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Madden’s ‘The Yard’ keeps up with the neighbors, but still offers a unique game of football

New mode learned a few tricks from FIFA’s Volta Football and NHL’s World of Chel, but has plenty of its own, too

Giants running back Saquon Barkley, in a wild orange-and-blue snakeskin uniform, makes a diving grab in Madden NFL 21’s The Yard
Saquon Barkley was one of the few bright spots for a woeful Giants team last year. He’s even more colorful in Madden NFL 21’s The Yard.
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.

One of the plays I grilled up in Madden NFL 21’s new “The Yard” mode reminded me of hockey players cycling the puck before a slap shot. Another, a double pass in the backfield before I bombed the Rams’ Jalen Ramsey on a seam route, resembled an old-fashioned ball reversal from basketball. When my created player snapped the ball — standing sideways over it — then hauled in a short pass and lateraled to an AI teammate trailing the play, it seemed vaguely rugby-ish.

This would cost me $3 to say, if I were saying it in J.P. Kellams’ office.

The EA Tiburon producer in charge of The Yard understands that people will inevitably compare his version of American football to other sports, particularly free-flowing ones where the ball is continually in play. But among his designers, “Anyone who brought up basketball or any other sport, I made them put $1 in a square jar,” Kellams said, “because we needed to solve new problems for football, not understand how other sports have solved things, in a culture that already has that right, like street basketball.”

In my defense, and The Yard’s, over an hourlong hands-on trial I arrived at these comparisons after I did something right, rather than when I hit a problem or needed a solution. The Yard borrows a lot of its presentation, progression, and player customization from the alternate modes that Madden’s siblings have delivered over the past three years — FIFA’s Volta Football, NHL’s World of Chel, NBA Live’s The Streets. But the game it plays is, distinctively and familiarly, football, albeit with fewer players and its sludgier parts rinsed off.

The Yard is a six-on-six game of American football, with players handling both offensive and defensive roles, and capable of doing everything, anywhere on the field. It’s not flag football; there are helmets, pads, and big hits galore. But it’s not NFL Street or NFL Blitz, either. Most of the razzle dazzle comes from improvising the play after the ball is snapped, rather than running around on fire or playing perk cards.

Rules can change from match to match, and they allow for things like multiple forward passes behind the line of scrimmage (for example, a shovel pass to a wide receiver running a sweep, who rolls out and spears a teammate streaking down the sideline). Bonus points are awarded for interceptions or recovered fumbles. Big plays end with calls to “add a little salt,” or “tell ’em who’s boss,” by picking a celebration with the right stick (a feature available in Madden 21’s other modes, too).

Legal motion in the backfield

Probably the most important twist, for The Yard’s goal of exciting, improvised plays, is the ability to snap the ball to any of the five other players on the field. The center stands to the side of the ball, flag football-style, and can flip it to a wideout as easily as he can the designated quarterback. The Yard has a very small playbook, with everyone running some kind of passing route, so the direct snap to someone taking a backfield route, or a screen route, is how you get a running play, rather than with a handoff.

“One of the things that The Yard has going for it, as a new way to play Madden, is how emergent the gameplay has become in that mode,” Kellams said. “One of the things people have hit on is that standard, 11-on-11 football (in a video game) doesn’t necessarily meet their expectation of exactly how this play needs to go. For a lot of people in 11-on-11, 80% of your success is your playcalling, your pre-play adjustments.

“We don’t really have pre-play adjustments,” Kellams continued, although there are things like hot routes and individual blitz assignments. “Eighty percent of your success in The Yard is what you create on the field. It’s a much more limited playbook, and the plays are essentially just jumping-off points for the emerging gameplay.”

