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Madden NFL 21’s next-gen console upgrade really does make it a new game

Gameplay informed by real-world data makes a complex sport more fun

Bengals running back Joe Mixon in Madden NFL 21 on PS5/Xbox Series X
There’s no feeling like hitting the hole once you see it open in the line, and Madden NFL 21 gives you more of those moments.
Image: EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

In a preview call with the executive producer of Madden NFL 21, Seann Graddy promised me that I would see the difference between console generations in my first game. I was skeptical. But he was right.

Oh, sure, the game looked sharper than ever, but that’s not the difference Graddy was referring to in the discussion. He was talking about the gameplay, the player movement and behavior that is now informed by five years’ worth of real-world data gathered by Amazon Web Services. In my first set of downs, I took control of defensive backs (something I rarely do) and fixated on the receivers’ routes, not really seeing much in their change of pace or direction while playing defense against San Francisco.

But I did see the difference on my sixth play, when the Los Angeles Rams’ Robert Woods was a beat slower against my mental memory of a slant route, and I threw the ball behind him. And I definitely saw when I took control of the defensive line. And, absolutely, in my solo Franchise, where my preferred mode of play is running as a power back.

The line play is the number one difference to me in Madden NFL 21, and I suspect it will make the same difference to users who excel more at football’s brute force techniques than its speed or finesse moves. To be able to find holes and hit them, even with a bigger and slower runner, shows what a new technology allows EA Sports to do.

In past Maddens when I ran the ball, especially between the tackles, the holes closed so quickly that if I didn’t escape through them cleanly, it felt like I was getting sucked into a tackle animation. With the improved play along the line in Madden NFL 21, which means a lot more than just slowing down the pace, I was seeing a lot more deflections, glancing blows, and stumbles leading to productive gains of six or seven yards as opposed to getting dragged down for three.

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey in Madden NFL 21 on PS5/Xbox Series X
Cutting and turning is heavier and slower with the new movement, placing a bigger priority on special moves to make defenders miss in the open field.
Image: EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts

That said, slower-to-develop plays take a huge bite in their effectiveness. A vivid example is the screen pass which, was probably a little overpowered on the past generation. But it makes sense, as my linemen move more directly and naturally to cover the receiver, the defensive line moves more directly to my quarterback. I think I had maybe two out of seven screen passes end in something other than my quarterback being sacked or deflected at the last second.

Elsewhere, I can’t pretend I can recognize the differences in the trajectory of a realistically run wide receiver route, and the automatic ones dialed up by the AI in all the past years’ Madden games. I can say, though, that passing has lost a lot of its automatic feel, where I could even throw to a guy way too early in his route and still make the completion.

Moreover, even AI quarterbacks are less lucky, and accurate. Again, who knows what the real cause of this might be, but for speaking for the single-player crowd, it’s actually refreshing to see an average passer like Ryan Fitzpatrick putting the ball just outside a player’s outstretched hands; usually, Madden dials up incompletions one of two ways, with a drop or the ball sailing way overhead.

Defense is rarely a job I enjoy (why do you think my Franchise is a single-player career?) but the largest difference I can spot is how much more effective defensive linemen are with their moves, in the hands of the user. I’m sensing that, in balancing the game, the designers gave users an edge with a larger window to get in their block-shedding move (especially if you’re following an on-screen prompt).

Cover star Lamar Jackson in Madden NFL 21 on PS5/Xbox Series X
This may sound like a strange compliment, but AI quarterbacks’ incompletions are more frequent and more realistically presented, making the passing game feel less automatic.
Image: EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts

Offensive line movement and behavior is always in the hands of the AI, of course, so those from Madden’s competitive community might find it frustrating to see users consistently breaking through with good stick skills, while being told that pass protection really is better this year. Conversely, stick skills get nerfed a good deal now that player momentum, turning, and acceleration is much heavier and more realistic. But I really have no opinion on whether this real-life player data is producing more realistic and exploitable pass coverage, or if the linebackers and secondary are just more inattentive.

I realize this has been an extremely technical discussion of American football, but that’s what EA Sports promised with Madden NFL 21: new technology, feathered into an older game. The play-calling menu and windows are different (usefully so), and there are presentational gains galore, but those weren’t really the lingering issues this series faced. And I was skeptical that the single application of something as broad really could solve so many of this game’s nagging problems all at once, and no, I can’t say it has.

But as a legitimate upgrade from the last console generation, I feel like EA Sports covered more ground improving its gameplay than their colleagues making NBA 2K21 or FIFA 21 did with theirs. (NBA 2K21 is, no doubt, a miles-ahead different game on the new generation, but it’s mostly because of its modes and content offerings.)

Madden NFL 25 made a similar leap when it moved from PlayStation 3 to PlayStation 4 — and the next game was legitimately the most enjoyable in the series to that point. For now, Madden NFL 21, with the same modes and feature sets as its lackluster, last-gen version, has rekindled my interest on gameplay alone. It might not have been love at first down, but as Seann Graddy said, it was the first game.