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With fresh foundation set, EA Sports strives for new heights in 'Madden NFL 25'

Fresh off an Offensive Player of the Year campaign in 2023, San Francisco 49ers RB Christian McCaffrey received the honor of being the cover athlete for "Madden NFL 25." (Courtesy of Electronic Arts)
Fresh off an Offensive Player of the Year campaign in 2023, San Francisco 49ers RB Christian McCaffrey received the honor of being the cover athlete for "Madden NFL 25." (Courtesy of Electronic Arts)

ORLANDO, Florida -- As he sat back in a chair inside the Electronic Arts Orlando office, Connor Dougan's eyes lit up when asked about his feelings regarding the upcoming title.

"I'm hyped about 25," the Madden NFL 25 creative director told me during the company's two-day preview event.

That excitement isn't uncommon in late May, just months before another NFL season kicks off. But this time, there's more reason for Dougan's enthusiasm.

After slashing their way through the thick jungle that was Madden in the last five or so years, the game's developers believe they've arrived at a clearing. A yet-to-be-discovered oasis isn't promised, but if anything, they've passed a checkpoint. Now is when the fun truly begins.

With progress made over the last two years, Madden's development team has laid a firm foundation upon which it'll build the football house of its dreams. Its first multi-year initiative, Boom Tech, is set to debut with Madden NFL 25. And that's just the beginning of what the developers believe is the start of a bright, new era for the game at EA Sports.

Madden has traveled quite a road to this point.

In 2020, fans were so displeased with Madden NFL 21, they banded together via social media, demanding significant changes to the once-beloved series, starting with the game's franchise mode. Two years later, technical mistakes wiped out online franchises for a significant portion of its player base. At that point, gamers had plenty of reasons to distrust EA Sports.

But the developers didn't take their ball and go home. Instead, they confronted the challenges head on, delivering requested changes and technical improvements across the board with Madden NFL 24.

The results spoke for themselves. During the preview event in May, Madden's developers proudly touted record-high engagement and participation numbers that outlasted the actual NFL season by months. These statistics resonated with the team, which finally had concrete proof that the hard work was paying off. Furthermore, it invigorated them to keep pushing the limits of the game.

"For a couple of years, there were a lot of things that we needed to do. Needed," Madden NFL 25 senior producer Michael Mahar told me. "And we are doing more and more of what we want to do. And what we want to do is to deliver a lot of things that our players are telling us they want. A lot of innovations in gameplay and elsewhere in the game. I don't think we ever get there, but there has been a shift.

"We have momentum. We shipped Madden 24, we talked to you all last year, we were hoping it resonated. And just the sheer volume of people that played it as much as they did, for as long as they did, really helped us believe."

From that came Boom Tech, a new physics-based tackling system that builds upon the "Hit Everything" model rolled out in Madden 24 and intends to make every interaction as unique as possible. Gone are the days of predictable, seemingly magnetic animations that essentially determined each play's outcome and took the control out of the player's hands. In their place is the product of a multi-year effort to remake the most important part of football -- contact -- into something that feels much more natural to the sport. With a reloaded Hit Stick -- once an innovative hallmark of Madden that had lost its gusto in recent years -- also included, Madden's developers aimed to create a much more enjoyable and controllable experience on the defensive side of the ball.

As a counter to these defensive improvements, the development team took a new approach to ball-carrier moves, discarding the previous set of jukes -- which were unrealistically effective in Madden NFL 24 -- for a more nuanced system that can be strung together to pull off jaw-dropping runs. It will require a learning curve, but the payoff -- as demonstrated by a compilation reel whipped up by former content creator and current Madden developer K Spade -- is worth it.

Trench play is receiving upgrades, too. After rolling out new targeting logic in last year's game, which produced highlight-worthy downfield pancakes, Madden NFL 25 provides additional details in pass-blocking, giving players more agency over setting protections and beating opponents in pre-snap strategy. With the inclusion of over 500 new blocking animations, this aspect of the game should be more realistic than ever before.

