A bit more than fifteen years ago, American football games were a dominant force in the video games industry. The annual arrival of Madden and its competitors was marked on the calendar as an event rivaling the importance of the holiday sales season. In recent years, the player base and release day excitement surrounding the series has diminished with first-week retail sales of Madden NFL 19 cut in half from where they were with Madden NFL 13. This has been a trend despite the NFL being more popular than ever. How can this be? It’s simple. The Madden series is now stale and lifeless, only existing to sell card packs and roster updates. EA doesn’t seem to care about what was once its golden goose and neither should prospective buyers. Madden NFL 20 cements the series as the worst major sports video game series available, by no small margin.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before
This year’s edition of Madden NFL touts improvements to gameplay, new animations, a revamped career mode, and the best franchise mode ever. These same bullet points are brought out every year, and they are only half-truths. Coming from Madden NFL 19, dedicated players will be able to notice less jank in the passing game, with better catches in traffic, improved pass trajectories, the real generation of pass rush, and tempering of the omniscient, intercepting linebackers. These changes to the game do produce a better overall experience during the on-field action and help build towards a better cyber representation of the game of football. Madden NFL 20 fixes some of the worst parts of Madden 19, but it should not be commended for such small steps. The problem is that such small changes are indicative of the snail’s pace at which the game evolved in its yearly iterations.
Madden NFL 20 is the seventh iteration of the series on this generation of consoles. Obviously, you can’t expect sweeping changes to the underlying design philosophy of a game like this on an annual basis when it is so deep into the life cycle. This line of thinking makes all the sense in the world if you assume that the product is strong at the core and that this core is a meaningful step forward from the previous generation. Sadly, when it comes to Madden NFL, this is not the case.
Beginning with Madden 25, the first version of the game released on PS4 and Xbox One in 2013, the overall package was sparse. Having just launched on a new engine and hardware, it was forgivable for Madden to not be feature complete or as refined as the standout releases of generations prior. Surely, that level of fun and polish would arrive with Madden NFL 15, released in 2014, but it was not to be. While the game sold very well, finishing second in overall sales to Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare that year, longtime fans felt it was still a greatly inferior product to predecessors like Madden 2004 or Madden NFL 10 in core gameplay and features.
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss
Fast forward through five more Madden NFL releases and what has been changed or added to the game that brings an evolution in how the game is played (or even bringing it up to parity with decade-old forebearers)? The series has seen nothing more than a sprinkling of band-aids like ball carrier UI prompts and dreadful attempts at career modes like Longshot. Madden NFL 20 promises that its new Face of the Franchise career mode offers the best ever experience, but Madden vets will quickly see that it is a half-baked Longshot retread, right down to reusing coach models, voice acting, and neurotic agents or front office personnel as part of its “narrative.” Sure, you can now alter how your Face of the Franchise player's facial features, but the core experience is just as dull and meaningless as it was in the last two games.
There are no real choices to be made in the career mode outside of delegating minuscule XP assignments after leveling up or choosing to accept a generic new contract that is presented with no dollar amounts, years, or any information at all. You can request to be released via a menu prompt and get the opportunity to sign with one of a few suitors offering the same nondescript offers. None of the nuance or drama of front office NFL business is represented, despite being a series staple fifteen years ago.
The on-field portion of this mode is almost as awful as the front-end portions. You take control of your quarterback when he is on the field and are given the option to call plays. It is always in your best interest to pass on every down and never gamble giving the braindead AI the opportunity to ruin your progress or chance at winning. I’ve lost count of how many drives I had stall two to five yards from the endzone, only to have the AI opt to not take the 3-point field goal and simply turn the ball over to the opposing team. You will routinely end games where your receiving corps totals 12 or more dropped passes.
Trying to play smart, situational football in this mode is an exercise in frustration. God forbid you find yourself in an overtime situation and throw a game-winning touchdown, as this causes some sort of error that results in an impassable screen where the game tries to simulate to your next possession, even though the match should be over. You cannot pause or return to the menu, but rather have to kill the game process entirely, losing all progress. Countless times I’ve thrown touchdowns and had the game show celebration dances and trigger touchdown commentary only for the next play to show the ball turned over to the opposing team or placed short of the goal line. These instances are infuriating, as all these bugs are not unique to Madden NFL 20, and I’ve been experiencing them in the game for years.
Somehow it gets uglier
You can load up the standard Franchise mode and lock it to a single player and get the exact same experience as Face of the Franchise, minus the awful cutscenes. Sadly, the player face modification is frustratingly absent outside of the Face of the Franchise. I say it’s sad because EA has done an embarrassing job with recreating player faces. By now, you’ve probably seen the Greg Olsen face floating around on Twitter, but it’s just one of hundreds and the game offers no way to fix it, despite having a full-fledged face editor built-in. Even the Superstar X-Factors, abilities touted in this year’s game that give elite players unique advantages, is broken. If you alter your player’s position to better gameplan against an opponent, those traits just disappear and you don’t ever get them back, even when swapping back to the original position. Doing something that is a normal part of football (and Madden Franchise mode) effectively neuters players like Aaron Donald and Julio Jones.
