Banging the Doldrums: Madden vs. NCAA Football


Kicking off our offseason Bang the Doldrums series, we have the age old debate between EA Sports’ two annual football offerings, Madden for the NFL and NCAA Football for the college game.

And really, you’re splitting hairs when you debate one over the other, because they are more or less the same game repackaged to fit the needs of the demographics they’re being marketed to. But fans of both games are passionate, and based on what you’re looking for in a game, each has its advantages over the other.

Opening Salvo

For better or worse, NCAA typically runs on the last year’s Madden engine. That’s why you see a gameplay change hit Madden and based largely on its success it may or may not be implemented the following year in their NCAA franchise.

That right there is all the argument a lot of pro-Madden gamers need for why one series is the better of the two.

And on some levels, they’re right. Madden is a hallmark franchise for EA, it gets the preferential treatment, more of a marketing push, a bigger budget and a lot more clout. That’s all true. In terms of what the most polished gameplay experience is, it’s typically going to be Madden (we’ll get into that more later, beyond just the money).

The flipside of that though, is that you really have to take some liberties with the truth if you actually want to argue that EA sports has dramatically changed anything about the gameplay in either series since they got exclusive rights back in 2006, hell earlier.

Truth be told, no game sells more and gets more credit for changing less each year than Madden football. While other sports franchises at least keep it fresh and overhaul things every few years (the NBA 2k series and MLB: The Show both come to mind as great examples), you’re still essentially playing the exact same Madden game you pulled out of the PS2 box in 2002. That’s a decade’s worth of games where little outside of the rosters and graphics have updated.

Case in point, remember the first time you saw a linebacker drop into a flat, jump 50 inches and high point an interception on an intermediate route with one hand? No, not in real life, that’s still never occurred but it’s been happening once per game in Madden (and by extension NCAA) for the last decade. All that’s changed is the linebacker’s uniform looks more authentic and the lighting’s better.

But you can still go on to YouTube and search and find hundreds, even thousands, of angry videos highlighting that glitch/physics-miracle every single release and yet after a decade EA has still not addressed one of their fans’ biggest complaints about their most popular game.

Only the immense popularity of the NFL and people’s desire to play a football game, period, can sustain that model. Because outside of the vacuum of sports, EA would either have a dead franchise on its hands or be reviled for watering down the industry based on their lack of innovation with Madden the past decade.

Frankly it shouldn’t be close between the two franchises given the disproportionate resources handed to Madden each year.

The mere fact NCAA Football is in the same conversation as a game that it is literally a watered down version of is more than enough evidence that EA views Madden as little more than a cash cow, and it’s not the sprawling accomplishment its made out to be anymore.

It was in 2002, now we’re just revisiting Rome each year.

Edge: Draw, Madden should be the clear cut favorite but manages to do less with more. We should all expect so much more out of EA Sports each year when they release their flagship franchise.

The Gameplay

Madden is still a phenomenal football game, don’t get me wrong. It may not have changed much (or at all) in the previous decade but it’s still one the best sports games ever made. And one of the strengths of the two series is that despite running on very similar engines, they don’t play much alike at all.

The NFL game feels like a pro game should, it’s fast, there’s little margin for error and if you have the difficulty correct it shouldn’t be that high scoring. I legitimately enjoy the simulation aspect of Madden because you can’t just blow out another team easily, much like in the NFL even the differences between the best and worst teams can make for a competitive matchup regardless of records.

I like the college feel more though, as polished as the NFL experience is, there’s something about the wide-open feel of the NCAA game that appeals to me more. It feels more… human. In NCAA there is a disparity, a massive one, that serves as both a detriment and a strength (I’ll get into that later). You don’t want to run Florida Atlantic up against USC, that’s never going to end well even if you’re an exceptional player. A lot of people don’t like that, they don’t like that a freshman corner is going to get embarrassed if you leave him locked up on a senior receiver. I happen to love it. The little imperfections that make up so much of the college game are all present in NCAA, but from a video game standpoint, it’s also ammo for the detractors.

Before you can really determine whether one franchise is better than the other you need to establish what you want. Madden is the better choice for online gaming because of the balance. With just 32 teams (I don’t get into historical or all-star teams) there is considerably more time to spend on each player, on each roster and on making sure that balance and parity prevail.

That makes for a fantastic online experience, if you want to play with other people or online then Madden is the way to go. You plug it in, you get roster updates and you can play anyone with that week’s NFL teams. From a purely video-game standpoint, Madden wins in a one-off every time because its single game experience is better than NCAA. It’s more balanced and more polished.

You’re going see a better product if you play just one single game of Madden as opposed to a single game of NCAA.

