Coming off a down year that felt indicative of the stagnation that so many longtime players decry when looking at the Madden NFL series, EA Sports has a lot to prove. With this year paying tribute to the late John Madden through three special covers, EA Sports wants to deliver a product worthy of putting his face back on the main cover for the first time in more than 20 years. I spent a day in EA Orlando's offices to learn how this year's game pushes the series forward and applies lessons learned from previous years to deliver several key improvements in this year's product.
According to the senior producer Mike Mahar, the team looked at reviews, tweets, Reddit posts, and more to see what it needed to focus on before jumping into development on Madden NFL 23. "One approach we took this year that is slightly different than what we did year over year is we took a pretty big pause after launching Madden 22," Mahar said in a presentation to journalists and content creators on hand at the studio. "We mined every source of feedback we could for common and consistent feedback and challenges or just flat-out issues consumers were having with the game, whether they be stability or that thing in the simulation engine in core franchise that people just didn't like year over year. While I can't sit here and say unequivocally that we've fixed every single issue, I can say unequivocally we've addressed hundreds of issues in pre-production, and we added hundreds more during production that we addressed."
While those fixes aren't going to make any back-of-box feature lists, the change in the team's approach is notable for the studio's acknowledgment that something wasn't working. Madden NFL 22 and 21 hold the two lowest Metacritic aggregate review scores in mainline series history, so new content and features could feel hollow if EA Sports didn't first sure up some of the various problems that led to the less-than-stellar launch states of those two games. However, that doesn't mean EA Sports isn't implementing multiple changes in hopes of making Madden NFL 23 transcend the criticism of the game feeling like "just a roster update."
The most significant new feature in Madden NFL 23 is FieldSense, a PS5 and Xbox Series X/S-exclusive gameplay system that gives players more control over their on-the-field team. This mechanic is mainly meant to address the widespread criticism that the gameplay is too rooted in predetermined animations, but it also adds various other benefits. FieldSense affects both sides of the ball and gives you better control of whatever player you're controlling.
On defense, physics dictate how tackles play out instead of predetermined animations. Defenders can join tackles midway through and influence the momentum of the ball carrier and the tackle in progress, which ultimately determines how the animations branch together, informed by physics. The development team has added more than 3,500 new animations for this feature alone to support this. Ball carriers can also get stood up during the tackling process, resulting in a brief button-mashing sequence (can be toggled to pressing for accessibility). The result of these stand-up tackles can range from the running back breaking through or the carrier being held up long enough to be stripped of the ball. But what about while the ball is in the air? Defensive backs can now knock the ball out of the receivers' hands in mid-air (rather than waiting for the drop to occur when the receiver comes back to the ground), and defenders can push receivers out of bounds.
To counteract the new abilities tacklers have through FieldSense, the gameplay system offers ball carriers new 360° cuts. This new system lets players hold the left trigger and perform sharp cuts with their ball carrier. The right stick still offers moves like jukes, but the 360° cuts system lets you turn sharply during a run, as opposed to the smooth arc a running back needs to make when pushing through a crowded line of scrimmage.
Finally, when you're under center as the quarterback, FieldSense puts a new skill-based passing mechanic at your disposal. This new system lets you thread the needle to deliver the pass exactly where you want it. When you drop back to pass and press the button that corresponds with the receiver you wish to target, a small circle will appear on the field with a targeting reticle. Using the stick, you can choose exactly where you want to place the ball within ;the targeting circle, where the receiver is guaranteed to have a chance to catch the ball. If you hold the left trigger while placing your pass, you can cause the targeting reticle to leave the circle. This mechanic lets you gamble on the accuracy of your throw and your receiver's ability for the potential of a pass that isn't remotely defendable by the players on the other side of the ball. Quarterbacks also receive a new passing meter that lets you control the power and trajectory of your throws by timing the meter correctly. To allow you more precision for placing the football, you can set a special slowdown effect for when you're playing locally, but when you go online, the slowdown for skill-based passing is disabled.
