If There's Only One Team on the Field, Is It Still a Winner?

Earlier this week, we learned that Madden NFL 11 had created a new player attribute, but then sold the naming rights to a deodorant maker. And a million knees jerked in unison.

So this is what passes for innovation at EA Sports!

Am I also getting a discount on the price?

And, this old saw: Madden sucks. NFL 2K5 was the greatest football game ever.

The "Old Spice Swagger" rating is a microcosm of the damned-if-you-do circumstances faced by a franchise that, over the past five years, has managed to be one of, if not the biggest title in all sports gaming, and indisputably its biggest pariah.

Madden NFL 11, directly responding to criticisms of Madden NFL 10, is bringing in a suite of presentation upgrades this year, chiefly in its commentary. New celebration animations, many of them authentic to players' real-life mannerisms, are a part of that. These may not be back-of-the-box bullet points, but they improve the game.

But then EA Sports created a player attribute to trigger these reactions, and made that a sponsored feature. In-game advertising is not a new phenomenon or unique to EA Sports, and its presence in a sheet of player attributes is hardly as invasive as some of the sponsored messages delivered in the commentary of all sports games. Nonetheless, it's something that Madden can't get away with doing, on any level.

And it becomes something that only Madden is doing because, well, only Madden is the NFL-licensed video game.

If There's Only One Team on the Field, Is It Still a Winner?

The idea of competition creating a better product has merit, but it's only part of the picture. Competition also provides something to compare yourself against. That lack of context is, I think, Madden's real problem. Without it, Madden's legitimate innovations are minimized and the improvements it makes in how video game football is played can be easily reframed by critics as fixes that simply cover disappointments of the previous year.

Take this year's big development: GameFlow. The idea is that NFL coaches and coordinators don't spend all their time between plays paging through the entire playbook, so neither should you. I think it's a great idea, especially on defense; I constantly worry that I never call plays that are effective in or authentic to the circumstances, and I'm happy to load that on the CPU.

Everyone's done a good job ripping GameFlow as an automation of the Ask Madden suggestion, however. But if something like NFL 2K were still around and didn't have this feature, we could get a better handle on its worth to how video game football is played. If a competitor adopted something like it in next year's edition, we'd probably consider it an idea whose time has come.

PRO-TAK, remember that? It was last year's big gameplay development. It, combined with players tuned a bit slower, was supposed to make running the football easier, a common promise for a part of the offense that many find difficult to master. It's meant to keep plays from always ending at first contact. Absent any other broadcast-quality NFL simulation, it just looks like they added in some gang-tackling mechanic. This year, we're getting "improved locomotion" that's supposed to make your ballcarrier more responsive, and less reliant on button commands, to break into the open field.

Again, it's not just that Madden has nothing pushing it to be a better game. It also has no game for it to push to be better, which would also signal Madden's quality. It's no longer changing how video game football is played; it's just fixing itself.

If There's Only One Team on the Field, Is It Still a Winner?

All of this exposes Madden, more than any title, to the most tendentious criticism of sports video games, typically offered by those who have no intention of buying one: That it's just a roster update. (As an aside, authentic rosters have a core value to any sports simulation. If you think there is no value to having an accurate roster in a league with massive turnover, ask why UFC Undisputed 2010 - a sport with marginal roster turnover - has been a pounding sales disappointment on the back of the breakout success of UFC 2009 Undisputed.)

And the lack of competition, I'd argue, also makes reviewers more tentative in their appraisals of Madden. I thought Madden NFL 10 was one of the finest in the whole series, certainly the best of the past five years. But of what value is that opinion, really? I could be a lot more certain of my feelings on Madden if I could point to another game and say, you know what, I'm sticking with Madden because it does X, Y and Z, and this other game doesn't.

Look at the game's Metacritic score. It's definitely declined since the beginning of the exclusive license in 2005. On the core consoles from 2000 to 2004, Madden averaged a 92 - a holy-grail number for the industry. From 2005 to present, it's an 81. Even if you just limit the last five years to the biggest selling platforms (neutralizing the rushed debuts on the 360 and PS3, and the poorer-by-comparison PS2 and Xbox versions once those platforms weren't state-of-the-art) Madden still only pulls an 84. But how much of those lower scores are because reviewers had nothing to compare it against?

The trend in its review scores certainly feeds the groupthink that Madden is a soft and lazy product, with no meaningful improvements made to it over the past five years. I think that's horribly unfair, uninformed and untrue. But I can't knock it down, because a race run alone has no winner.