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‘The Yard’ is Madden’s esports league’s first team-up event

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Two-on-two and three-on-three games highlight EA’s experiment with a new mode

Giants running back Saquon Barkley, in a wild orange-and-blue snakeskin uniform, makes a diving grab in Madden NFL 21’s The Yard
“The Yard” debuted with Madden NFL 21 this summer, and is an official esports event this weekend.
Image: EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts

For all of its five-year history, the Madden Championship Series has been one-on-one competition. That changes on Friday when EA Sports kicks off The Yard Invitational, which showcases Madden NFL 21’s new, wide-open backyard football mode while giving the series’ top competitors a chance to team up for the first time.

“You’ve heard all the taglines, that you can’t just, you know, proclaim something to be an esport as a developer or a publisher; it really needs to be chosen by the community,” said Matt Marcou, an EA Tiburon developer and the commissioner of the Madden Championship Series. “The feedback from our community is they want more team play, they enjoy team play.”

Two-on-two and three-on-three competition has been available in online multiplayer for Madden NFL’s main game for at least a decade. But the positional specialization inherent to American football makes that a poor showcase for elite players who are skilled in all facets of the game.

The Yard, a brand of six-on-six football which debuted in Madden NFL 21 this past fall, is a bit different, and EA Sports is betting The Yard’s style of team play will be more watchable. In The Yard, the offensive positions all do a little bit of everything. Everyone is as likely to throw a pass as they are to catch one, and there’s no running the ball from behind the line of scrimmage unless a defender rushes the ball-carrier. No one has to be a quarterback, or a running back, or a receiver, for the entirety of the game.

Image of a garish, electroplated gold chain and medallion for the winner of the Madden NFL 21 The Yard Invitational
Eight two-player teams are competing for this chain, rather than a championship belt, in The Yard Invitational for Madden NFL 21’s Madden Championship Series.
Photo: EA Sports

Further, people play as themselves in The Yard, or at least as a created avatar, with a loadout of perks and skills that they can swap around match-to-match. So their performance and game planning isn’t bound to the expectations of real-life teams and their stars. Combined with the fact this mode is new for everyone, and The Yard Invitational could be a unique test of players’ stick skills, and true playmaking ability.

“This could be a meta-defining moment, right?” Marcou said, considering there isn’t really a basic strategy, or set of fundamentals, that the community has adopted for The Yard so far. “Where it shapes the gameplay, in the mode, because of how some of the best and most brilliant minds of Madden are applying themselves when the stakes are the highest, right?”

The Yard Invitational starts Friday at 6 p.m. EST with eight two-player teams duking it out in a round-robin tournament. Four teams will advance from that stage to Saturday, where each team will pick up a third member. Four streamers will get to choose which team they want to join. From there, a semifinal and final round will be played to crown the event’s champion.

Marcou estimated that the field of contenders have won about half of the 18 “belts” — major event championships — the Madden Championship Series has awarded going back to 2017. The field includes Pavan Lakhat, the 2019 Madden Club Championship winner (and a 2021 finalist). Drini Gjoka is a two-time champion, and once made seven consecutive major event appearances (a Madden Championship Series record). And Eric “Problem” Wright, generally regarded as the series’ most accomplished competitor, has taken home multiple six-figure paychecks from the Madden Championship Series.

“I’m sure there are quite a few Yard experts out there in burgeoning [Madden] communities,” Marcou said. “But this is the first time that the lights are on and that we’ve put so much attention on it. So we don’t really know. We have enough confidence that it will be interesting, and skill will win out, but we don’t exactly know how that will manifest.”

Marcou said The Yard Invitational is a kind of proof-of-concept test, and that he and the Madden Championship Series’ administrators will be looking at viewership and the broadcast presentation, in addition to the competition, to see if The Yard should be folded into the schedule of events in coming seasons. But, Marcou said, organizers wanted to do something with Madden’s newest mode since seeing it at launch, the same way the Madden Championship Series has implemented one-off events for the main game’s Draft Champions and Salary Cap playlists.

“For it to even get to this level, we have to have a certain confidence in it,” Marcou said. “But we’re still hoping to learn a lot here, and we’re going to use the feedback to figure out what we can deliver in Madden 22.”

Friday’s teams and competitors in The Yard Invitational are:

  • BND: Henry “Henry” Leverette and Pavan “Pavan” Lakhat
  • 818: Shay “Kiv” Kivlen and Wesley “Wesley” Gittens
  • ELI: Jordan “Millz” Thompson and Dwayne “CleffTheGod” Wood
  • EMB: Tony “Young Tony” Calloway and Frank “Stiff” Sardoni Jr.
  • Tew Dewds: Kyle “KMaC” McAllister and Eric “Problem” Wright
  • DRI/JCP: Drini “Drini” Gjoka and Joel “JoelCP” Crooms-Porter
  • TNC: Jacob “Fancy” Worthington and Jacob “Jwall” Wallack
  • YGNJ: Noah “Noahupnxt” Johnson and Jonathan “Jonbeast” Marquez

The streamers/influencers joining the four teams to advance to Saturday are YoBoyPizza, Dockery, Kristopher London and Erin Ashley Simon.

The Yard Invitational airs on Twitch and YouTube beginning at 6 p.m. EST Friday and 6 p.m. EST Saturday.