Ten years ago, I wrote one of the most wrongheaded articles of my career. In a review of 2005's Blitz: The League for Slate, I predicted that Madden NFL's then-new monopoly on the National Football League's licence for video game football would restore variety to the virtual gridiron.
Surely the single-minded pursuit of NFL realism that began with 1989's Tecmo Bowl would be abandoned by game designers who worked for studios other than EA Sports. The inability to use real NFL players and team names and stadiums would liberate designers to be more flexible and creative with their approaches to video game football. Right? Right?
OK, wrong. Totally wrong. (Note to self: Don't make predictions.) There are a handful of examples of inventive sports games — Wii Sports, Rocket League — from the past decade that don't use a licence from a professional or amateur league, but none of them are versions of the nation's most popular sport, American football. Madden NFL, meanwhile, has unsurprisingly stagnated, with the designers at EA Tiburon releasing a conventional if solid game year after year after year. Each new version adds a different colour of sprinkles to a delicious but very vanilla sundae.
That doesn't mean, however, that Madden NFL never tries anything different. This year's edition, Madden NFL 16, includes a new mode called "Draft Champions" that is my favourite part of the game.
"Draft Champions" is, in essence, the first half of "Arena Mode" from Hearthstone with NFL players. Hearthstone is, of course, Blizzard's free-to-play collectible card game. In "Arena Mode," you build a temporary deck over the course of a 30-round draft by choosing from one of three options over and over again. You have to choose carefully, because once a card is gone, you may never see it again.
Madden NFL 16 is not literally a card game, even if the series has been adding collectible card-like elements to its "Ultimate Team" mode, with real-money auctions and "packs" and images of players on digital trading cards. Madden can be seen, though, as a deck-building game. Succeeding in Madden requires assembling a roster of players that exploits your play style, in the same way that a good Hearthstone player puts together a deck.
In Madden's "Draft Champions" mode, you are allowed one selection from a menu of three players during each round of a 15-round draft. After the draft is over, the game fills out the rest of your roster (football is a 22-player sport, plus a few specialists) automatically. You then take your team into games against the computer or other human opponents. After you win three games or lose one, you start over and draft a new team. Unlike Hearthstone's "Arena Mode," after the draft you use your temporary roster to play digital football, as with conventional Madden.
"Draft Champions" loosens one of Madden's traditional constraints. The game has long insisted upon a modicum of realism in its alternate football universe. Sure, Tom Brady can play for the Kansas City Chiefs in the season and franchise modes of Madden NFL, but he can't play for all 32 franchises at the same time. In "Draft Champions" mode, however, multiple teams are very likely to have some of the same players on their rosters. In one game I found myself in, Joe Flacco of the Chiefs was in a quarterback duel with Joe Flacco of the Patriots. (In the real NFL, Joe Flacco plays for the Baltimore Ravens.) Both Flaccos kept throwing balls to a multiverse Reggie Bush.
I'd like Madden NFL to go even further with this notion of football-as-card-game. Not with in-app purchases for new players and the like, which already clutter the console version of Madden NFL, but with a mobile version that eliminates twitch gameplay entirely in favour of strategic Hearthstone-like play. I doubt I would sit in front of my television playing a literal card-game version of Madden NFL, much as I like "Draft Champions." But on my phone?
The current mobile version of Madden NFL is surprisingly deep, and free for the patient. All the deck-building (or roster-building) in it, however, is centered around playing games of virtual football, little mini-Madden games with occasionally frustrating touch controls.
In the time-shifted head-to-head battles with human opponents in Madden mobile, each side controls its offence against a computer-controlled defence that uses players from the opponent's deck/roster. This is all well and good, but if we just admitted we were playing a card game with a thin layer of football fiction drizzled atop it, we could actually play each other at the same time.
EA Sports has built nine-tenths of NFL Hearthstone, a mobile football Strat-O-Matic. Is designing the final tenth too much to ask?