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.
Is it cheating to use Lamar Jackson in Madden NFL 21?
If gamers insist on being taken seriously when playing a combat or sports sim, there are a few “weapons” that are off-limits. Paradoxically, that list tends to include the very best playable characters and teams, lest a contest between friends become too “annoying” and, in rare cases, physical. For instance, Eddy Gordo’s incessantly flippy capoeira style may take the longest of any on Tekken to master, but his speed, reach, and fluidity meant that even someone brand new to the game could take Gordo and button-mash their way to victory against a more adept player. The same could go for any team featuring Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo during the last decade of FIFA—choosing them will win you nothing but accusations from your opponent, for you will have violated the sanctity of the contest. You get it: You’re not actually cheating, but you’re cheating if you choose them.
Michael Vick, the first Black quarterback to grace a Madden cover, was one of these cheats. Madden NFL 2004 was released in 2003, when Vick was at the height of his powers, when he was habitually leaving pass rushes and then entire defenses flat-footed, forcing the game of football to change in real time as he played it. Despite not having won anything and despite never having been an efficient quarterback, per se—his passing came noticeably second to his game on the ground, particularly in the first half of his career—as a quarterback Vick still held a high place in the public imagination for his apparent footballing superpowers. Madden 2004 Vick is proof of that. At age 23, the Atlanta Falcons quarterback had a Madden stat readout like this—
95 OVR 95 SPD 94 ACC 70 JMP 97 THP
—which made Madden 04 Vick, as one YouTube reviewer put it, “basically god.” He could pick up 20 yards easily on a read option, and if you tried to stop the run, he could throw farther and harder and more accurately than anyone else in the game. He was god because there were no answers for him.
You can see where Lamar Jackson, this year’s cover athlete, might create a similar concern. Although there were somewhat surprising answers for him in the divisional round of last year’s playoffs, the Baltimore Ravens quarterback and reigning NFL MVP is also at the height of his powers. Jackson runs fast, but more impressively, he plays fast—he keeps one or two strides ahead of your ability to fully comprehend what you’re seeing, and you imagine defensive tackles and linebackers and flailing free safeties to be just as helpless. Watching him, you get the sense that he’s playing on a shorter, smaller field than everyone else. The Madden 21 pre-title sequence is a clip of you, as Jackson, barrelling out of the tunnel at M&T Bank Stadium and making short, stylish work of the Cincinnati Bengals, seemingly on your own. He slips pass rushers, throws off-screen, flips over a goal-line stand for a rushing touchdown as pyrotechnics go off.
Jackson’s stat line in Madden 21 reads like this—
94 OVR 96 SPD 96 ACC 91 JMP 92 THP
—which yes, means Jackson is fairly godlike. As a point of disclosure, I had stopped playing Madden sometime before the EA Sports franchise moved to the Frostbite engine in 2017, but early reviews of 21 suggest that its mediocrity is a strong argument for the received wisdom of buying sports games only in even years. Madden 21 seems little more than an unenthused advertisement for Madden 22 to some, and like the consummate worst entry ever to others. The incremental changes to gameplay, however, have gone largely unassailed: As a ballcarrier, I felt the stick of my plant foot, and my cuts felt decisive. The narrowness of the running lanes created a deep sense of satisfaction upon hitting the gap. Although there is an option to super-sim the more boring parts of the game—you can skip to the next play, or next possession—defense can create similar moments of satisfaction, like when you pull off a pass-rush spin move or shed a blocker at just the right time. You can do this with the very same “skill stick” used to juke and spin on the other side of the ball.
The increased maneuverability of defenders and the narrowness of running lanes are meant to mitigate the effects of overpowered players like Jackson, but of course, that’s hooey. Rather than playing on a shortened field, playing with Jackson feels like getting to play Madden at 1.5x speed. So yes, playing with Jackson in 21 will probably still be considered cheating.
That said, it’s difficult to describe the ecstasy of taking a snap in the shotgun on your own goal line and, instead of a simple 15-yard slant to cut second-and-forever to third-and-short, just taking your Lamar Jackson and driving him over the offensive line and into the open field. Once you spring up from the turf, you’re given your pick of celebrations in four categories—after liberal use of the trick stick my finger slipped to the “signature” option, but I would’ve chosen it anyway. Jackson crouches into a Kodak bop. The score was 41-14 at the beginning of the third quarter. Joe Burrow, looking to someone to make the blowout stop, ripped into his helpless teammates on the bench.