Madden NFL 20, this year’s edition of the only licensed football video game in existence, earned lots of excitement when EA revealed that it would bring college teams back to virtual football.
In the all-new QB1: Face of the Franchise mode, you get to play in up to two College Football Playoff games with one of ten team options. The basis of the story mode is that you are a highly-recruited quarterback out of high school, but then the top QB in the country joins your recruiting class as well, causing you to lose the starting job and sit for four years after you choose not to transfer. He gets hurt and you end up thrust into the starting role for the playoff, beginning with the semifinal.
Before we get into where the career mode falls flat, I’ll echo what just about everyone else has said, which is it’s great to see college football back in a video game. We all miss the NCAA Football franchise, which ended with the ’14 edition after the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit resulted in it being deemed illegal not to pay the players for using their likeness. Instead of, you know, allowing players to be paid for that, the NCAA refused to let EA Sports make the game and, as such, we’ve been without it for six years. Now, we have a taste of it back, and it’s pretty cool to get to play with college teams again. Having said that, it’s simply not the same — it’s still run on the Madden engine, where the gameplay has always been a bit different than the NCAA games.
Now, how you fare in those playoff two games, plus a brief run-through throwing the route tree at the NFL Combine, will define where you get selected in the draft. In my first run, I won the title (with Miami over Texas Tech, which is an objectively hilarious title game scenario) and went 17-for-24 at the Combine in receivers catching the ball in the designated zone — sometimes they bobble the ball through the zone and you get counted as a miss when they complete it outside, which is infuriating. Still, I was selected in the late first round by the Broncos and entered the league right around an 80 overall (which seemed a bit high). After a solid preseason, I beat out Joe Flacco for the starter job.
By Week 7, I was an 88 overall, thus highlighting the main issue with the career mode, which is that it’s just too easy and simple. For someone whose most recent interaction with a career mode is NBA 2K19, there’s a stark contrast between how much you do off the court there (which I felt was too much non-gameplay stuff), and how in Madden NFL 20, there is absolutely nothing. You do five reps in practice each week, send some text messages, and then play in the game. There’s something to be said about getting to just play the games, but there’s a way to balance getting the player into games and actually having to do something to improve beyond just that.
If the game mode is called “QB1,” there should probably be some kind of quarterback battle element to it. They need to go deeper into that once you get to the NFL, not just some vague texts from your coach about the 53-man roster and then, poof, you’re the starter if you weren’t a disaster in the preseason. That’s not just an issue as a first-round pick, either. I went through this game mode a second time, purposely tanking the semifinal game and my Combine performance, where I went 10-for-24, and was picked in the seventh round (again by the Broncos). I was a 59 overall, which made for a better challenge, as I would sometimes just miss throws because my guy wasn’t good. I still won the starting job as a 62 overall by the end of preseason, however, somehow taking it from Flacco without so much as an interaction.
You can get cut if you struggle, which gives an added dimension to the story mode, but given that I hadn’t played a football game in a few years and it was as easy as it was, you would seem to have to really struggle to make that a reality. Also, you find a new team and, once again, just go through the same motions of preseason and regular season action. I’m not suggesting it be as hard as actually making it as an NFL QB — we all remember how much folks hated the vision cone — but there’s a middle ground that can make the QB1 mode an absolute blast.
My pitch here is simple: Make it be a quarterback battle you go through in training camp. Where you’re drafted and the QB depth chart in that place should dictate how close you start to the starter — if you are a late-round pick in Green Bay, you’re way behind Aaron Rodgers, but if you’re drafted high in Denver, perhaps you’re neck and neck with Flacco. You should have to go through 25 reps in practice, five days a week, through the preseason. How you do in those reps compared to the established starter on your team would push a bar in one direction (yours) or the other (the incumbent). Your performance in the allotted amount of time you got in the preseason game would likewise be compared to his, and by the end of the preseason, you would know why and how you either earned the starting role or how you fell behind.
During the season, you keep doing the same thing, and depending on who is on the depth chart, you could have a stranglehold on the job, be in a battle each week, or have to work to take over under center. It shouldn’t be as easy as have a few good preseason games, get the starting job, and then there are no questions after that. The entire first season is just you going about your business and playing games after five reps in practice, and then you do nothing in the offseason and start again the next preseason.
I love the first-person element of playing just as the quarterback in career mode. I think there’s a base here to work with and the gameplay, aside from everyone’s favorite glitch videos that are always going to exist, is excellent. However, it’s an overly simple career mode that could use significant additions to make it a worthwhile venture for players. I’m not a guy that logs serious hours on Madden every year — I played NCAA Football religiously for years, but hadn’t really played a football game in a while prior to this — and it was just too simple to take a rookie, as either a first or seventh-round pick, and make him a starter in Week 1 on the suggested middle level of difficulty (the one where player ratings make the most difference).
Most gamers aren’t going to want to just take practice reps for a full season, but at least add some deeper competition to earn a starting job and potential consequences that come if you can’t quite keep that job. It can still be a paint-by-numbers deal, where playing well equals earning the starting job, but show the work needed to get there a little more.