A player in a hoodie and a paint-spattered helmet prepares to punch a football, volleyball style, to a teammate.
A “punch-pass” is one of the razzle-dazzle plays available in Madden NFL 21’s The Yard.
Image: EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts

Players not only perform on both offense and defense in The Yard, they also develop along multiple playing styles, rather than specializing in a single position or physical characteristic. That’s why Jalen Ramsey — a defensive back in real life — was my No. 1 receiving target in single-player The Yard. When a match gets started in The Yard, a player will pick a position for their created star, and if it’s a cooperative multiplayer game, someone else might have picked quarterback first. So players must build up about a dozen “archetypes,” from one based on the scrambling cover star Lamar Jackson, to others based on big-hitting safeties or receivers who can tack on yards after the catch.

Defense in The Yard is still somewhat a hope-for-the-best proposition, much like it is for many players in Madden’s main mode. With no pass blocking, there’s a rush timer corresponding to the old one-Mississippi count folks use when they play backyard football; after it expires, the defense can charge into the backfield. If, on user-controlled defense, you’re someone who picks a defensive lineman and slams him into the wall, you’ll need to either call the right coverage or get better at pass defense, because nearly all of the sacks I got came because the thrower couldn’t find an open man in time.

I’m terrible at defense in Madden’s main mode, constantly overrunning the play and spamming the Hit Stick. But I didn’t feel like the AI offense in The Yard, given all it has to work with, was so overpowered that I didn’t have a chance. Just pressuring a passer will dramatically reduce the chance of a reception (and if the player is not ordinarily a passer, make it even harder). I threw a lot of lame-duck interceptions even with a dedicated passer like Matthew Stafford, usually because I was trying to do too much or was hurried into a choice I wasn’t committed to.

New game, new fundamentals

The Yard players should expect that, with this new way to play football, they’ll have to discover its most effective fundamental play for themselves, and they may not find it until a few months after launch. “I spent a couple weeks where I was convinced that the way to torch everybody was to step back, throw it to one of the outside guys, and then immediately throw a slant,” Kellams said. “And that worked for about a week and a half until someone found a defensive counter for it.

a player hides the ball behind his back to avoid a defender in Madden NFL 21’s The Yard Image: EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts

“I’ve been beating up on my development manager, because I’ve discovered that he has become enamored with rushing the quarterback,” Kellams added. “So what I do is hike directly to the quarterback, step back, toss it to a slot guy who’s on a play that has him step behind the line of scrimmage — to distract (the defender) over to that guy — then immediately toss it back to the quarterback, who will run, or toss it to an open man downfield. That’s probably going to work for another week and a half, until everybody gets the game.”

Even if The Yard is a distinctive game between the lines, off the field it strongly resembles other EA Sports quick-play/lifestyle modes. The world-tour aspect of The Yard, which takes players from Miami and Green Bay to Berlin or an overseas military base, is evocative of The Streets’ campaign in NBA Live 19 or Volta Football from FIFA 20.

The player customization and personalization layer — which hooks into both a mobile game and real-money microtransactions — is also straight from the Electronic Arts corporate playbook. Kellams points out that there are plenty of opportunities to freely earn “Cred,” the Yard’s grind currency, or virtual apparel outright. Even getting destroyed in a single-player match will deliver some reward. “We don’t want to penalize players just for working on their game, right?” Kellams said.

And I’ll grant Kellams this: It was kind of dull sending my character out on the field in his basic-as-bread getup. After four matches, I had plenty of Cred to buy him a snakeskin-patterned facemask visor, a backplate with some kind of design on it, and a jersey rolled up to expose his six-pack. (Kellams said there will be an option to flop one’s gut over their belt, but I didn’t see any beer bellies in this build of the beta yet.)

But the charm of The Yard is in the frequency of its flea flickers and big plays, and feeling like I might have discovered some critical tactic in a new game before everyone else has. Like, picking the center/middle linebacker position, but equipping the player with the run-after-the-catch traits package, because he always gets open down the middle of the field. For the next week and a half, at least.

Madden NFL 21 launches Aug. 28 on Google Stadia, PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X versions will follow later this year.

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