NFL Head Coach - EA needs to step up their game
Where were you mid December 2004? If you are an avid NFL gamer such as myself, you were probably scouring message board after message board, trying to comprehend the devastation that had just been unleashed on the NFL gaming world, posting rant after rant on such message boards only to find it fall on deaf ears outside of the immediate, and usually equally helpless, audience. I talk, of course, of the deal EASports reached with the NFL to obtain exclusive rights to videogames featuring NFL copyrights on December 13 2004 - extending to everything from players and team names, to stadiums and logos. The deal that undoubtedly made a few Christmas blues come early around the collective NFL gaming community that year.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not you're typical "EA must die, pro SEGA ESPN 2K football at all costs" fan. In fact, I have enjoyed EA's Madden, and SEGA's 2KX, for just about as long as both series have been available. As it would happen, which ever title felt the best to me on a year to year basis is the one I devoted most of my gaming towards. When it came to Madden 2005 and ESPN NFL 2K5, both got my attention for almost equal time - how fitting it would be the last year of competition in this fine genre of sport gaming. The last year of choice. For you see, with the exclusive NFL rights firmly in EA's sweaty palms, no other publisher is allowed to use NFL copyrights in their products, and hence, no competition would exist.
As the deal became a distant memory, time after time EA tried to comfort the thoughts of many NFL gaming fans that their Madden product would degrade in quality due to the lack of any external pressure whatsoever - to this date, the reality to this truth has not been realized. Sure, Madden 2006 Xbox 360 is an extremely disappointing game for many enthusiasts, but to judge the exclusivity deal off of one rushed launch title is a little rough. Given the history of sporting titles being released as new console launch titles, a 'rough around the edges' title should have been expected. It is a nice thought to presume we have entered the era of gaming where such travesties no longer exist, but it seems not even the "next gen" can escape the reality that is initial growing pains in gaming series, at least, not for series that are released yearly.
With that said, however, very few people in the NFL gaming fan base would have expected EA's next move - that is, to release a completely new type of NFL game. In fact, let me rephrase that. Very few people in the NFL gaming fan base have probably even heard of EA's next move. While the average Joe Madden fan likely found EA's heavily arcade focused "NFL Street" series entertaining to go along with their Madden gaming, and for good reason, only a small sector of the Madden fan base would have heard about EA's intentions to release a simulation NFL head coaching experience - aptly named NFL Head Coach. Probably an even smaller sector still are looking forward to it, which makes this game release decision all the more intriguing - while many NFL gaming fans maintain their belief EA are going to become the game publisher equivalent of a furiously feasting bed stricken 800lb man due to their lack of competition, you would be hard pressed to find a greedy, monopoly driven reason as to why EA are focusing on this forgotten genre. Why would a game company apparently completely fueled by the all mighty dollar choose, at this point in time, to release a game that could very well sell less than a fraction of the copies Madden sells?
First, lets look back a few years. Believe it or not, but this is not the first time EA have focused on the NFL simulation market. Back in the turn of the 3rd millennia, EA actually had "Front Office Football" in their product range. Front Office Football was pretty much what NFL Head Coach is aiming to be - although perhaps just slightly more General Manager based than Head Coach based. For whatever reasons (probably because it was PC only), this series didn't remain under the EA wing, but the genre itself lived on. In fact, Front Office Football is still an active series, and while it has since lost its major corporate status and hence NFL affiliation, it still offers incredibly in depth gridiron team management, as discussed here in our review of FOF 2004 done in January 2005.
However, despite EA's experience in the genre of NFL team management simulation, if EA plan to make a mark with this new NFL Head Coach series, a few major changes will need to be made going off the current Madden videogame, which is what NFL Head Coach will be based on - well, Madden's "Coach Mode" anyway. Given that the last EA sponsored Front Office Football was the 2001 version, you'd think that the same team management options considered niche back then would be standard in Madden 2006, however if you look at Madden game from a completely team management point of view, the series has arguably moved backwards.
For example, lets look at the very foundation of Madden's team management subsystem, the Franchise mode. Before Madden 2006, which introduced the "Superstar Mode", Franchise mode was indisputably the main mode of choice for most gamers, which meant EA had to balance it between user friendly and in depth to appeal to all many fans as possible. This means, while some areas of this dynasty building mode replicated that of the real NFL, others didn't even come close.
