Thirty years ago, John Madden Football came to Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo, changing the way we play sports games at home. On Friday, the latest installment, Madden NFL 21, comes out. There’s a lot to be excited about: new rosters, new features, and the ability to play with Lamar Jackson or Patrick Mahomes. But there’s also a lot to look back on, including the way the game helped a generation better understand football and the legend of one quarterback that looms over the franchise. So read on—and know that whatever happens with real-life football this year, we can count on Madden to guide us through another season.
Patrick Mahomes was bailing from the pocket. It was third-and-8 at midfield, and Mahomes was running like a baby deer from Baltimore Ravens defensive end Calais Campbell. Technically, Mahomes was running from me, because this was Madden 21 and I was trying to get a stop on third down. Details schmetails. But just as Campbell was about to sack him back to Madden 19, Mahomes—who was about to run out of bounds on the right sideline—ripped a pass across his body to Tyreek Hill, who was 10 yards downfield and about 25 yards left field, for the first down.
“Bullshit,” I thought to myself. “He can’t do that.”
Except that Patrick Mahomes absolutely can do that. In fact, he has done it multiple times. Mahomes has tossed miraculous passes against his momentum while facing the Denver Broncos, the Seahawks, and even the Ravens—and that was just in 2018. Usually a video game character can do something that is difficult to imagine happening in real life, but Patrick Mahomes does things in real life that defy belief in a video game. It’s hard to get mad at any throw Mahomes makes against Baltimore in Madden when he did this against Baltimore in real life.
Madden 21 is available on all platforms on Friday. Spoiler alert: It’s not as good as the specific version you fell in love with as a child. But this year’s Madden has two things you did not have growing up: Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson. Mahomes is a 99 overall and the highest-rated quarterback in the game. Jackson is perhaps the most fun Madden player since Michael Vick in Madden 04. Mahomes and Jackson earned the last two covers, respectively, after winning the real-life MVP award and showing off a skill set that is perfect video game fodder. Their teammates and playbooks accentuate their best qualities. To simply portray Mahomes and Jackson accurately in Madden is a revelation, and using them in this game might be the closest we’ll get to what playing Madden felt like when we were children.
That is not supposed to be the selling point of the game. Madden 21 comes with other features, highlighted by a Fortnite-y looking game mode called The Yard, plus an updated version of last year’s new game mode Superstar KO, and a revamped Madden Ultimate Team mode. There are long-needed changes to defensive line controls that work well (it only took 30 years) and a couple of new ballcarrier moves. But overall the changes to Madden feel similar to the “two steps back and pay 3,000 coins to go three steps forward” model that the past 10 versions have offered. The difference with Madden 21 is that, because of the rise of Mahomes and Jackson, Madden has accidentally rejuvenated the most basic, core function that makes the game fun: playing one-on-one against your friends. In terms of two people playing head-to-head, Chiefs vs. Ravens in Madden 21 might be the best matchup the series has ever produced.
The Chiefs are the perfect team to analyze with Madden ratings. There are only 20 players in Madden with a 96 overall or higher, and Kansas City’s offense has four of them. Mahomes is the best quarterback in the game and he has the best pass catchers too. Tyreek Hill (99 speed) and Mecole Hardman (97 speed) are two of the five fastest players in the game. That speed combined with Mahomes having the second-best deep passing (and 97 throw power) is just silly. Tight end Travis Kelce (97 overall) is virtually unguardable in one-on-one situations and he dominates the intermediate routes that are so effective for quality tight ends. This embarrassment of skills that dovetail together is not an exaggeration of the Chiefs’ talent, but rather an accurate reflection of the Super Bowl–winning team Kansas City built. It just so happens that the team the Chiefs won the Super Bowl with is also the exact team you’d want in Madden.
But most amazingly, the Chiefs may not be the most fun team in the game. That honor likely goes to Baltimore and the cover star, Lamar Jackson. The reigning MVP used to play Madden as Michael Vick, and now Jackson is probably the best character since Vick. The real Jackson has already broken Vick’s record for rushing yards by a quarterback. Even when Jackson was the QB at Louisville, Vick said Jackson was “five times better than I was when I was at Virginia Tech.” Lamar is a 94 overall—the third-best quarterback in the game behind Mahomes and Russell Wilson—with 96 speed and a 95 throwing on the run ability. Jackson’s surrounding cast is not as elite as Mahomes’s, but his offensive line is superior and he is still surrounded by speed, including receiver Marquise Brown, who is tied with Hardman and Marquise Goodwin as the third-fastest player in the game.
