I’ve been playing Madden NFL 24 for a few days now, as have perhaps millions of others. The game’s Deluxe Edition grants players three days of early access to the full game. There’s also an EA Play trial that gives any subscriber up to 10 gameplay hours to do whatever they’d like before it officially launches on August 18. We can’t determine how many people have taken advantage of these ways to play already, but we can safely assume it’s a lot. You can ask virtually any one of those people what they think of the game this year. You can find countless hours of gameplay on YouTube, podcasts breaking it all down, and plenty of chatter on whichever social media platform you prefer, but you can’t ask me yet. I’m not allowed to tell you. As I’m handling GameSpot’s site review of this year’s American football sim, I’m under embargo for a bit longer.
That’s weird, right? But in the sports gaming world, it’s par for the course. Sports games continue to exist in a unique space where they dominate sales charts annually even as reviews for most of the popular series are mixed at best and negative at worst–and have increasingly come after launch due to the way these games’ servers are unavailable until launch, even for critics. As a result, sports games seem to be review-proof. Feverish football, soccer, baseball, and basketball fans are, in the vast majority of cases, going to buy the latest version of their favorite series no matter what I or anyone says, especially if we’re saying it after they’ve been tempted with the chance to just buy it and start playing already.
In the case of Madden NFL, the series’ aggregate review scores have been heading in the wrong direction for over a decade, with critics routinely in agreement that the series isn’t doing enough to merit a full release every August. I would even suggest that Madden does noticeably less than MLB The Show or NBA 2K in terms of sweeping and exciting changes from year to year, and those games are not always critical darlings themselves. But it doesn’t matter one bit. Madden NFL 24 will undoubtedly finish as one of the best-selling games in the US this year, squeezing in at the top with Call of Duty and EA FC, the new brand name for its series formerly known as FIFA.
So what good is my review, or the dozens of others that will appear online over the next two weeks? An embargo lifting after countless people have already sunk dozens of hours into the game only highlights the publisher’s awareness of this reality. Sports games don’t need reviews the way indies or even other big-budget games do. They sell themselves, perhaps Madden most of all because it simulates something Americans are uniquely obsessed with–the NFL–and does so exclusively as the only NFL sim allowed on the market.
Sports games are too big to fail commercially, even if they fail critically, and for publishers, that’s a cozy place to be. Sports reviews have been removed from the conversation, because by the time sincere opinions on major platforms come to fruition, the train has already left the station. The season is starting, fans want to simulate the season they’ll see on ESPN or another sports broadcasting channel. While some naysayers of the genre complain the games are little more than roster updates, for seemingly millions of players, that’s enough. Anything else the latest game is doing better or different than past years is, to them, a nice bonus.
Madden is a sales juggernaut with good reviews, no reviews, or even bad reviews.
Sports games’ unique place in the video game criticism space is further illustrated by the now ubiquitous pay-to-win mode seen in every major franchise. In EA’s lineup, it’s called Ultimate Team. NBA 2K has MyTeam. MLB The Show, which, to its credit, is often regarded as the most consumer-friendly version, calls it Diamond Dynasty. Even WWE got in on the action recently with its MyFaction mode. Whatever its specific name, it’s better known as the honeypot for publishers.
EA reported over a billion dollars in microtransaction (MTX) revenue in its Q1 earnings call for fiscal year 2024. MTX now accounts for 75% of all revenue EA makes. A huge portion of that money is from its Ultimate Team modes, which mirror real-life card-collecting and fantasy sports, giving die-hard players a gambling itch they can’t ever fully scratch. There are always better cards coming out, and in the competitive scene, it’s much faster to buy some randomized packs, digitally tear them open–which these games actually mimic like some kind of cynical nostalgia bait–and add new great players to their lineups so they can then head online and either shred those players who aren’t buying cards, or butt heads with other whales in the community. Every publisher making major sports games is practicing these methods today, while creators working in other genres by and large aren’t able to get away with it.
To my memory, the video game industry changed after Star Wars Battlefront 2, a game that was also set to feature brazen pay-to-win mechanics. The blowback from players and critics was so severe that it got on Disney’s radar, which reportedly told EA to fix the problem. It did so by swiftly removing those pay-to-win elements and fundamentally reimagining the game’s economy and progression before it even officially launched. This quickly spread to other games from other publishers over subsequent months and years, and today, though MTX are more common than ever in console and PC games, they are rarely ever gameplay-affecting.
But in the sports gaming world, there is no outcry, because despite how popular the games are, their players are still often voluntarily partitioned from the core gaming community that might read reviews, download gaming podcasts, and comment on articles. They are passionate about their sports games but sometimes otherwise disinterested in the medium. Without that outcry to demand change from fans, there is no corporation worried about its public image pressuring a publisher to fix a pay-to-win problem. And without a competitor’s version in stores, as is the case with most major sports games, fans can only choose between playing the one version of their favorite simulated sport or playing none at all.
Leagues like the NFL and NBA must adore the pay-to-win modes in their video games, as they boost both the league’s and the game’s popularity while presumably stuffs the league’s coffers, too. Sports games never got their economic revolution like other console games, so today they still look more like the mobile gaming world: a hellscape of purchase screens and artificial progress blockers meant to entice you to skip the wait a few dollars at a time.
So, as I prepare to remark on Madden NFL 24 like I have for every Madden dating back many years, I find myself wondering how to address a topic that so much of the intended audience isn’t even concerned with. Who is my audience in a modern sports gaming world? What do they care to know?
Reviews exist as more than consumer buying recommendations, of course. There’s merit in analyzing the latest sports game in a series because it informs us of where the genre and industry are heading. By reviewing a sports game, we can even better understand the sport itself and broader culture, as modes like The Yard or The City reimagine their sports for a different audience than the traditional sports fanatics. As with other assignments, a sports game review doesn’t just tell a reader whether it’s worth buying, but why it has or has not achieved what it set out to do, and whether those aspirations were even interesting in the first place.
Still, those feel like questions with which publishers are not concerned. If a game turns out well, the publisher may be happy to share that in future marketing materials or as a footnote at the next shareholder meeting, but if not, almost nothing changes. They can find another way to simply remind fans the game exists, because that’s apparently all those consumers need to know. And the publisher can just as easily pivot to other talking points in a shareholder meeting, like how MTX once again broke records.
The revolution that sports games as a genre so sorely need isn’t coming, and critical consensus isn’t relevant. Fans are going to keep buying them in record numbers because sports and games already separately consume a huge portion of pop culture, and where those separate obsessions converge in the form of sports sim video games creates a very lucrative knot that can’t be untied. Reviews like mine, be they positive or negative, just become a few hundred words published days after launch in which commenters declare they won’t ever buy the game again, as tens of millions of others do so without a second thought.