One area which has always failed to deliver in Madden's franchise mode year after year is the salary cap management system. While EA make the effort to ensure the starting salary cap in year 1 is NFL accurate, once you start playing through the seasons in Franchise mode, the salary cap starts to represent more of an EA quarterly profit report than a useful cap on spending. While the NFL in recent years has seen rises of the salary cap in the range of $5-7M per year, EA's interpretation is $15M+ per year, and that's the lower end of the increment scale. Not only does this create a virtual league where "cap purges" is a fictional term, it sets the tone of very little effort required by the user to dress a top end team.
How hard could it be to fix this, right? I mean, the coders at Tiburon could probably align Madden's salary cap system to reflect the NFL's in 5 minutes? This is probably true, but the problem stems much deeper than that. The reason the salary cap system in Madden is this extreme is simply because EA haven't bothered to focus on the CPU Roster management AI enough to make the game capable to stick to a real salary cap. CPU controlled teams in Madden don't restructure players who are close to ending their back loaded contracts. CPU controlled teams in Madden don't release veterans who have a low cap penalty figure but a high base salary. CPU controlled teams in Madden won't trade down from their early draft choice because they can't afford a high profile rookie. What the CPU AI will do however is sign free agents to excessive deals in positions they clearly don't need more help in. They will also waste early draft picks on players they clearly don't need. They will also randomly release anyone highly paid should they actually need to free up cap as a result of their poor management regardless of said player's cap penalty. The end result is basically a game that is too dumb to limit and control spending. Therefore, a cap limit so insanely high is needed to prevent CPU teams from failing to muster a roster with minimal numbers together. This type of lackluster AI won't do in a game where fans expect real competition from their CPU opponents on and off the field.
And what makes matters worse is the incredibly basic contract system in Madden. While SEGA explored the area of contract types in ESPN 2K5 (e.g. "front loaded', "back loaded" etc), EA have yet to stray from their basic back loaded player contract system in Madden. This minor aspect alone adds a new depth to salary management, as you can dictate when certain players receive the bulk of their pay, or at least, when certain player's contracts count more or less towards the team's salary cap. This is the type of feature that NFL Head Coach gamers will expect.
On top of this, the basic structure of a Madden player contract is split into Bonus money, and Base salary money. The NFL goes much deeper than this. Players in the NFL have incentive bonuses - Likely to be achieved incentive bonuses, and unlikely to be achieved incentive bonuses. When a contract states Jamal Lewis will be given a bonus of $1M if he reaches 2000 yards rushing again, it will be known as a "Likely to be achieved incentive bonus" because he has done it in his career before. If he fails to do this in the given year it states, the team would be given salary cap compensation because "Likely to be achieved incentive bonuses" are paid at the start of the season, as opposed to "Unlikely to be achieved incentive bonuses", which are only paid post season after the achievement and hence has no compensation. And what about option and roster bonuses? Any avid fan of the Tennessee Titans will know veteran QB Steve McNair faces a $50M option bonus coming March 2006, which both he and the Titans knew would never be paid as it was designed to inflate his original contract figures for publicity reasons. McNair's specific situation gets much more complex, but the fact remains this is the real NFL. If you haven't guessed already, nothing I said in this paragraph is featured in Madden - not even remotely. Many Madden gamers are probably glad this isn't featured because of its complexity, but the audience which EA are targeting for NFL Head Coach are more than likely not interested in an experience that they can master in a few days - they want to be confused. They want to be forced to learn the ways of this unique sport from the GM and Head Coach desk. They want the true management experience, and that includes authentic contract management.
But what about outside of Madden's Franchise Mode salary system? Well, you don't have to look far to find problems when taking other aspects of Madden from a simulation point of view. One of the nice little bugs introduced in Madden 2006 is the complete lack of stamina influencing simulated games. If you have a HB even with a low stamina attribute rating and he doesn't get injured, his backup will not get 1 touch of the ball all season long, and on top of this, the "HB1: HB2" carry share slider in the coach options screen of a Madden franchise is now completely useless as it does nothing - that's right, no Denver Bronco two HB offense in simulated games, just Tatum Bell getting the ball 350 times. This stuff will escape the criticism of mainstream media and their reviews of Madden, but it won't do in an NFL Head Coach simulation. What's worse is these issues have so far been left completely unfixed in the PC version of Madden - not one patch has been released by EASports since Madden 2006 PC was released in September 2005. Given the fact much of the NFL Head Coach market will be PC based, at least compared to the ratio of the Madden fan base, it may not have been a wise choice to completely ignore the calls of loyal fans for fixes to problems that didn't even exist in the version prior. Is that the image EA want to portray to their PC fan base - the fan base that could very well make or break NFL Head Coach?
