It’s that time of year again. The buildup to one of the most popular, if not the most popular,  video game franchises in the country. Madden 23 recently revealed its cover for the newest edition of the game featuring a familiar face. For the first time in 23 years, the late great John Madden will grace the cover of Madden. The NFL legend and former Raiders coach died in December at the age of 85. Madden was last featured on the cover in 1999 for Madden 2000 before the game started to pivot to current players on the cover. 

“We’re always proud to be associated with Coach Madden,” Madden’s NFL Gameplay Production & Ratings Adjustor, Clint Oldenburg says. “We would’ve loved to have him on the cover regardless of if he passed or not… but since he’s not (with us), we wanted to honor his legacy not only with the cover but with the features in the game this year.” 

As consoles have evolved and graphics have become more life-like, the focus around Madden the past decade has been more on its gameplay with fans constantly asking “how has the gameplay improved?” every year. Well, Madden’s gameplay production team took feedback from its players this year and made significant changes to this year’s game. We talked to former offensive lineman and Gameplay Production & Ratings Adjustor Clint Oldenburg to break down the changes to this year’s game. 

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

First of all, what’s it like to have John Madden back on the cover? 
We’re always proud to be associated with Coach Madden. We would’ve loved to have him on the cover regardless of if he passed or not so the circumstances aren’t the best for Coach Madden to still be with us but since he’s not, we wanted to honor his legacy not only with the cover but with the features in the game this year. 

You hinted at the new gameplay and features coming from the game, What can fans really expect from Madden this year that’s different from other years? 
We really took to heart the feedback from our players when crafting our feature set. Two things our players really told us were most important to them were; No. 1 they grew tired of scripted animations and that led to our FieldSENSE gameplay system, which is built upon animation branching technology which unlocks new animations and foundations like Hit Everything, which is a tackling branching system that allows any two-player tackle to branch into three, four, five-man tackles seamlessly and naturally and have more organic outcomes so that every interaction is as predictable. 

FieldSENSE also brings a new passing system to our game, it’s called skill-based passing. It allows you to have full control over the placement of your ball and have awesome throws you never were able to make before like back-shoulder throws, back-pylon fades, and lead your receivers into tight windows and coverage. 

Fans in the past have sometimes complained about one play working over and over again, so can you confirm that “cheese” plays wouldn’t work with this game? 
That’s certainly our hope, not only this year, but every year. We don’t want one or two plays to be the only way you play Madden. I’m certainly not going to be naive enough to guarantee anything because these gamers are really good and I’m sure they’ll find something but today’s day and age of title updates, we always go in and adjust if we need to after the fact but I am very confident in saying that a lot of the stuff that’s been used on a regular basis the past couple years is not going to be the same this year. We went strongly after the deep crossing routes, we went strongly after rolling your quarterback out to get more time, and certainly the script around playing scrambling quarterbacks. So we’re pretty confident that whatever is found is going to be a new thing this year if anything at all is found. 

What went into the ratings this year? Has the process changed on how you’ve evaluated players? 
No, we still have our formulas in place, the ratings adjustor team is still our way of evaluating players. We just continue to grow as a team and get better each and every year. Fortunately, we’re in the day and age where there is more data available which makes it that much easier to give fair and authentic evaluations of our players so the ratings output not only matches the player’s expectations but also allows the gameplay to play the way that we need to play for a fun, balanced, and polished experience. 

Can we expect any surprises as a teaser to the ratings? Unexpected 99s? 
Hm, I don’t know. Every year when we release our 99 Club, which we will do, depending on where you live or who your favorite team is, I think any one of them could be surprising. As always, those prestigious members of that 99 Club are great football players and are the best of the best and I don’t think that’s going to change this year. 

Besides graphics, where do you think Madden has evolved the most even since John Madden’s early days on the cover? 
The visuals were the first thing I was going to say. We try to leave no stone unturned to try to make the game and its players look awesome at all times. I think from a gameplay point of view, the level of knowledge and depth that we have in our football engine rivals that of NFL teams. We actually contracted an active NFL coach on our production team this year for six months. We leaned on him pretty heavily and when we were onboarding him, he was actually very surprised and impressed with the knowledge our team had of the sport with the strategy and schemes and fundamentals of the game. I mean he was saying how our playbook was a full 18-week NFL playbook that we had in Madden for all 32 teams. He even talked to the ratings adjustor teams and he said the knowledge of the ratings adjustor team would rival that of an NFL department. I think the authenticity and depth of our football has grown so much in the last years and it’s something that we’re certainly proud of and want to continue to push forward.