That’s because NCAA is not balanced, it can’t be. You couldn’t build a game where a team like Utah State had a realistic chance to knock off teams like Oklahoma and Texas in a one-off, it’s inauthentic, even if it makes the online and exhibitional aspects of the game lack a little.

In NCAA each year there are maybe ten power schools, teams that could legitimately win it all, then there are other, lower tiers of schools that are in over their head if you ask them to play above what they’re rated.

I can understand how casual gamers prefer Madden.

Edge: In terms of pure gameplay, Madden wins.

Game Modes

No where is EA’s failure to improve these series more obvious than in both NCAA and Madden’s failed career modes. They were promising, if broken, when introduced and they’re just as broken now, years later, even as they change around the presentation every year.

For those unfamiliar, both games let you assume control of a player and guide them through a career. You play exclusively as that player in career mode (so if you’re a WR, you only control that one WR), you don’t have say over play-calls (most of the time) and the AI in the mode is crap-tastic. I used to hit this mode first every year, now I don’t even waste my time. The menu screen may look different in each new version, but the monotonous game-mode continues to feel tossed in at the last moment, under-developed and lacks any payoff whatsoever.

A running back at Wisconsin for instance will be amazed at how much the Badgers suddenly throw, in spite of traditionally being a ground-first offense, for instance. And don’t even try to play defense because the controls are so inept you’ll find you’re better off not touching the controller and letting the auto-assist set up your tackles.

A year into the gameplay mode, those are understandable issues, half a decade into it and you’re wondering what they’re paying the programmers to do… It’s like the one-handed LB picks, the fact this has never been improved is almost insulting. EA knows they don’t have to do anything to their football games outside of make sure they update the rosters because people will still buy them, no matter how little effort they actually put in.

Especially when you’re the only show in town.

That leaves exhibitions and the Franchise/Dynasty modes that are the real gems of the two games and that’s its own category in and of itself.

Edge: Draw, actually NCAA. They’re both basically the same flawed game mode, but I’d rather listen to college fight songs play on the menu screen than hear the Madden soundtrack for the 1,000th time.

Dynasty vs Franchise, the Battle of Longevity

This is where NCAA Football blows Madden right out of the water. I can’t play Madden past the season it was created for. The off-season AI and the way that franchise mode turns itself over is awful and creates a pseudo-fantasy league for the following season that I do not enjoy at all. Something about computer-automated free agent acquisition still hasn’t been mastered yet and it really takes me out of the simulation.

That’s an issue for me, because dynasty and franchise modes are my favorite thing in sports games. I love building a team from the ground up and having to make moves and transactions like a GM. Other games have mastered this at the pro level, NBA 2k for instance features a really solid franchise mode where you can play several seasons without things starting to feel hokey.

Madden just cannot make that happen though, at least not for me. After your first season in Madden, franchise mode jumps the shark and you end up with a Bizarro-world NFL that isn’t what you paid for.

NCAA has no such problem, and part of that is just the set up. While the NFL is player-driven, college is run by coaches.  And while college recruiting has gotten bigger, most people still don’t follow it. That added anonymity, the ability to keep the game fresh with a constant influx of players, is something Madden can’t do.

In the NFL the new talent comes from college and a lot of the prospects come pre-billed. That means unless you can import a good draft class with accurate ratings each year, your game may as well not be NFL-branded anymore by year four because you won’t know any of the players.

That really takes you out of it.

In the NCAA that problem is moot because rarely do you ever know a player’s name before you see him play in college (only in the cases of sons of famous players, and really high profile recruits). Because of this, NCAA Football’s recruiting (which actually does get a facelift every year) is highly nuanced and fun in a way that the NFL game can’t compete with.

When you play the two modes side-by-side it just makes Madden feel empty by comparison. Everything is compartmentalized in Madden, the season is just the season, the scouting component doesn’t connect you with the players, roster moves you make are typically bottom of the roster free agency moves and you address team needs at the end of the year. It makes Madden’s franchise-mode NFL draft seem anti-climactic and it turns free agency into your only sure shot way to improve.

In NCAA, you’re not just coaching your team and managing your team for the season you’re playing. You spend ten hours each week calling recruits, and trying to build your roster for next year. You’re signing up to 25 high school players, making them promises, scheduling visits and also worrying about winning your conference and getting to the BCS. You are literally running the whole program, and it feels fully fleshed out and authentic.

Madden doesn’t even come close.

You may be able to squeeze two good years out of Madden’s franchise mode, but eventually all the players will retire and you will be left playing with computer-generated players. NCAA dynasties can go on for literally decades and it stays fresh year to year, perhaps even more so as you have to learn to adapt your coaching style to the changing personnel you have on your roster year in and year out.

