EA Sports' Ultimate Team, the fantasy team mode with virtual trading cards that's available in most of the publisher's games, is phenomenally popular — as is fantasy football. This year, Madden NFL 16 developer EA Tiburon is bringing fantasy football into Madden, in a way, with a new mode called Draft Champions.
"Fantasy sports and football go hand in hand," said Seann Graddy, senior producer on Madden 16, in an interview with Polygon. "People just love to draft. They like to get together in a room and pick their team. They think they have more insight about a certain player. We thought about how we could bring the draft experience into Madden."
Draft Champions offers you a makeshift squad based on your favorite NFL team. You then take part in a series of draft rounds, picking one athlete from three options each time. You're seeking to fill empty positions on the roster, but also looking out for upgrade options in existing spots. Your draft team can then take the field against either human or AI opponents in tournaments, and you can go back and try more drafts.
"We decided to come up with this simple 15-rounder, where you have to make an interesting decision every time," said Graddy. "That's what a draft is about. 'I know more than you. I'm going to make an interesting pick.'
"We limit the number of picks that you have so that those decisions are hard," Graddy continued. "You're not going to fill every position on your team. How do we create this draft experience, but take it one step further? With fantasy football you pick a team and you passively watch it. In our game you pick a team and you can play with it on the field. It makes it a bit more special."
The drafts aren't undertaken in leagues with other people, as in the Connected Franchise mode. You draft players by yourself, and then play others with that team. We asked about the quality of NFL players throughout the rounds of the draft, and Graddy said it's randomized, so the players available in round 15 could be just as good as the ones in round 1.
In the game itself, EA Tiburon has tweaked passing options for quarterbacks as well as receiver options. The QB can decide to loft a pass to let his receiver get under it, or fire off a bullet. And Madden 16 players will be able to choose from three different catch types, with each one suited to particular types of situations. Receivers can elect to attempt a stylish aggressive catch or a safer but less flashy possession catch, for example.
New animations have been added for the moment receivers catch the ball and best their opponents. AI receivers and defensive backs are more likely to react to one another's movements and decisions, part of EA Sports' attempts to smarten up its virtual players using the vaunted Ignite engine.
"We give you deeper controls to be more creative," said Graddy. "At the point of the catch, we built a system to allow our animators to animate that battle between the defender and a wide receiver. They're very authentic, very exciting. They're the big 'wow' moments you get on Sunday."
Madden NFL 16 will be released Aug. 25 on Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 3.
Update: You can watch Graddy's E3 presentation of Draft Champions below.