Animations range from good to awful. You will still find your ball carriers getting sucked into tackle animations and receivers getting sucked into pass breakups. The players still seem to have no on-field awareness, as the amazing toe-dragging catches from old competitors like All-Pro Football 2K8 are nowhere to be found. Player weight and momentum still mean nothing. A player with 99 speed can be chased down by a player with 80 speed for no apparent reason. The open-field running animation still looks inhuman and all transition animations are jerky enough to shred any sense of immersion built by the quality player modeling. Arms and legs still clip through each other as they have for years. As with years past, a big chunk of NFL football is totally absent from the game, including certain penalties, imperfect snaps, WRs adjusting to passes, and more. What meager video highlights we saw at halftime in last year's game has been replaced with static, zoomed-in shots of the player models. To say that Madden NFL 20 has any halftime or postgame presentation is laughable.
Graphically, the game is a carbon copy of Madden NFL 19, itself nearly indistinguishable from Madden NFL 18. This year’s game offers what looks to be a slightly lifted brightness filter laid over the proceedings, so some of the faces seem brighter if you do a one-to-one comparison. It is not a bad-looking game when frozen, as there are some excellent player models, textures, and sweat shaders, but these were all here before. This is the second year the game has been on PC and I was hoping for EA to do something to leverage the power of the platform, but all that changed from Madden NFL 19 is the addition of an HDR toggle (which is appreciated).
Some of the same PC-centric bugs from last year are present, including the crowd quality being set anywhere other than Medium causing intense stutter and poor framerates. I was able to leave the crowd on Medium and play at a deadlocked 60fps at 8K, yet enabling HQ crowds at 720p on the same machine results in stutters and drops below 30fps. New players should note that allowing the game to set the graphics can result in an unplayable experience. Currently, enabling the MSAA anti-aliasing setting will prevent in-game UI elements from being shown, making kicking impossible and disabling on-field play art. This is disappointing as Madden NFL 19 had a different MSAA bug where its presence prevented weather effects from working and it was never fixed. Based on my experience with the last six or seven Madden games, I do not expect to see a fix.
What did EA pour its resources into for Madden NFL 20? All of the front-end and in-game menus are identical to those found in the last few Madden games, though each has been slathered in bright, colorful paintbrush strokes. Sure, it does look different from last year’s menu, so score a win for EA there. The in-game scoreboard got a new font and its border was altered following three years without change. Small victories should be applauded, I guess.
The game never misses an opportunity to direct you towards Madden Ultimate Team, the cash cow trading card game that I’ve come to loathe over the years. You get a few card packs containing players to assemble a custom team to battle other Ultimate Team participants. You can grind out for more packs for a chance at getting better versions of those players, or you can just give your debit card straight to EA and buy packs until your team is simply better than most. This is what EA would prefer you do, as swapping stat numbers on digital cards is much easier than evolving and improving the core game for a license that you have exclusive rights to.
Save your money for anything else
This franchise is now famous for taking features away and then later returning them with undeserved fanfare. The opening splash screens tout the return of the Pro Bowl to the Madden series. It is back in the game, but as a simple exhibition with alternate jerseys, why did it get pulled to being with? Why are all-star teams and classic teams gone? Why did training camp get removed? What happened to the various components of Franchise mode like budgeting and in-depth team relocation? Where is the situational practice mode? Why did the referees get removed? I will not be surprised to see the return of referees touted for Madden NFL 21 because EA knows the fans are easy marks. If you took everything in Madden NFL 20 and added it as a patch to Madden NFL 19, it would be a real spit in the face to actual patches. Do you feel comfortable paying $60+ for a patch that removes features, even if you do get some solid balance changes?
I have no doubt you will see reviews from other outlets touting “a new step forward” or “the best Madden yet” around online, but they are just avoiding the real issues. Someone out there could make the argument that the on-field portions are better than Madden NFL 19, but incrementally besting a deeply flawed experience is nothing to be celebrated. I was extremely lenient in my review of last year’s game due to the return of the franchise to the PC. Getting the game working on a new platform is no small task, so expectations were that Madden NFL 20 would be where the game truly moved forward, except it has not. Madden NFL 20 is the worst major sports league video game out there. Despite some despicable microtransaction design, NBA 2K is an exponentially better representation of its real-life counterpart and has an ever-improving Franchise mode that offers real depth and year-over-year growth. MLB: The Show is the blueprint of excellence for which other sports titles should be judged. Save your money for a series that still respects its fans. 4/10 butt fumbles
This review is based on the PC Origin release. The game was purchased by the reviewer. Madden NFL 20 will be made available for PC, Xbox One, and PS4 on August 2, 2019 for $59.99.
Madden NFL 20
- Good-looking player models
- Improved passing over last year's game
- Madden Ultimate Team great for addictive personalities
- Most egregious rehash entry in series history
- Nearly decade-old bugs
- Brand new bugs
- Removed features
- Previously removed features triumphantly return
- Poor game at its core
- No attention paid to details
Chris Jarrard posted a new article, Madden NFL 20 review: No love for the game
This was a phenomenal article. I'm glad to see someone with enough integrity to take a stand against this nonsense. You wrote a unbiased, truthful article and I must say that I truly appreciate you for doing so. Great work. I am officially a fan!