During my hands-on time, these improvements brought on by FieldSense were immediately noticeable. On offense, the difference in how a ball carrier cuts while holding down the trigger versus how they control traditionally (now, when you don't hold down the trigger) is night and day. Running up the middle with my running back afforded me more control over how I could cut through the lanes presented by my blockers, while putting the ball in the hands of Lamar Jackson let me mess around with both the skill-based passing and the 360° cuts mechanics. During my time with the game, I tried to test out the limits of the skill-based passing; I pulled the left trigger to allow me to move the reticle outside of the targeting area, aimed further downfield and threw a high lob pass with the hopes of giving my receiver enough time to get under it. While I overshot the receiver a couple of times, I was also able to connect with my teammate for a touchdown.
FieldSense may be in its first year with Madden NFL 23, but it seems to add a lot to the core experience of playing a football game. If this year's iteration can deliver on the team's hopes, this could put the Madden series back on track. However, EA Sports and EA Tiburon aren't stopping there, as they're introducing myriad other improvements and features to give players a better overall experience.
As indicated by EA Tiburon's approach to gathering feedback, the studio knows how much you don't like playing against running quarterbacks. While the team knows there's no magic wand to wave to solve the mobile QB problem on defense (one team member even joked about how if they had that answer, they'd probably be coaching in the NFL), the studio has made significant strides towards this and other ways in which gameplay progresses throughout a game.
Starting with the mobile QB problem, Madden NFL 23 introduces substantially better QB contain logic. Defensive players take more intelligent paths to quarterbacks and prevent you from rolling out as easily as you could in previous Madden games. In fact, in my hands-on time, I barely ever made it past the pass rushers to rollout for an out-of-pocket pass as Lamar Jackson, and my scrambles often forced me up the middle, sometimes resulting in a bigger hit and a fumble. Topping those new pass rush enhancements, the dreaded Escape Artist ability, which makes a QB faster out of the pocket, has not only been tuned down from its borderline broken state in Madden NFL 22 but also turned into an X-Factor for less frequent use. Madden NFL 23 also tweaks how coverage in the secondary works, resulting in more swats, more hits, and fewer interceptions.
Finally, EA Sports brought in an NFL coach (who asked to remain anonymous) to consult with the team about what could be improved. One of the key takeaways was that the playbooks have too many plays for someone who isn't a football aficionado. So EA looked at the player data from the recent games and streamlined the playbooks, removing unpopular or ineffective plays and adding more team-specific plays. The result, according to EA, is a better play-selection process and more polished gameplay since the team has fewer plays to worry about.
After a social media movement within the fan base got EA to pour more time and resources into Franchise mode over the last couple of years, the studio continues its commitment to pay more attention to the fan-favorite mode. This year, Madden NFL 23 adds to free agency to not only ratchet up the drama but also make it so interactions with players are more dynamic than ever before
Going into any free agent interaction, players have new motivations and tags. Motivations offer unique reasons why players might want to sign with particular teams. For example, a star wide receiver might want to play alongside a franchise quarterback. If you happen to have an elite QB on your depth chart, your chances of signing that player go up. Other motivations include playing close to home, playing on a Super Bowl contender, or even playing in a state where there's no income tax.
These motivations interact with the new tags system, where players have specific attributes that drive free agent logic. I already mentioned the "Franchise Quarterback" tag, which might attract a star WR to your squad, but players can have other tags, such as The Mentor, which grants additional experience to all players in that position group, or "Award Winner," which can heavily weigh how free-agent negotiations with that player go.
When you open up the new free agent hub, you can see the player motivations, tags, how they fit into your scheme, interest meter, expected market value, and how many teams are interested. These new views and tools are helpful, but you must be more strategic in your interactions, as you can only have five active negotiations in the early stages. However, as the free agency period progresses, you can negotiate with more players at once. Once in the negotiations screen, you can offer the contract length, amount, and structure you want to the player or choose from four new preset offers: player-friendly, team-friendly, neutral, or max offer. The hope is that these will streamline free agency for those who want to build their team but don't want to get into the nitty-gritty of financials.
