Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
Madden NFL 23 hits different right out of the gates. The tired argument of “It’s just a roster update” falls flat this year more so than even in other recent years. This year’s iteration is a notable improvement over the last few years.
Of course, credit to the team here for hitting me in the nostalgia right off of the bat. For those who follow the NFL, they know that John Madden passed away on Dec 28, 2021. An NFL Hall of Fame coach and one of the most colorful sports broadcasters ever, John Madden was one of those ever-present personalities as I was growing up, and this football video game franchise with his name on it had a lot to do with my love for the sport at a young age.
So it is only fitting that the game kicks off with a screenshot of John Madden in his younger years, and the ‘game loading’ video is a mash-up of modern and throwback Madden titles, with the tagline: Thanks, Coach. We then rolled into the Madden Legacy Game that features many of his favorite players from over the years. These aren’t necessarily ‘best player’ studs like Tom Brady, but workhorse players like Mike Vrabel as well. Add in the various commentary pieces that extoll not just the players, but John Madden’s career as well, and this felt like a really fitting way to open things up.
Given that this is a series I started playing when the Sega Genesis came out and was a weekly staple with my friends and I throughout our college years. It was also a means for us to play franchises together and stay in touch as we ‘grew up and moved away’. There’s a lot of sentiment I carry for this series. All of that said however, I wanted to take an objective look at what Madden NFL 23 brings to the table this year, and overall? I’m really happy with most of it.
First and foremost are the tweaks to the actual gameplay. Over the years, the devs have tried to tweak the passing game the most. Some of those things (like the ability to change velocity on your throws) worked better than others (looking at you ill-fated passing cone of yesteryear), but we haven’t really seen a lot of improvements over the last few years now. This introduces a new skill-based system that gives you a lot more control – and complication – over the passing game. Accuracy and power are big parts of this, but also the ability to lead your receiver.
This more open and free method of passing takes some time to get used to. As someone who has spent years just pressing the button harder to throw bullets and hope the odds favor me, I struggled with these controls for the first few games. Stick with it. I promise you – once you get the hang of it? It’s so worth it. If you have a speedy receiver who can take the top off of the defense? This is a much better way to leverage that assuming your quarterback has the arm power to see the throw through. This change greatly reduced the feeling that defenders were just glued to the ball’s trajectory for knockdowns or interceptions compared to years past.
Defense got a bit of love this year as well, with stand-up tackles that are a bigger part of the running game (especially with a bruising back like Derrick Henry) trying to bust free. Running backs have a little more control over their cuts as well, making for some truly fantastic moments if you have a quick, agile running back (and some truly embarrassing moments if I try that with a slower guy who feels like he has his cleats in cement). Still, the focus feels like it went primarily into the passing game, which honestly makes a ton of sense given that the real NFL product has become much more pass-heavy in recent years.
Beyond the gameplay itself, we still have the top-notch presentation. Not that there is a wealth of improvement to be had here. Some newly popular or just new players (shoutout to Aidan Hutchinson as a Detroit Lions fan here) get some nice face scans and accurate representations of their physiques out on the field. Uniforms can become visibly wrinkled at times throughout the game. There are some cool new on-field animations, particularly in those wide receivers versus defensive back duels where there is a lot of jockeying for position on routes, especially near the line of scrimmage. The arenas, the way stats are presented, the color commentators and more all do an excellent job of recreating the NFL experience, even if this is one area that hasn’t seen much change overall.
Speaking of modes that didn’t get much love this year, there are a couple. With Madden NFL 23 being the latest in what is a franchise with annual releases, I don’t go into it expecting that there will be huge changes to every mode – my hope is that the improvements come to the modes I play most, and am fine of cobwebs that form around the ones I play least. For me The Yard and Madden Ultimate Team are probably the least interesting modes, and they’re the two that gathered a bit of dust from last season.
For those new to the series, or if you just haven’t played in some time, The Yard is basically a backyard six on six arcade style of game that leverages your Face of the Franchise as the only real reason to give it a go. Madden Ultimate Team seems like it should interest me more. I love fantasy football and I collect sports cards. So the idea of building a fantasy team out of packs of cards you earn should be a hoot for me, but the returns are only so-so. It’s incredibly grindy, but that’s intentional as it hopes to get you to spend more money on virtual packs of cards. This has become pretty common in a lot of sports games, but I don’t love it as a philosophy and this mode hasn’t really seen any growth in the last couple of years.
Where Madden NFL 23 has seen some change is the relatively recently added (a few years ago) Face of the Franchise mode. This has become EA’s answer to games like NBA 2K that have gained a ton of popularity around the idea of creating a superstar that then has a somewhat narrative-based career arc. The story itself has gotten a bit less cinematic than in years past, where you played a character through their high school or college years to make the pros – often as some sort of an underdog story.
Here it is a bit different as you are a fifth year player who everyone agrees has loads of potential – but it hasn’t quite clicked yet at previous stops. So now you get to pick a team to sign with, and to play more positions than ever (QB, WR, LB, CB and HB) as you develop your player and try to carve out a legendary career for yourself. Because of its aforementioned ties to The Yard, there’s a bit of connective tissue here that makes this mode a bit more relevant than it might be on its own. It feels like there’s still room to grow here, but I enjoyed my time with Face of the Franchise all the same.
Last and certainly not least we have Franchise mode. This is the heart of the Madden series for me. In college my buddies and I would pick teams, play through seasons over the span of weeks, eating wings, drinking beers and talking a ton of trash to one another. It’s where you take on a franchise (go Lions!) and assume the role of owner, general manager or coach. All have different perks, such as the coach improving himself through talent and progression, and thereby making his players better. The other role is as an owner, where you still play the games, but your focus is more on whether or not to relocate the team, or make other tweaks to your franchise to improve profitability.
However, the primary carrot dangled in this mode is the overall sense of progression. Play your games, meet certain goals, watch your players improve and do what you can to help your team improve too. That can be through internal player development, scouting for the best upcoming rookies, making major trades or free agent signings and more. There were some great changes made to how staffing and scouting worked last season, and those have been carried over here.
Madden NFL 23 drills down deeper into the players though, assigning them motivations that can impact their progression, but also how they feel about their relationship with the team. This is most notable in how it impacts things like contract negotiations. If the player doesn’t feel like you’ve done right by them, it’s going to be much harder to get them to come back on a reasonable salary, which in turn depletes the amount of money you have to field the best team you can.
If the gameplay simply stunk, none of the above would matter – but the football action is still a blast. Are there odd AI behaviors that pop up? Sure – there’s 22 players on the field all trying to work independently of one another and exploitable to outright odd things can happen in zone coverage for example. But by and large the way the lines mash against one another, the way wide receivers try to shed jams at the line of scrimmage, the way running backs try to eek out a few more yards and more all just feels good. Add to it the momentum meters and objectives during the game that might give one team an advantage over the other (for example during Lions home games, they can receive a slight acceleration boost if things break their way), and there was a lot that I enjoyed.
Madden NFL 23 continues to make improvements, and for those thinking it is just a roster update? Give it a go first and you’ll see that it’s a lot more. This is especially true of Franchise Mode, which is where I tend to spend the majority of my time. There’s still some rough edges here and there and room for improvement with some of the languishing modes, but by and large Madden NFL 23 is a great tribute to the series’ namesake and an entertaining game of football.Score: 8.5 / 10