The real costar with Jackson in Baltimore is the team’s playbook, which is a throwback to NCAA football. Whereas Vick racked up his (real-life) numbers by scrambling, Jackson has gotten his rushing yards with designed runs, and those runs have made it into the game. Baltimore has options and run-pass options galore, including a lot in pistol formation (like shotgun, but not as far back), which the real Ravens used on more than half their plays in 2019. In the game, Baltimore has one play called “Ravens QB Power,” which works extremely well in the game and in real life. Jackson is a good enough pocket passer to dice any defense, but speeding past defenders with him feels like breaking the rules.
In a vacuum, playing with either the Chiefs or the Ravens against a friend might be considered a dick move (though not as much as picking the Kevin Durant–era Warriors in NBA 2K). But the fact that two teams that are this good and this fun exist in the same game makes them the perfect pairing—and it’s not just me saying that. Lamar Jackson always plays as himself in Madden, but when someone else chooses Baltimore, he plays as the Chiefs.
In Week 2 against Oakland last year—of the real season—Mahomes threw four touchdown passes in the second quarter. The shortest of those four touchdown passes went for 27 yards. That’s hard to do in Madden, and it’s the reason the game feels grounded: No matter how much you score with Kansas City or what absurd stuff Mahomes pulls off, it feels like something Mahomes could really do—and therefore something your opponent cannot bitch about.
Besides Lamar and Mahomes, the best parts of Madden 21 are the simplest changes. There is a new ballcarrier move called the “dead leg”—essentially stopping on a dime—that is quite effective. There is also a new move called “jurdling”—half juke, half hurdle—to change direction without losing much speed. Most importantly, the offensive and defensive line play has been updated with perhaps the best system the game has ever had. Down on the joystick is a bull rush, up is a swim move, and sprinting is a speed rush. Going left or right with the joystick sheds the blocker in that direction. Better defenders have more success with these moves (especially if it fits their style), and using the same move too often eventually becomes less effective as the offensive linemen learn patterns. This is the closest Madden has come to actual line play, and hopefully they won’t mess with it for a long time.
There are six game modes in this year’s version: Franchise, Face of the Franchise (a.k.a. career mode), Exhibition (play now), Madden Ultimate Team, Superstar KO, and The Yard. Let’s tackle the key ones in order:
Franchise: The same as it is every year. This Reddit video showing the side-by-side Super Bowl celebrations in Franchise Mode from the previous four Madden games—and how all four celebrations are virtually identical—is complacency visualized.
Face of the Franchise: The create-a-player mode now has two seasons of college football instead of one. Perhaps that can make up for the real college football season being, well, whatever college football will be this year.
Madden Ultimate Team (MUT): Still an elaborate YouTube unboxing video. In Ultimate Team, opening a new pack of cards is a celestial ceremony where the Madden high priests unveil a steel case that glows like the Tesseract, except instead of opening a portal to the fourth dimension it opens a 61 overall outside linebacker named Curtis Weaver.
Superstar KO: A new mode from Madden 20 returning this year, Superstar KO is a knockout game mode where you accrue superstars on your team over time. The game mode and rules lean into the best players’ skills. Think of it like “winner stays” pickup basketball in Madden, but designed for people who don’t have the attention span for a full four quarters of football nor the patience (or money) to grind out a quality roster in Ultimate Team.
The Yard: This one is new, and it’s the most creative addition to Madden in a long time. The game is backyard-style football with six players on each side and a random assortment of (cool) dudes assigned to your team. Players play offense and defense. Seahawks safety Jamal Adams is also playing receiver, and Titans receiver A.J. Brown is also a cornerback. The rules are loose. You can snap it to any player on the field, and multiple throws are allowed if the ball stays behind the line of scrimmage. So you can snap the ball to quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who flips the ball to receiver Davante Adams on an end-around, who throws a pass downfield to safety Tyrann Mathieu. It’s weird, but it works. It is fun to play solo, but the mode blossoms against other people. The aesthetic is extremely Fortnite, almost as if there were a Zoom meeting of EA executives who wanted to make Madden more Epic. But don’t let the tacky uniforms distract you from Madden’s first original idea in years.
Here’s the thing—most people don’t buy Madden for the new game modes. Either you buy it every year, or you buy it when a specific version is good enough that it is worth holding on to for a few years. The case for Madden 21 being that game is not The Yard or some new physics engine; it’s that the Ravens and Chiefs are so fun to play with that it is the perfect way to spend 40 minutes with a friend. For some, that might be enough to buy the game. But for the people who like to play with their favorite team and/or are not intrigued by pickup football with a knockoff Fortnite aesthetic or a trading card game that’s like scammy cryptocurrency, then this year’s Madden is as uninspiring as all the ones that came before. The lone saving grace is that if you have this version of Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, you may not need to buy another Madden for a long time.