With authenticity always existing as a key focus, Madden has added signature running styles for a handful of players, too, including cover athlete Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley. And for those who delight in watching Chiefs running back Isiah Pacheco's cartoonishly charged style, they'll be able to see that whenever he carries the ball in Madden 25.

Improvements don't end there. After delivering a much-improved run-after-catch mechanic to Madden NFL 24, the development team doubled down with even more additions to pass-catching. Playbooks are expected to be better, too, with a new tool set coming to Madden 25 to, once again, give more players control over their playing experience.

Developers added more realistic features to "Madden NFL 25," including the ability to set protections before the snap. (Courtesy of Electronic Arts)
Developers added more realistic features to "Madden NFL 25," including the ability to set protections before the snap. (Courtesy of Electronic Arts)

Visuals are gaining more steam year over year, as well, following up a complete redesign of every player model (via a new system titled SAPIEN) in Madden 24 with the additions of 3D grass, more player customization (tattoos, anyone?) and a continued effort to increase aesthetic options with laser-scanned uniforms and equipment. EA is so proud of the latter, developers even gave a demonstration of how the process works during their preview event, showing off how quickly they can scan a cleat into the game at an incredible level of detail that even captures imperfections in the leather grain of each shoe.

If Madden 24 was the foundation, Madden 25 is the frame. Madden 26 and Madden 27 will be the drywall, plumbing and interior finishings. And if all goes according to plan, before long, the development team will be shipping a fully complete, turnkey mansion.

"The future of Madden, based on where we are this year and the ability to make a college game and partner with them, is 鈥 I think you're going to see the pace at which we're able to innovate and deliver things for players -- surprise and delight them -- increase exponentially," Mahar explained. "We're going to be able to do more, better, faster and blow people away on an annual basis."

A core experience in any sports simulation is the ability to take over a club and guide it to glory.

The goal is to have fun, but also to be fully immersed in such a mode that is driven by narrative and on-field experience. Madden, admittedly, has fallen short of that goal in recent years.

But the much-maligned franchise mode is finally receiving the tender love and care it has long deserved. The development team has acknowledged and addressed this fact, overhauling the mode's user interface while delivering new depth, storytelling possibilities and a customization suite not seen in a decade.

This is the result of a yearslong effort on the part of the franchise team, which began to give fans a taste of what was coming when it added contract restructuring and doubled the total amount of trade slots in Madden 24. Madden 25, by comparison, should blow those improvements out of the water.

With these goals in mind, EA Sports was fortunate to welcome back Josh Looman, the former lead designer of the company's deepest NFL game, NFL Head Coach 09, and a driver of the game's first foray into Connected Franchise Mode (CFM) over a decade ago.

"There's nobody that loves franchise more than I do," Looman, the Madden NFL 25 principal game designer, said during the preview event in Orlando. "I'm basically a giant franchise nerd that they pay to work on this stuff.

"When I came back and interviewed with these guys, the first thing we talked about constantly, in every phone call, was bringing life back to franchise mode. That's the thing that was missing. There was a lot of great stuff in Madden 24, a lot of customization, there's new relocation teams, but the one thing that was missing the entire time was life and immersion. That element of surprise. That feeling that every single time you played the mode, things are different. It's the stuff we did in Head Coach. It's the stuff we did in CFM in its first season.

"I really want to bring that kind of stuff back and have that feeling of excitement every time you play franchise mode."

Looman has overseen an effort to bring that life back to franchise, where players have lacked the ability to truly immerse themselves in the narrative of their careers without using their own imaginations. In Madden 25, he believes they'll never run out of game-produced inspiration.

Players will demand trades. Coaches can direct a player to focus on a specific area of offseason training to best suit his fit within the team. Coaches can choose to rest their starters after locking up a playoff spot. They can dive deep into the Xs and Os to game plan against a specific opponent. They can make promises to players, but those players will remember their guarantees and, judging by their personality type, will react accordingly.