While I'm glad EA is implementing more streamlined ways to progress through the menu-heavy Franchise sequences, if you're like me, you prefer as much control as possible over your team's transactions. In that case, you'll likely appreciate the improved draft and trade logic brought into this year's Franchise mode. Not only that, but a more active trading block means the CPU teams are placing players up for trade more frequently, and teams can now give immediate offers for players you put on your trading block, rather than having to wait a week for offers to come in. Add to that better Dev Traits progression and improved Team Needs logic, and I can't wait to lead my team through this year's Franchise mode.
A large focus of last year's post-launch updates was on the scouting system. While EA implemented welcomed changes to how you scope out the college talent, the studio didn't quite get it right on the first attempt. The Madden team is taking what worked about last year and expanding it this year. Now, you have more scouts in the pool, the ability to scout multiple positions at once, weighted attribute reveals showing skills relevant to their position, more unique draft classes, and 3D models in the player cards. Top that off with better user interface and scouting hub improvements, and scouting joins the rest of the Franchise package as one of the most promising parts of Madden NFL 23.
While taking control of an NFL team is one of the best parts of any Madden game, the modes in which you can chart your path and deviate from the traditional NFL format often stand out and appeal to large swaths of players. While The Yard continues to give players a more backyard, arcade-focused football experience, Madden Ultimate Team and Face of the Franchise bring the most significant changes.
Madden Ultimate Team, the mainstay custom-team card-collection mode, pledges several streamlines and improvements to improve the player experience. Ultimate Team leans more into the live-service model for this mode, with new, unique, and reactive-to-real-life cards dropped into the mode throughout the title's lifespan. MUT devotees can also look forward to more streamlined sets, with substantially fewer button presses needed to scrape your inventory for cards you're not using and redeem for a set of cards. On top of that, a season pass-style Field Pass offers you a clear path to building your Ultimate Team through gameplay; EA Sports tells us it has no plans for monetization of the Field Pass at launch.
Meanwhile, Face of the Franchise delivers the single-player career-focused experience players have enjoyed for years now, but with some new twists. This year's career mode is called The League. The story foregoes the high school and college portions of past years, instead opting to tell your story as an established NFL player entering the free agency market. This approach lets you get into the NFL action quicker and gives you more control over the NFL situation you enter as you begin the mode. While success is its own goal and reward, former NFL wide receiver Chad Johnson serves as your guide to an additional purpose: reaching the 99 Club.
This year, your player steps into one of five positions: quarterback, running back, wide receiver, middle linebacker, and, this year's new addition, cornerback. Madden NFL 23's Face of the Franchise thankfully gets rid of games where you have to control the entire team on both sides of the ball; now, this mode is all about controlling your player through your career in true player-lock gameplay. FieldSense plays a big role in how your player controls based on your position. QBs benefit from skill-based passing and its targeting reticle, and RBs use 360° cuts, while defensive backs enjoy the improved tackling and better evasion tools. Each position in Face of the Franchise has its own unique camera, and at the end of the drive, you get a player-specific drive summary, which recounts what you did and how much Rep, the in-game progression points you earned through those actions and accomplishments.
The mode also implements better presentation elements, including modeled locker rooms, weight rooms, and team facilities. When you add a system where your home upgrades from a small apartment to a mansion as you achieve more in your career, Face of the Franchise: The League looks to be one of the more promising modes in the Madden NFL 23 package.
Not unlike a team going pushing down the field to try for a last-second score with its two-minute offense, Madden NFL 23 feels like a critical drive for the trajectory of the long-running football franchise. After spending a day at EA Orlando, talking to the team, and seeing the game in action, I feel more hopeful in Madden NFL 23 than I have for any other entry in the series in several years.
All these changes feel exceptionally positive both on paper and (the ones that I experienced through my hands-on time) in action, but when you add in the rest of the introduced mechanics and features from last year, such as Gameday Atmosphere, momentum, and the other strides delivered through Franchise mode, the game feels like it's on the right track for a better year than we've seen in a while. If Madden NFL 23 can deliver on the myriad promises and potential of this year's game, this could very well be the bounceback entry the series sorely needs. However, we won't know for sure until the game launches on August 19.