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Madden NFL 21’s coronavirus-induced cover art is ... great, actually

Necessity is the mother of invention

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Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson juking a Pittsburgh Steelers defender in Madden NFL 21
A screenshot from Madden NFL 21 of cover athlete Lamar Jackson doing Lamar Jackson things.
Image: EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts
Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Here’s the thing about the box art for sports video games: It doesn’t really make a difference who the cover athlete for any particular game is. I mean, I’m sure it matters to the athlete in question — especially these days, since so many of them grew up playing sports video games. And publishers like Electronic Arts and 2K Sports usually make a big deal out of revealing the cover star (leading folks like me in the media to, well, cover the announcement). But how many people have bought a sports game specifically because of the athlete on the front of the box?

Nevertheless, a lot of work goes into producing cover artwork, almost always with a photo shoot featuring the athlete in uniform. And it usually leads to a fairly generic image with the athlete captured in the midst of throwing or carrying or dribbling a ball, or swinging a bat or racket or stick or club, with the game’s logo superimposed on them. That’s no knock against the photographers or artists who put together cover art — it’s just hard to do something interesting with the form.

Enter COVID-19.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic meant that Madden NFL 21’s developers at EA Tiburon couldn’t hold their usual photo shoot this year — or any photo shoot at all, in fact — with cover athlete Lamar Jackson. They had to make lemonade with the bitter lemons they’d been handed, so they reached out to Shawn Hubbard, the official team photographer for Jackson’s Baltimore Ravens.

“Generally a global pandemic is a bad thing,” Hubbard said Tuesday on Twitter. “However, when @EAMaddenNFL wasn’t able to do their annual cover shoot, they came to the @Ravens and I to use my image library to create these covers.” Hubbard said in an interview with the Ravens’ website that it was a “huge honor,” even though he’s never played a Madden game himself.

EA Tiburon used multiple images shot by Hubbard, along with some Associated Press photos, to create two collages — one for Madden NFL 21 itself, and another for the game’s Deluxe Edition. They showcase Jackson’s talents on the field as well as the personality he brings to the NFL, with game-day photos and close-ups of his “Wild Dog” chain.

Each piece of cover artwork is also adorned with a handwritten touch: some words scribbled in felt-tip pen, like “Generation Rising” (a reference to the way in which quarterbacks like Jackson are influencing the league) or EA Sports’ long-running slogan, “It’s in the Game.” Meanwhile, the MVP Edition features a single black-and-white photo of Jackson with his helmet resting on his forehead, along with the quote, “Not bad for a running back,” which Jackson used as a sly retort to his critics after a five-touchdown performance in a blowout win to open the 2019 season.

The striking box shots are a radical departure for EA. Over the past couple of years, the publisher has opted for simple, clean cover artwork for all the EA Sports titles, with a single photo of the athlete in question on a bright background. Madden NFL 21’s covers are also a bit of a throwback to the ’90s, when EA tended to leave plenty of white space around the photo on the box for games like NHL ’94.

Madden NFL 21 is is scheduled to launch Aug. 28 on PlayStation 4, Windows PC (via both Origin and Steam), and Xbox One. PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X releases — with free upgrades from the current-gen versions — are set to follow later this year, and the game will also debut on Google Stadia this winter. Check out the first gameplay trailer and details.

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