Not to mention NCAA has put their dynasty mode online, and I speak from experience when I say it’s the single greatest online game-mode I’ve ever played. I’m not exaggerating. It’s a small miracle I graduated college on time given how into our online dynasty my college buddies and I got. Not all of us did.

But if ever there was a sports gaming mecca, we found it. All of us were and still are die-hard sports fans, myself and Tom went on to the sports media industry (I write for the Miami Herald, he produces a sports-talk radio show) while the other three guys have all gone on to their own careers…. That’s only relevant because we’re not deadbeats, we were normal guys.

That being said, over the course of a semester and a half, we played about 15 seasons in a Conference USA online dynasty and to this day (several years later) it’s still one of the first, and funniest, topics we cover when we all meet up.

Madden can’t even compete, despite having a similar online franchise mode, because of just how much competition there was in the Online Dynasty. For starters, C-USA was an odd-choice (most of what was then C-USA is now in the Big East or Big 12) but it was perfect because we all played each other each year and to even have a prayer at a BCS game you had to go undefeated which meant going 4-0 in user games.

Now to give you the full picture, year one was just like a Madden online dynasty would go, for both franchises they’re identical. You’re handed a team, and outside of a few minor adjustments, you have to play with what you’re given.

Year two and beyond is where NCAA makes its name. Suddenly the pre-programmed players are leaving and you begin to have a team that you recruited personally. By year four almost every player on your roster you will have recruited and signed yourself. That means if you are out-matched, you got beat in recruiting. But it was your fault. Not the computer’s, you were accountable.

Because recruiting is as big a part of the game as the actual games are, and it’s also competition. There’s a pool of players, and not only are you competing with the other four coaches, but you’re competing nationally with every other program. Regional rivalries started up as we got into recruiting battles, for instance at SMU I butted head with Tom (Houston) over many a recruit in Texas.

Suddenly not only are you fighting for these players, but the other guys in the dynasty remember the big fish they lost, and have to play them for the next four years.

That dynamic made every user game, and every progressive season even better. Suddenly there’s five players with teams recruited entirely by them and the season is on the line every single user-game. It’s not just a random online matchup, if you lose to your buddy you have to wait an entire year to have a shot at BCS-busting again, and you may not have a team that stacks up the same way next year.

Essentially, that’s the most authentic representation of being a coach at the helm of a college program you can get. We had epic user vs user games, it became worth watching for the non-players just because each side had so much invested in it, and the outcome affected your team too.

It was actual competition, not in the Madden vein where one player beats another player with the pre-ordained rosters that were on the disc. This was my team, running the offense and defense I envisioned based on personnel I spent hours recruiting, going up against someone else’s team, and they felt the same level of ownership.

Madden can’t even scrape that.

Edge: NCAA

Closing Thoughts

There’s really no right answer between the two EA franchises, both have their faults and their strengths. A lot of it just comes down to preference. For instance, many in the south prefer the college game and love NCAA Football with a passion unequaled. Up north, college football takes a backseat to the pro game so it’s no wonder Madden is king.

But insofar as the games themselves, it really comes down to what kind of gamer you are, on some level what kind of fan.

If you are a casual gamer, an online gamer or somebody who spends most of their time playing socially against others, then Madden is by and far the winner. NCAA is no slouch, but the balance and level of polish inherent in EA’s NFL offering make it the best football game around as far as playing a single game.

But if you want to immerse yourself in a sports experience, or if you aren’t always going to be playing in groups, or if you choose instead to consume your videogames like pornography (alone, in a dark room) then NCAA is so much deeper that it’s hardly even close.

Madden offers you a snapshot of the NFL, year to year, where players are well-rendered and accurately programmed and the game reflects the power and form of the actual product, but that level of authenticity weighs on it and hinders it if you want to extend the simulation beyond its intended season.

NCAA, by sheer virtue of the differences in the college and pro game, has the better longevity though.

Some variation of my online dynasty continues on to this day with every new release. The year after our Conference USA dynasty we created custom teams and played ten years as national powerhouses. Even now we still find time for the occasional all-nighter. In a way, the games keep my friends and I in touch now that we’ve moved and started jobs around the country.

That’s why to me, NCAA Football has the overall edge.

Winner: NCAA Football

Disclaimer: This isn’t a review of the upcoming NCAA Football 13 and Madden 13 games. It’s a comparative look at the two EA franchises. If someone wants to send us a copy of Madden or NCAA a few weeks early to review though, we’d happily oblige…