A typical exhibition game in Madden, NBA 2K, MLB The Show, or another simulation sports title is probably going to take about 45-60 minutes to complete. These days, with so many entertainment options available at everyone’s fingertips, that might be asking too much.
The new Superstar KO mode for Madden NFL 20 is the latest attempt from EA Sports — and perhaps the most fun one yet — to shorten the length of an individual play session while ensuring that players still feel like they’re getting a satisfying sports experience. The mode goes live Tuesday as part of a free update on PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. And anyone on those platforms will be able to check it out through a free trial of Madden 20 this weekend, with the full game available to try from 12:01 a.m. PDT on Sept. 5 through 11:59 p.m. PDT on Sept. 9. (Note that on consoles, the trial requires an active PlayStation Plus or Xbox Live Gold subscription.)
If the name rings a bell, it may be because there’s a Superstar Edition of Madden 20, and because one of the game’s key new features this year is the introduction of “Superstar X-Factor” traits. These enhancements for a few dozen of the NFL’s best players are meant to make them stand out on the virtual gridiron — to give you a sense that you’re playing with the uniquely talented Aaron Donald, the fearsome Los Angeles Rams pass rusher, not just any old defensive end. (In our review, we found that Superstar X-Factor traits didn’t really make a meaningful difference.)
Superstar KO puts the focus on these top players for a quick game of Madden in a head-to-head online multiplayer mode. The goal, according to members of the development team at EA Tiburon, was to deliver a fun football experience that you can get in and out of within just five to eight minutes. Because of that reduced time commitment, success or failure is less of a concern.
“Losing in this mode shouldn’t feel like losing in the rest of Madden,” Jake Stein, a producer on the series’ live content team, told Polygon during a preview event last week. Stein contrasted the condensed experience of Superstar KO with a full game in the Franchise, Ultimate Team, or online modes, where you might feel dejected if you lose on a last-minute touchdown after spending an hour playing.
You can play Superstar KO solo, or bring in some online friends for two-on-two or three-on-three games — the mode’s matchmaking will always pit you against squads of the same size. (It is not possible to play in local multiplayer or against the CPU.)
At the start, you choose one of eight premade teams. All the playbooks are condensed, and each club has a different one depending on its coach and its strengths and weaknesses. For instance, Dot City — coached by Browns receiver Odell Beckham Jr. — can throw the ball and defend against the pass very well, but only has 1 out of 5 ratings for rushing offense and defense. Its playbook is heavy on plays out of the shotgun formation.
Superstar KO allows EA to loosen up a bit on the constraints of a simulation football game. Two of the coaches are musicians — DJ Khaled and Lil Yachty — who are also playable quarterbacks in the mode, and another is Jennifer Welter, who in 2015 became the first female coach in NFL history as a preseason intern with the Arizona Cardinals.
The teams’ rosters consist entirely of active NFL players, but Superstar KO puts a twist on the personnel with an abbreviated draft: You get three rounds to pick from a pool of 60 players with Superstar X-Factor abilities. The group includes 50 current players, like Saquon Barkley and Joey Bosa, as well as the two aforementioned musicians, who are known as “icons.” The remaining eight players are NFL Hall of Famers such as Jerry Rice, Lawrence Taylor, and Jim Brown. (They’ll be pretty rare in the draft pool.)
On the field, Superstar KO plays kind of similarly to college football’s current overtime rules. Each team gets one possession starting from their own 25-yard line, with just one goal: a touchdown. If you score, you have to go for a two-point conversion.
If the score is tied afterward — at 0, 6, or 8 — then the game goes to overtime, which is known as Tug of War. (It’s inspired by the Tug of War minigame in EA’s defunct NCAA Football series.) It begins at the 50-yard line, and each team gets three opportunities to advance the ball. The line of scrimmage moves with every play, so if the first team completes a 20-yard pass, the other squad will then start from its own 30. After each side has had three plays, the team that has moved the ball the furthest beyond midfield wins. (In the rare case that the ball ends up back at the 50, both teams lose in a “double KO.”)
We were able to complete a maximum-length round of Superstar KO — from the draft through Tug of War — in about nine and a half minutes. That’s just the first of four games, though: The goal is to go 4-0 in Superstar KO, and it doles out rewards for Madden Ultimate Team along the way. (That’s the only connection, though: An EA Sports representative told Polygon that MUT Coins do not play a role in Superstar KO, and that there are no microtransactions in the mode at all.)
The winning team gets to pick one player from the losing side, and then move up the ladder. It’s worth noting that while a single round might last five to eight minutes, you can’t save your progress and quit if you’ve won — you’ve got to see it through until you win four in a row, or lose.
Again, the developers at EA Tiburon clearly let loose in this mode: It takes place in a new stadium with a festival-like atmosphere, and all the players are wearing wild and weird jerseys. The commentary comes not from the standard broadcast team of Brandon Gaudin and Charles Davis, but from a hype man, as Stein referred to him. It’s an exciting spin on Madden’s traditional football simulation, which can get a bit stale if you’ve been playing forever. And with Superstar KO’s abbreviated sessions, you definitely won’t be.