Madden's Loss of Fantasy Exposes the Reality of Sports Video GamesNo one I know seriously plays "Mascot Mashup" in NCAA Football, except for maybe the six-year-old son of a good friend from Oregon, who enjoys slamming the "GoDucks" into 11 of his dad's Stanford Trees. About the most I ever hear about the mode each year from EA Sports is when a developer jokes that they're pouring a lot of time into "Mascot Mashup 2.0."


It's one of the longest tenured features of any currently available sports series, and one that has not undergone any significant change since it was introduced nearly a decade ago. No one really complains about Mashup getting stale because, I assume, no one really gives a crap if it is.

Yet I'm convinced if NCAA Football 14 were to summarily remove Mascot Mashup next year, there'd be a parade of one-star reviews on Amazon damning the entire game to hell for taking it away.

I never heard a word about Madden NFL's fantasy draft feature—likewise an option introduced in the previous console generation, and unchanged since—until it was jettisoned this year. Several gameplay standbys were axed in order for "Connected Careers," the new suite of career modes that aspire to be a "sports MMO," to work. The mode's need for a single consistent roster usable online meant the end of fantasy draft and draft class importation from sister title NCAA Football. This was, evidently, a nonstarter for most of the 350-plus writers accounting for the one-star and 0 reviews of the game on Amazon and Metacritic.

The axe-grinding that attends every online discussion of Madden makes it very hard to identify legitimate complaints against the series. So does the fact iterative sports titles are, as a class, beaten over the head annually for not doing enough to improve their features, when annual releases like Call of Duty and Assassin's Creed change far more cosmetically than structurally. Yet here's one gameplay mode untouched since its introduction 10 years ago, unmentioned until its demise, and now it's waved like Caesar's bloody shirt.

Stepping back, however, I can't think of a good reason why Fantasy Draft had to go. The only thing it does is disperse the entire NFL population before a career mode is begun, then allows the franchise holders at the beginning of that year to draft all of the active players, essentially remaking the teams. The computer fills out the rosters of all the other squads.

Ideally, you'd want every league participant to be in charge of drafting his franchise. But the pop-in/pop-out nature of Connected Careers, in which human players may join someone else's league in midseason—and a season conceivably set years into the future—doesn't place any premium on reality or any expectation of seeing it. Madden NFL 13 has filters allowing gamers looking for a league to join to select (or avoid) ones that feature legendary performers from yesteryear, which stabs at realism at least as much as a fantasy draft would. Enabling a fantasy draft and setting a "fantasy drafted league" flag would seem to take care of the situation, too.

This is really easy for me to say—it's easy for some hothead on Metacritic to say, too. Sports video games are subjected to more blue-sky hypotheticals from their customers than any other genre, I'd argue, because their subject is something necessarily reflective of real life, and because the annual release schedule repeatedly invites the argument of why a development team chose to do one thing but not another.

What the layperson doesn't understand is the technical cost of making all old features play with new features properly, and it is a year-to-year thing. As the codebase gets updated, there's a cost associated with making sure even longstanding features—like the godforsaken Mascot Mashup—still behave properly in the game's new environments and cinematics and with the commentary engine, and other structures. The time and money associated with that comes out of the overall development budget. In "Connected Careers," remember, you're talking about managing state in an environment that must cope with a player controlling an entire team versus a player controlling a single athlete. It's a technical achievement unprecedented in sports gaming.

But there's a cold calculus involved: How many users do you lose if a legacy feature doesn't play right with the new game, and how many users do you gain if you kill it in favor of innovations?

I'd suggest that the proof is already out there. NCAA Football hasn't gotten rid of anything, nor has it really remade anything, in the past six years. It's layered onto existing features, which was a solidly appealing strategy, though one delivering diminishing returns until this year, when longtime customers realized how bare the creative cupboard really was. Yes, there was the "Heisman Challenge" this year, but it's basically a one-year career mode with some big names plugged into the roster. Its gameplay features are mimicked in the larger "Road to Glory" mode, which ends after four seasons of play. The development put into Heisman Challenge is not at all proportionate to the marketing it received. Still, for those who would howl otherwise, at least all of NCAA 12 carried forward into this year.

And sales have plunged. NCAA Football 13 is down strongly against its July and August figures from the year before. Madden may have the benefit of broader brand recognition, but it is showing a sales increase above last year's record-setting edition, the poorest-scored release of the combined current console generation. It stepped out to try to please new customers, rather than comfort existing ones. And yes, it's getting savaged by those who resent the loss of a Fantasy Draft, but it's still selling millions in reality.

Madden's Loss of Fantasy Exposes the Reality of Sports Video Games
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears weekends.