Want to follow in Lions coach Dan Campbell's footsteps? You can with a "change the culture" storyline. Draft night received a makeover, too, including the addition of Commissioner Roger Goodell into the game. A virtual commish will hug fully suited draft picks at the end of their walks across the stage and hold up their jerseys after they've been selected. And last (but certainly not least), a once-sleepy offseason will now include intense contract negotiations with top players.

"Now, things take place over the course of seasons," Looman explained, "and you'll actually, finally feel like you're managing a team for the first time, instead of clicking on rows in a spreadsheet."

"I think you鈥檙e going to see the pace at which we鈥檙e able to innovate and deliver things for players -- surprise and delight them -- increase exponentially. We鈥檙e going to be able to do more, better, faster and blow people away on an annual basis." -- Madden NFL 25 senior producer Michael Mahar

When it comes to customization, the possibilities have admittedly lacked depth. Relocation and rebranding was limited to a handful of premade choices depending on city, and although EA added a number of new options in Madden 24, it pales in comparison to the potential provided by the long-desired return of a legendary feature: TeamBuilder.

The web-based feature will first return with College Football 25 and follow with the launch of Madden NFL 25. It's a notable achievement for EA Sports -- and a sign of the strength that comes with producing two football games annually -- which needed to earn approval from its NFL partner in order to provide players with a true customization suite that had been absent from the game for over a decade.

"I am thrilled, especially as a franchise player, to see what some of those leagues are going to look like and what players are going to do, because they haven't had that freedom and flexibility in terms of customization in years," Dougan said. "And it's much easier to do than it has been in the past."

"They (the NFL) have been massively supportive of this," Mahar explained. "It was not easy getting this approved internally at the NFL, as it should be difficult. There were a lot of questions, a lot of scrutiny, it's a big league -- they've got many, many different people and partners that need to be treated fairly and equitably. But the people we work with directly understood intrinsically what we were trying to do, supported it the whole way, believed in it and inevitably were our biggest champions internally to help us get it pushed through and approved by the NFL."

After taking a cautious step into the waters of franchise a year ago with minor changes, Madden is diving in headfirst with changes it believes will not just refresh the experience, but return it to prominence. Time will tell whether these efforts will satisfy the game's user base, but after years of all but ignoring the mode, the development team has made its focus clear: franchise matters to them just as much as it does to the franchise diehard.

"When you think about franchise, too, when you talk about Madden 2005, like, Madden players deserve an amazing franchise mode," Dougan said. "And that's our goal for Madden 25, 26 and beyond. So I think fans are going to be excited about what we're going to deliver in 25, and be even more thrilled with what we do in 26 and so on."

Madden 25 strives to improve in every area, but it all comes down to a few core pillars of focus: Continue to improve the foundational elements of football, add onto the authenticity of the experience and deliver what the community wants most.

The development team believes it has taken great strides toward achieving these goals within the annual development cycle, cramming as many improvements into the new iteration as possible (e.g., two new commentary teams -- Mike Tirico and Greg Olsen, plus Kate Scott and Brock Huard -- are joining to refresh the audio experience and provide more variety) while also staying focused on what is most important.

Competition now exists in-house, too, thanks to the return of the college game with College Football 25. If Madden ever needed reason to strive for more, it now has it.

For football and gaming fans everywhere, they can do nothing but hope for the best. Those at EA believe they're in for a treat.

"Our goal here at Tiburon (EA's Orlando office) -- and it's part of the reason we took everyone around on the tour, to show what the capabilities of our studio are -- we believe we are the capital, home, whatever the right word is for virtual football in the world," Mahar said. "We are uniquely capable at this studio of building football games with technology, people, talent, ideas that no one else can build. We understand that there needs to be two amazing but unique experiences for players to ideally play both. Because there's a lot of synergy and cool things when they connect, like 'Road to Glory' character and everything else, but they are unique. And they need to be.

"I think it's push-pull. It is highly collaborative, and honestly, while getting College (Football) off the ground initially was challenging, it's going to end up creating a lot of momentum for our players. Whether they play College or Madden -- or, ideally, both -- it's going to reap benefits everywhere."

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