Madden NFL 19's Story Mode is a Unique Disaster

By Mark Delaney, 4 months ago
When EA announced their annual football sim would finally be getting a story mode with last year's Madden NFL 18, I got very excited. As a devotee to the series for over two decades, it's something I was hoping they would do for several years, especially after other game series like NBA 2K and FIFA had recently found some success doing the same.

I reviewed last year's installment, and though I didn't love the story mode, I took it as a good first step. The writing was really silly at times and the whole premise seemed to exist in an alternate history where the NFL would ever consider hosting a reality game show to see who deserves a chance at playing in the league. With basically every character providing comic "relief," it was a very one-note experience with its greatest attribute being the A for effort earned by the team at Tiburon. I liked that they tried. I still wanted to see more of it. Maybe next year's would be better, I thought.

I was wrong.

While Madden NFL 19's story mode thankfully does away with the run of mini-games that plagued the first one from a gameplay perspective, it is an utter disaster in every other way. With endless tropes, nonsensical plot points, character arcs that make no sense, and far more unintentional humor than actual jokes, its saving grace may be that it nearly convinced me "so bad it's good" is a real thing.

It's true to say Longshot focuses on Colt more this year, but it's even truer to say it lacks nearly any focus at all.It's true to say Longshot focuses on Colt more this year, but it's even truer to say it lacks nearly any focus at all.

The story is meant to borrow from the spirit of other sports movies like Friday Night Lights, Rudy, et al featuring tales of underdogs persevering, old sonuvagun coaches who aren't yet ready to hang up their clipboards, and brash, self-absorbed rivals that get their comeuppance in the championship game. If Madden's story mode was only another rehash of a familiar trope such as any one of these, it'd be forgivable. Gifted with low expectations, it doesn't have to be that great to feel like a worthwhile prong on the franchise's recent three-pronged approach. But Madden 19's story mode is so much worse than I ever could've expected.

For starters, it seems like every character is obsessed with teaching lessons. It's fair to say upwards of 80-90% of all the cutscenes involve any two or more characters speaking in ways that are so unrealistic, it makes the videos we used to watch in health class look Oscar-worthy. Protagonist Devin Wade is constantly on the receiving end of older, wiser, men telling him how it was in their day, how he is out of line, how he'll see, someday, with the right attitude, the sky is the limit. Making it worse, he doesn't even appear to be a bad player, either on or off the field. He's constantly being reprimanded for transgressions that are inapparent. Assuming you play well with him on the field, the story still dictates he comes to the sideline or the quarterbacks room and gets lambasted by the position coach for... being on the team, I guess? Talk about ludonarrative dissonance. Tom Bissell would have a field day.

What makes it worse is the story jumps from Devin to his best friend Colt Cruise about halfway through in a way that is so jarring, neither character's story feels close to satisfying. Just as Devin is signed by the Texans off of the Cowboys practice squad, the game cuts to focusing entirely on Colt's life as he struggles to get a foot in the NFL's door. Eventually he's signed by the Dolphins, only to appear soon thereafter coaching his high school team after his former coach dies of a heart attack in his team office, because what's more cliche than that? Towards the end, it's revealed he was cut by the Dolphins, but unless I missed it while I was taking notes and laughing at how bad it is, that's never communicated sooner than in passing at the very end. That means one minute he's earned a spot on an NFL team, and the very next scene he's agreeing to coach his team for the next three years. Huh?

It's a bit difficult to get across just how disjointed and sloppy this story is, but these pacing problems and apparent plot holes are really only the beginning. In no specific order, here's a list of other absurdities and tropes seen in Madden 19's Longshot story mode:
  • Rich land developer wants to move the team and build a new stadium in the rival town
  • Rich land owner is apparently the father of a secondary character and the story treats this like it's well known by those playing
  • Rich land owner is introduced about 60% through the story and hardly characterized at all but labeled the bad guy anyway
  • Colt's estranged father appears out of nowhere while Colt is playing guitar in an alley
  • Estranged father abandons Colt's half-sister with him and ditches town
  • Another old man coach (the one who doesn't die) longs for a good QB to coach, then berates Devin for doing pretty well for a rookie
  • Colt leaves Texas for Miami, Florida, abandoning his young sister at home
  • Colt declines to wear the dead coach's hat as a symbol of leading the team he's not yet comfortable with, then dons the hat about one scene later with no real change in between other than a halftime pep talk to high schoolers while his new sister enters the locker room and signs for the deaf kid on the team.
  • Losing season gets turned around with Colt at the helm, washing away the idea that the now dead coach was any good, even though the story constantly told us he was
  • The small town crowdfunds the saving of the stadium right in the final seconds of the campaign thanks to NFL players showing up and making the fundraiser go viral, leading both the rival coach and the wealthy landowner to have an inexplicable change of heart about three minutes before the end credits
  • Estranged father returns at the end to make amends after doing literally nothing to earn it other than walk in the door — and it works
  • Antonio Brown is traded to the Texans and the story treats it as though they don't have an elite wideout of their own in DeAndre Hopkins
  • Most of the gameplay is spent playing high school games, even though last year's story was mostly that too and this is an NFL game
  • Several times, Colt video-calls a woman never properly introduced for tips on dealing with young girls, then when he meets her in person at the end he refers to her as his new girlfriend
  • Rob Schneider is in it
  • Rob Schneider is the GM of the Dallas Cowboys
The story has enough plot points for a full season of a TV series, and it crams them all into a 3-4 hour story — and they're all bad. It's as though a room of writers each blurted out what they thought should happen and someone in charge said, "let's do them all!" They put to script the first idea that sounded right, didn't bother to make sure it fit with the rest of the story — or really any other part, as is often the case — and then it eventually just ends. The bar for sports stories isn't exorbitantly high. As I said, just something decent, maybe marginally better than last year's story is all most fans would reasonably expect. But this turned out to be a comedy of errors.

Coach demands you apologize for playing well and working hard.Coach demands you apologize for playing well and working hard.

I've loved this series for my entire life. It literally taught me football when I was hardly old enough to step onto a field and play the sport myself, so I don't come at this from the cynical perspective some have for annual sports games. I think the series has merit enough to warrant buying it year after year, almost always. It seems clear the team at Tiburon is in over their heads with writing a narrative. Maybe they need to outsource the scriptwriting to another team or bring in someone who can light a spark in this area, like NBA 2K has done before. Madden is a game built on three pillars these days: Franchise, Ultimate Team, and Longshot. Last year the best part of the story was Devin's character building, even as so much around him was really cringe-inducing. This year, Devin takes a back seat for the final two-thirds of the game and what unfolds is one of the greatest messes in storytelling I've ever sat through.

My new hope is the team behind Madden decides to either totally rethink how they approach the story mode going forward, or, short of that, do away with it entirely. Reallocate those resources and all that time spent on Longshot to something else. Make Franchise mode more robust, or introduce a brand new mode perhaps. To have one-third of the game come out this poorly is really disheartening. Maybe the Madden story mode experiment is over. It certainly can't go on like this.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is the host of the community game club TA Playlist. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his family. He almost never writes in the third person.