the user control argument. If Madden 21 has a greater focus on how you set a play up to succeed before the snap — rather than just usering your brains out after the snap to make the play on defense — then maybe film study takes away from that.
However, maybe instead of the game being a rock/paper/scissors guessing game, film study makes it so there’s a lot more mystery about what your opponent is going to do play to play. ZAN is focused on the highest level of play and how pro players will get around film study if it’s in the game. I am in 100 percent agreement with him that they will find a way around it, but I think the “chess match” is overstated when it comes to most user vs. user games.
The reason I want film study to be in the game at launch is not because I think one side makes a stronger argument than the other. Instead, I think the community is generally too quick to reject change. We so often plead for Madden to feel different year to year, and while film study is not what most of us mean by making the game different, it’s still an example of something EA is trying in order to alleviate an issue. Is it the best “football” way to solve a problem? No. But this is a video game, and it’s an imperfect one where band-aids are sometimes needed.
We can’t both ask for changes and then immediately freak out and ask for them to be removed after a single weekend of gameplay. When we do that, EA (and most other game developers) just end up screwing up game balance as a reaction to the reaction.
If it ends up not working out or destroying the meta, then fair enough tune film study or remove it. You could make it an X-Factor. You could make it so it only applies to runs. You could make it so it only applies to plays where no hot route is called. You could make it so the AI gets increasingly more psychic each time you run the same play. Yes, you could even just remove it.
But let’s give it time.
Just like I don’t want to see the user control go back to Madden 20 levels right away, the beta should be more about fixing obvious bugs and issues, not just wholesale rejecting changes that are working as designed. Changes like that need more than a weekend of gameplay, and we need to see how the whole game shakes out.