Basically, the reason many of these above issues can fly in Madden is because the majority of the Madden fan base probably don't even know the NFL have a salary cap - and that isn't intended to offend, the choice to follow the NFL in a more complex fashion is simply that, a choice, not a showcase of superior intelligence. Some people enjoy the numbers behind a game, some people don't. However, while the majority of Madden's fan base probably comply to the latter - the people who don't - there is no doubt in my mind the type of gamers who do play Madden in Coach mode and who will be looking to purchase NFL Head Coach comply to the former - that is, living, breathing, arm chair General Managers and Head Coaches, not arm chair Quarterbacks. They want to be overwhelmed in complexity. They want to be challenged to use their brain, not their thumbs.
However, that is not to say less than obsessed fans of the sport won't give NFL Head Coach a second look. First of all, the game is going to feature the same 3D engine and "Coach mode" found in Madden current gen and this time around, it won't be PC only and will see release on the console, so it has some mainstream appeal and familiarity there. However, that should be no excuse to "dumb" the game down. It only takes a quick glimpse at an NFL news sources to see the good ol' simple NFL EA's Madden portrays isn't really that simple at all. In fact, if anything, the current events in the NFL should force EA to adopt the inner complexities in their Head Coach simulation.
For example, you may have heard of the CBA, or "Collective Bargaining Agreement", and the NFLPA, or "National Football League Player Association". If not, read up, because they are as impacting on the everyday well being of the NFL as Sportcenter highlights and fantasy football, and guess what, neither contribute a direct presence to Madden NFL. In the real world NFL, the CBA, which dictates the procedure of NFL team to player contracts and the NFL salary cap amongst other things, is about to run out in 2007 if it is not resigned, which could provoke an era of no salary cap in the NFL amongst other undesirable events. In the Madden NFL world, the term CBA doesn't exist. Sure, in most years the CBA is hardly discussed, after all, it is only a hot topic now because it runs out soon, but it still forges the NFL to what it is today, and any NFL simulation fan would certainly want to experience such forces, even if it was merely from a head coach's point of view. And as for the NFLPA, it is also a non existent force in Madden NFL, and while it may not easily translate to a videogame, it would surely offer some bonus points for the NFL simulation crowd EA want to target for NFL Head Coach.
And it doesn't stop there. Which US sports fan hasn't heard of Drew Rosenhaus? If it doesn't ring a bell, you may remember an individual named Terrell Owens. Drew Rosenhaus, for a time there, was on everybody's lips. He was getting national coverage on media that weren't even typical sports outlets, and he didn't do it with a last second touchdown catch or a controversial end zone celebration, he did it with his mouth. Drew Rosenhaus became the Arliss Michaels of the real world - if Arliss was on prime time free to air TV anyway. He almost single handily exposed the agent factor in sports today to the general public. Of course, Drew and his tactics backfired remarkably thanks to the stern stance of the Philadelphia Eagles, but if he proved anything besides what we didn't already knew about most agents, it was that agents aren't just dark figured lurking in the shadows of the NFL. They are what drive many personnel decisions in NFL teams. So why has Madden failed to expand beyond simple text based messages to interact with player agents during contract negotiations? Probably because many Madden gamers would prefer not to have to deal with an agent, but the NFL Head Coach gamers? I strongly imagine they would like the challenge of juggling calls from various agents to set play time and contracts and trade talks straight. After all, as I have already stated, the stance taken by the Eagles against the tactics of Drew and Terrell was characteristic of who runs their team, and it possibly provided a blueprint for future similar situations other teams have to face. This is something fans of the NFL simulation genre want to be able to experience.
As the title of this article says, EA need to step their game up. The intention of this article was not to expose Madden NFL per se, but to simply showcase the fact EA have embarked on a genre of NFL gaming in NFL Head Coach that will not share the same leniency the semi-arcade Madden NFL genre does. While I anticipate very few if any of the features covered here will be seen in authentic depth with NFL Head Coach, something must be done that goes beyond what we see in Madden if EA plan to succeed with this title - not just in a game feature sense, but in EA's approach from their priorities to their treatment of fan bases. If NFL Head Coach was simply Madden locked in Coach Mode with a new GUI, this fan base won't pony up $40 every year blindly. They won't read a 500 word preview featured on mainstream gaming websites extracted from an EA fact sheet three weeks before release and reserve the money then and now because it sounds promising and has pretty screenshots - they will scour the same message boards they went to a year earlier to discuss the NFL/EA deal for real opinions. They will expect broken features to be fixed where possible. They will expect real dedication for the title to progress year in and year out in areas they care about. While I have my doubts EA are prepared to take the NFL simulation world by storm, the very fact they are even focusing on this genre when they have the NFL deal tightly grasped is at least encouraging, right?