If they can live with themselves, NFL fans will be able to do some truly sick and depraved things this year with the new Madden video game. Like charge fans $30 for a beer. Like buy out the Green Bay Packers. Like drive that franchise down to Mexico in the middle of the night, and abandon it there.
Yes, "Owner mode", with all of the chortling, finger-tenting malevolence you care to bring to it, rejoins Madden NFL 25's all-in-one career suite, now called "Connected Franchise". The restored football tycoon role will add another layer of control and role-playing in how you represent and manipulate your club, and a different path to enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"Being able to bring it back was a big deal for me," Mike Young, the game's creative director, told me. "I was a big fan of that. I'd always take over the Arizona Cardinals, move them to Toronto, be the first Canadian Super Bowl Champion -- then fire my coach and go hire a new one."
Owner-level decision-making -- ticket prices, stadium renovations and the like -- was absent in Madden NFL 13 as it introduced the new "Connected Careers" package, which allowed players controlling an entire team as a coach, or those playing as an individual superstar, to participate in the same league. Team owner becomes the third career role one can assume -- either through creating yourself or inhabiting the persona of one of the league's real-world bosses. Though not all 32 are yet confirmed to appear, Young expressed confidence that every franchise's honcho will be signed up by the time the game ships, including such names as New England's Robert Kraft, Atlanta's Arthur Blank, or Dallas' notorious Jerry Jones.
"You'll see them in the game in 3D animations," Young said, in camera shots of the executive suite during the action. "If you win the Super Bowl, you'll be up there on the podium, getting handed the Lombardi Trophy."
Playing as a franchise owner will involve more than just some cutscenes slapped over the total control of playcalling and personnel that the coach career path already has. Owners will be tasked with managing the franchise's image and profitability, will hire and fire staff, improve their stadium or build a new one, and will have to answer for fans' expectations of the team based on personnel ratings and how it performed in the previous year.
"Fan happiness", a weekly temperature-taking that can deliver a boost to your bottom line, depends on what you're charging at the gate, what they pay for concessions (and what kind of concessions they get), whether the players are any good, and other factors. Winning, of course, cures most, if not all problems.
"We looked at the Philadelphia Eagles 'Dream Team' scenario in 2011, for example," Young said, referring to the expectations the club faced -- and failed -- that year after signing a slew of high profile free agents in the preseason. "With every loss, people were freaking out; with each win, the reaction was, yeah, we expect to win." A team with a similar makeup will deal with similar fan sentiment, Young said, coming in the form of weekly news conferences in which you must answer knife-twisting questions from the media.
"We really wanted it to be choosing the lesser of two evils," Young said. "We really want to make you sweat it, because the answers will also impact fan happiness."
For example, if your team starts 0-5, you can expect to make a statement of confidence, or no confidence, in the team's coach. Stick by him, and if the team continues to lose, fan happiness really plunges into the toilet. Throw him under the bus and fans will get restless, knowing that with a coaching change coming, the season may as well be written off.
I asked Young if "fan happiness" delivered any boost beyond financial gain to your franchise, and he said no. Players on a team with happy fans will not by see attribute increases, nor is there any morale system with a good or bad knock-on effect coming from it. Fan happiness' impact is on your financial bottom line, which provides the money needed to put a successful product on the field. (Some players may be more valuable to you simply because they sell merchandise, despite their talent on the field.)
"Say you have a 3-5 start with a 90 rated roster," Young said. 'That's a team with playoff expectations, and the media will ask if you still expect to go to the postseason. If you're the St. Louis Rams and you're 3-5 and you say you expect to go to the Super Bowl, then Skip Bayless will go into our Twitter feed and come out and say 'I never thought this team was a playoff team, what is he saying?'
"But if you're the Baltimore Ravens in the same situation, and you say, 'Yeah, we're going to the postseason,' then you'll see people say, 'With this kind of roster, I'd expect him to say something like that. This team should be in the postseason.'"
Keeping fans happy is what keeps money flowing to you to do all the owner-ly things you need to do to amass a "Legacy Score" that one day puts your bust in Canton. If your team still wins (or if you make it win) you can succeed, even if you go out of your way to alienate everyone -- like charge New York concession prices in Jacksonville, hold the franchise hostage as you negotiate stadium renovations, or even move it outright.
That's where playing as an owner intrigues me the most. In years past, if you moved the team, you were forced to rename it, remake their uniforms, and give it a nearly generic logo from a terrible clip-art package. Now you'll be given the option of keeping the team's name and colours (an extra knife in the back to the fans you left). Or, if you want to rebrand it, you'll be given a series of logos, uniforms and nickname choices that are designed with the sensibilities of the 17 potential relocation cities -- Mexico City, Toronto, Dublin and London included -- in mind.
"Like Austin, Texas, one of the choices you get if you move there is the Bats, because there are a lot of bats that hang under a bridge down there," Young said. (You may not enter a wildcard nickname of your own making.) You'll be allowed to move your franchise once its home stadium falls under a certain score (a restriction that can be turned off, too.) Teams in newer stadia will have to wait longer before that becomes an option. Incidentally, if you play as the San Francisco 49ers, your first season will be in venerable Candlestick Park, and then you will move to the newly christened Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California, meaning that venue will debut in Madden NFL 25 a year before it will in real life.
Once you're done running a team into the ground in a place like Birmingham, Ala., you can always retire your owner -- as you could a player or coach last year -- and pick up from that point with a new franchise in any other role. So after moving the Packers to Mexico, you could destroy Cleveland once more by sending the Browns to Houston (some markets, Houston and Chicago among them, support two-team scenarios) and then become a running back for either team if you're tired of scouting and negotiating stadium leases.
Connected Franchise will have other inclusions and restored features that benefit more than just the ownership class. Players of EA Sports' NCAA Football game will once again be able to import a draft class into Madden, a feature that went missing last year. "You won't see the stories about draft prospects in the Twitter feed," Young said, "but you will still be able to go in and scout them and do everything else that you do with the draft in the off-season."
Full control of all 32 teams in an offline season also has been restored, Young said, a nod to dorm and living-room couch rivalries that went on hiatus in Connected Careers' debut last season. "We're bringing back a lot of rituals we had," Young said. "Guys who remember, 'Me and my friend, we played this league on the couch, I was the Browns and he was the Steelers.' On top of that, it's also for the control freaks. It's for the guys who want to play every game and then go edit the facemasks and the sock heights.
"You can play the tycoon parts of the game, simply for the money aspects, and ignore or simulate the games; but if you want to scout the entire draft board, you can too. It's your team," Young said. "You can do whatever you want."