Sports game franchises like Madden deal with the same problem with every installment: How do they convince an audience to buy the same game, with incremental improvements, year after year? Madden's PR strategy is to differentiate each annual release with a specific area of improvement. For Madden NFL 17, it was an improved ground game and franchise mode. For Madden NFL 18, it was revised difficulty settings and a solo story campaign. But for Madden NFL 19, out Friday, the focus is more individualized and personal.
"Our creative vision [this year] was player control," said Madden NFL 19 lead gameplay designer Clint Oldenburg. "We wanted to give players the feeling that they were in full control of their characters at all times. Obviously, the touchdown celebrations went really well with that [focus]. We're trying to accurately reflect what we see in the NFL and in pop culture."
For over a decade, NFL end-zone celebrations had been sanctioned out of existence. The league had officially banned "prolonged, excessive, premeditated celebration" since 1984. But the team owners codified that rule further in 2006, voting 29-3 to impose specific guidelines and penalties. Somewhere between Chad Johnson putting the football with a pylon and Terrell Owens signing the football with a sharpie, the league had reached the limits of its patience.
Players couldn't use props in their celebrations; even the football itself was off limits. The players couldn't leave their feet, which eliminated any act of kneeling or lying down; prayer was a notable exception. And failing to abide by these rules resulted in a 15-yard penalty on the subsequent kickoff.
On its face, these rules promote good sportsmanship; both high school and college football programs complained that young players were imitating their NFL idols. And furthermore, the new rules could preempt fights before they started. George Teague didn't take it so well when Terrell Owens decided to go Hollywood on the Cowboys star. How long would it be, the NFL likely reasoned, before someone else got mad or violent?
The new rules were widely criticized as draconian and overly punitive. Commissioner Roger Goodell announced a rollback of the restrictions in 2017.
"We know that you love the spontaneous displays of emotion that come after a spectacular touchdown," stated Goodell in an open letter to fans. "And players have told us they want more freedom to be able to express themselves and celebrate their athletic achievements."
Since last season, NFL players have been allowed to use the football as a prop and celebrate on the ground. Players are also allowed to engage in group celebrations without fear of penalty.
Correspondingly, Madden NFL 19 has a celebration button that allows a player to perform five different end-zone celebrations after scoring a touchdown, safety, or sack. On the PS4 controller, this button is R3. On the Xbox One, it's RS.
Flick it right, and the player will spike the ball. Flick it left, and the player will do a dance. Flick it down, and the player will perform a personal, "signature" celebration. Flick it up, and the player will join his teammates and do a team celebration. And lastly, press the button, and the player will steal a celebration from the opponents; score on the Panthers, for example, and your wide receiver might perform Cam Newton's Superman celebration in the end zone.
The number of signature celebrations varies from player to player; Odell Beckham has several that are somewhat randomized.
"Take, for example, Odell's Nae Nae celebration," said Oldenburg. "We may have that set to 70 percent of the time, and then 30 percent of the time, he'll use one of his secondary signatures. But other players may only have one. Like Brandin Cooks, for example. He does the [bow-and-arrow] every time."
The game is launching with between 40 and 50 team celebrations, and at least 100 signature celebrations, not including dances and spikes. How did the development team determine which celebrations would be used? By watching lots and lots of footage.
"The NFL website had their contest of the fans' favorite celebrations of the year," said Oldenburg. "And that was the first place we looked. That gave us a lot of information on what fans were enjoying and resonating towards. Beyond that, we watched film to see what players did most often. We would even go back a year or two if a player was injured."
The only celebrations the Madden team did not include were the ones that would have drawn a fine, even if they didn't draw a penalty flag. The Pittsburgh Steelers, for instance, pretended to roll dice last year, and that was a no-go.
"Generally, the rules [prohibit anything] that would resemble a weapon or any sort of violent act," said Oldenburg. "No violence, no sexual acts, and no gambling. Those are the top three."
The EA developers are willing to work with players who want to see themselves properly represented in-game, especially if they're willing to stop by the office.
"Tyreek Hill of the Chiefs came to visit us this off-season," said Oldenburg. "And one of his first questions was, 'Do you have my deuces celebration that I do in the end zone?' We did not have that last year, but we worked with him while he was in the studio, and we put that together for him."
And as the current NFL season progresses, the developers will be adding in new celebrations. It's reasonable to assume these additions will be even more elaborate and theatrical, now that players know Madden developers are watching.
"That's already happening," said Oldenburg. "We were out at the NFL Combine this year to capture heads and faces of all the rookies. And almost all of them asked, 'Do you have my celebration in the game?' And we said, 'Well, no, because you're a rookie. We don't know what you're going to do.' So they showed us. They acted it out right there, before we captured their faces."
By that logic, can we see some in-game previews of what's to come in real life? Can EA tell us the names of some rookies that we should pay attention to?
"No, not really," said Oldenburg, laughing. "We need to leave some surprises."