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Madden NFL 21 overhauls gameplay with real-life data, but only on PS5 and Xbox Series X

Advanced player tracking, in real life, will deliver a stronger playing video game, developers say

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

For the past five years, every NFL player has had an RFID chip in his jersey, recording his whereabouts and movements on the field for every play of every game. You may have seen halftime ads showing how the league’s corporate partners use this data to form advanced analyses and eye-popping prediction models.

Well, now these numbers are going into the league’s video game. Madden NFL 21, launching Dec. 4 on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, will incorporate this tracking of player movement, acceleration, deceleration, and change of direction to deliver what developers vow is a more lifelike game of American football, noticeable on the first snap.

“You’re going to see it day one, first game,” executive producer Seann Graddy told Polygon. “There’s no doubt in my mind. It just feels different.

“On defense, it’s more fun,” Graddy added, “but I think even, like, running the ball, it feels like there’s half a second more to read the hole and align your running back to hit that hole.”

Madden over the years has been continually bothered by movement and AI that can seem preternaturally aware (linebackers in pass coverage, for example), stupefyingly oblivious (blockers downfield), or superhumanly quick (a running back changing direction, or a receiver on a streak route). Next Gen Stats, as the NFL and Amazon Web Services call this data set, would seem to provide a solution to it all, by supporting the game’s animations and player AI with real-life patterns of behavior.

Connor Dougan, the game’s creative director, helped lead a roundtable with games media on Monday, and he used Kansas City receiver Tyreek Hill, carrying the ball on a sweep, as an all-purpose example. “[Ball carriers’] acceleration rates, speeds, and turn rates are now driven by next-gen stats data, with all-new animations,” Dougan said. “You can see [in the PS4/Xbox One version] the way Tyreek Hill inhumanly changes direction and swivels, with no lean or momentum, as he runs. [On the new consoles] there’s proper lean and momentum as he turns upfield.”

As a receiver, Hill can be expected to run routes with more realistic acceleration and deceleration. His cuts will be slower, and the depth he runs before cutting won’t be as uniform, meaning quarterbacks will have to pay greater attention to where he and other receivers are in their routes before throwing. And Hill and other receivers will trail off the end of a route more naturally, coming back to the play if they finish their route with the play still live, rather than stopping where they are.

“Since we updated the player movement of every player on the field, that obviously impacts our blockers,” said producer Clint Oldenburg (himself an offensive lineman in college and the NFL). “We did some work to our lead blocking logic to make that improved, to allow them to have awareness.”

Graddy, to Polygon, said that overall the real-movement effect slows Madden NFL 21 down, but in such a way that players have more time to make decisions, such as in finding a hole in the line with a running back. Oldenburg said it works on defense, too. “The pacing of the passing game is going to allow user defenders a little more time to land their pass rush moves and get home to the quarterback,” he said.

The use of all this player data means EA Sports is making a stout claim that a flagship title is going to play a lot better on new consoles, not just look better. Graddy said EA Tiburon developers had been working with the NFL’s data for about two years, figuring that an overhaul this technical would need the additional processing heft of a new generation of machines to put it into practice. These features, however, will only be in the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X versions of Madden NFL 21, not the Windows PC version.

Player movement isn’t the only gameplay advancement coming with Madden NFL 21 on PS5 and Xbox Series X. Playcalling — that is, organizing and navigating the game’s spellbook of offensive and defensive designs — is going to get its biggest overhaul since Madden NFL 15, according to EA. Players will be able to bookmark plays — a long-requested feature — with a double button press that instantly stores favorites to a new tab within the playcalling window. Plays will also be broken down by the player they’re designed for, another community request at long last fulfilled.

Monday’s demonstration also made clear that there’s still plenty of processing available to make Madden NFL 21 look great, too. “Deferred lighting,” a rendering technique made possible by the new consoles’ hardware, will help make player faces more recognizable, and less flat or low-contrast. “In football, we have more lightning conditions than almost any other sport due to the times of day, and the weather we play in,” Graddy said. “Deferred lighting really allows us to push our characters and our environments closer to reality than ever.”

Screenshot of a playcalling screen in Madden NFL 21
The playcalling window in Madden NFL 21 has been redesigned, and will now call out plays by the player they’re designed for.
Image: EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts

Supporting visuals will also get a boost, to give the overall game a more lifelike feel. The sideline, long a tale of woe during between-play animations, will actually feature real players, and not just generic stand-ins. Players who are running out of bounds will collide with, or even hurdle, sideline photographers. And Oldenburg said player celebrations in stadiums that have walls around the end zones will include things like the Lambeau Leap for the first time.

Mostly, though, Madden NFL 21’s makers are confident that their game will be received as much more than a coat of polish on the current year’s game. Madden NFL 21 on PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One, despite record-setting sales, was a largely stand-pat iteration that frustrated plenty of sports gamers with incremental changes. And there’s always a raft of problems that the game’s long-standing player base wants fixed.

Next-generation stats, or real player motion, or whatever the shorthand for it, at least theoretically stand the chance of solving a lot of issues at once. “That’s when we realized, ‘A-ha,’” Graddy said. “We can take real-world data; no more debate about ratings and things like that. But we can actually say that a player is going to run at his legit top speed, or run his legit routes and actually get in motion, as close to the real world as we’ve ever had.

“I think the biggest thing is that we’re giving you the most simulation-football experience we can imagine right now,” Graddy added, “because it’s based off real-world data.”

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