The polite way to describe Face of the Franchise’s biggest problem is that Madden NFL players simply wanted to get to the NFL faster in the game’s single-player mode. The blunt way to put it is that for the past three years, they were forced to play through a slow-paced preamble dotted with story clichés, laughable dialogue, and barely earned progression.
“There was a lot of feedback about the prologue, or Road to the Draft, whatever you want to call it,” gameplay producer Clint Oldenburg recalled during an interview at EA Tiburon’s new Orlando, Florida studio. “It was like, ‘I want to go play in the NFL; get me there.’ […] And, this is a big headline, ‘The narrative feels aimless and pointless and lacking context,’ something like that. That was in one of the reviews.”
Whether that’s two problems or the same one by different names, EA Tiburon will try to fix it by starting Madden NFL 23’s Face of the Franchise mode, The League, in the fifth season of the created player’s career. No more college, no more draft, no more dithering through half a dozen games locked to Madden’s easiest difficulty just to end up picked by the abysmal New York Jets or Jacksonville Jaguars.
Face of the Franchise’s players will begin after the end of their rookie contract, as a free agent able to sign with any team they choose. By my reckoning, it’ll be the first single-player career mode in any sports title where a created player begins as something other than a rookie.
“This is the first year of reprioritizing what’s important in that mode,” Oldenburg said. In the three years since Face of the Franchise picked up from two chapters of a true narrative mode — Madden NFL 18’s and 19’s Longshot — the developers had given highest priority to the story, Oldenburg said. That’s a somewhat mortifying admission, considering the stories I sat through from Maddens 20 through 22.
“What’s most important this year is the gameplay and the core progression,” Oldenburg said. “We went through a more modular approach this year; you’re gonna see a lot less longer, drawn-out scenarios that are lacking some context into what you’ve been doing in your career. What we’re going to do is get you into the weekly loop of preparing for your game, playing your game, getting your feedback and rewards from the game.”
Any cinematic content will follow the performance, and by modular, Oldenburg means those scenes will respond to developments in the player’s career, rather than dictate them. “So, sure, the cinematic content that you and I see in our journeys is going to be the same, but when you see it, and when I see it, are going to be at different times,” he explained.
To be sure, a lot of fans are conditioned to see a fifth-year player as either a star or a bust, not someone who has a lot of room for growth (the whole point of this career mode, of course) but still gets the pick of his teams in free agency. “The story that we’re trying to tell is if you remember Matt Flynn [a quarterback from 2008-15] or Michael Turner [a running back, 2004-12], guys who didn’t have a great opportunity to play under their rookie contract, but when they played, they played really well,” Oldenburg said.
“So, now you’re a free agent, there’s a lot of buzz about your potential, but you’ve never really gotten the opportunity,” Oldenburg said. Created players get a new position opportunity, cornerback, in addition to the returning options of linebacker, wide receiver, running back, and quarterback. They get a one-year deal with their preferred team, which means they have to pay attention to the depth chart and the offensive or defensive scheme of their choice. A New York Giants fan creating a running back might think twice about challenging Saquon Barkley, unless they think they’ll develop so much that management will give them a new five-year deal, and their competition will be waived or traded.
In this way, that one-year free agent contract functions like the prologue did in previous years; it just takes place in the NFL and skips the nonsensical plot lines and cameos that college offered. If the player goes to a team other than their favorite, because it offers more playing time and better development, they’ll get the chance to sign a longer-term deal, as a much better player, after just one year of seasoning.
This nudges the player in a direction that Madden’s designers have been selling for the past couple of years: an avatar that is portable across multiple game modes and positions, ranking up their attributes class by class and acquiring perk loadouts to supplement them. In Face of the Franchise, Oldenburg hopes the replay experience will come from taking that avatar to a 99 overall ranking at one position, then starting that mode over at a new position. While careers of 12 or more seasons are still possible in Face of the Franchise, players should be able to hit 99 after five seasons of progression, he said.
And that will be buttressed by bringing Madden’s “99 Club” — which the game’s marketers have touted whenever a real-life superstar hits that number — to created players as well. In this case, as they reach overall rating milestones, they will unlock perks, cosmetics, and gameplay abilities for their character.
Oldenburg also hopes that Face of the Franchise: The League can become a showcase for many of Madden 23’s gameplay changes. “These gameplay mechanics were built with Face of the Franchise in mind,” Oldenburg said. “Face of the Franchise: The League is now a true player-lock mode; we got rid of full team control as an option.”
While the quarterback’s new passing system, and ballcarriers’ new “360 cuts,” will probably be on most display, Oldenburg pointed to other gameplay nuances to give life to positions that don’t see the ball as much. Wide receivers, for example, can hold both left and right triggers, and combine that with right stick moves, to put more fakes, stutters, and cuts-to-full-speed when running their routes off the line. Cornerbacks will take advantage of a new press-defense mechanism, which Oldenburg likened to on-the-ball defense in a basketball video game.
“We’ve had these in our game before, but they were more paper-rock-scissors, where you would choose a side, on both sides of the ball, and see the interaction play out based on who chose the wrong side or the right side,” Oldenburg said. “These are more branching and reactionary mechanics where you can see the movement of your opponent, which way [the play] is going, and you can branch, within a small time window, to take that direction away.” Players press the A/X button as they make their press coverage off the snap, and then steer the left stick to the side of the field they want to deny.
Overall, Face of the Franchise: The League sounds like a stronger commitment to the things that make single-player sports careers distinct and fun, and one that gets rid of components that have pushed me away toward a standard Franchise run. Oldenburg noted that designers paid attention to the fact that many Madden streamers and content creators still broadcast their Face of the Franchise careers, and the developers want to give them something that is as fun to watch as it is to play.
The past three FOTFs were not that at all; they seemed like they were doing everything to keep me from continuing, and their core experience could be substantially reproduced elsewhere with just a few menu tweaks. In other words, EA Tiburon could have simply abandoned this disappointing wrinkle on single-player careers after three years, and sent everyone back to the created superstars of the 10-year-old Connected Franchise suite.
They didn’t. We’ll see if what they saved was worth saving when Madden NFL 23 launches Aug. 19 on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. The game will also be available that same day for PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One, but this mode (and other features) isn’t available on those platforms.
[Disclosure: EA Sports invited Polygon and paid for its flight and accommodations at the one-day preview event at EA Tiburon’s studio.]