I like American football games (I’m even trying to collect every one ever made); I’m not very good at American football games. While I can generally hold my own against the computer, I’ve long endured a painful relationship online, getting my ass kicked at every opportunity. I have won matches in previous instalments, but nursing an 0-14 record in Madden NFL 21’s Ultimate Team mode, I set myself a target: win one match.
In order to compete, I knew I was going to have to go through a period of education. As a Brit, I’ve had to learn the finer details of American football myself; the overarching tactics of soccer are second-nature to me, because I grew up in a country where the sport is a religion. But while NFL has been growing in popularity here, I don’t have a lifetime of knowledge to draw upon; I didn’t play gridiron at high-school, and I’ve only considered myself a fan for the past five or so years.
Those of you who are familiar with the sport, of course, will know that there’s much more to it than helmets and shoulder pads: an NFL match is as much a game of chess as it is an athletic sport. Obviously, I know many of the basic strategies: running the ball chews clock, Blitzes make sense in third-and-long scenarios, and you’re going to want to use the sidelines in two-minute drills.
While I understood many of these basics, I knew my tactical understanding of the sport was simply not good enough to compete online against better players. For example, when coming up against mobile quaterbacks like Michael Vick, I simply couldn’t stop them from scrambling to enormous chunk gains. I later learned to assign a spy to one of my linebackers, allowing me to block off receivers in Man coverage but still feel comfortable the quarterback won’t be able to easily sprint for the first down.
Hitting the Books
It took a lot of research for me to learn the strategies to become a better player. At times, I’ve focused on Madden NFL-specific tutorials, primarily on YouTube. However, I also started reading books and websites about real-life NFL teams and their strategies: Take Your Eye Off the Ball by Pat Kirwin, for example, gave me a deeper understanding of why teams select certain plays in given scenarios, and why they work against specific defensive coverage.
I diagnosed that my biggest flaw was in defensive play. While I’m generally able to move the ball down the field in most difficulties against the computer, I relied on guesswork when picking defensive formations – and while you can just about get away with this against artificial intelligence, it’s impossible to play this way against an online opponent, who can read what you’re doing and make alterations to attack it.
My mindset was this: if I can understand my defense better, then I’ll also know its strengths and weaknesses, meaning when I come to play offense I’ll know how to exploit my opponent. So I set to work on trying to garner a basic understanding of formations; I learned to stack the box in 3-4 or 4-3 formation when expecting a run, and to work in Nickel or Dime when the opponent is likely to throw the ball – perhaps on a second down or third down play.
I found success in Man coverage overall, although I started to use Zone in situations where I was happy to give the opponent some field. For example, if I’ve got the lead with a couple of minutes left on the clock, I’m okay with letting my opponent to play in front of me; I’ll use a Cover-3 Deep formation to give my opponent some grass, knowing that I’m unlikely to give up a big play. I can still get exposed doing this – good players work the sidelines, for example – but I’m generally finding success.
While my understanding is extremely basic, I’m now picking plays with the intent of getting a specific outcome, as opposed to the guesswork I was relying on before. And this understanding has helped me offensively, because I now know when I’m looking at a Cover-2 or a Blitz, and while I’m far from perfect at reading this, it has helped me to get some bigger gains. Lobbing the ball outside to my receiver in play-action, for example, when I can see a cornerback is going to drop off into a deep zone, is an example of something I’ve learned that works.
Getting the W
I practiced a lot against the computer, and wanted to ensure that I could win pretty much 95 per cent of the time with the Competitive setting enabled. A lot Ultimate Team challenges plump up for the Arcade setting, and while I’d play these on the highest difficulty available, I didn’t find it good practice because receivers and quarterbacks are god-like; the online experience is much more realistic, and therefore you can’t just toss a 60-yard throw into double coverage and expect to come up with the ball.
Solo Battles became my favourite mode, as it allowed me to play short games against the computer at increasing difficulties with Competitive settings. Within a few weeks, I’d reached a point where I could blowout an opponent on Pro and win at All-Pro, although I still do struggle on All-Madden. Online is obviously even more difficult as you’re up against a real human opponent, but people are also prone to impatience and mistakes that the computer don’t possess.
And so I got my first win this week, an 18-14 victory against a player who I’d argue was probably roughly at the same level as me – perhaps marginally better. As alluded to above, though, they lacked patience: they’d never punt the ball, even on fourth-and-long, and they made some strange calls. To be honest, I felt certain I’d slump to a loss when they were successful with an onside kick from the opening kick-off and I subsequently gave up a touchdown, but I stuck with it.
I was able to pick up a touchdown and a two-point conversion in my first drive, and then I got a field goal at the end of the half giving me a 11-6 lead at halftime. I started out the second half with another touchdown, and from there I just focused on not giving up any big plays. While I did give up a touchdown and a two point conversion in the second half, I was able to eat up enough clock to see out the game, knowing my opponent needed a touchdown in their final drive.
I must admit the victory did feel a little hollow because my opponent’s impatience ultimately handed me the game. If he’d have played less aggressively, I think he was probably a better player, and would have beaten me. We also, fortunately, had fairly evenly matched squads; the higher-level Ultimate Team players basically rely on the attributes of certain cards, and while I have a very good team, I don’t have the best squad. I can’t cry about pay-to-win, though, because the reality is that you could give most Madden NFL players a team of 80 overall players and they’d still beat my team of 90s.
I Probably Won’t Play Online Again
The one thing I will say is that I didn’t always enjoy my experience playing online at all. In those early days, when I was losing in embarrassing ways, I encountered a lot of toxicity. While I obviously know I’m not very good at the game and don’t mind losing at all, I faced a lot of players who would just curse at me and taunt me, even though they were effectively guaranteed a win. It would have been nice to face some players who gave me some advice instead, but it didn’t happen.
I’d also argue that, while the Seasons mode is meant to pool you against players of a similar skill level, even with all that I’ve learned, I’m clearly still not good enough for even the bottom tier of players online. I refuse to believe that I’m simply the worst Madden NFL 21 player in the world, so it strikes me that the people who are at the same level as me – and there must be more of them – essentially aren’t choosing to play online.
That’s a shame, because if the community was nicer and the game was able to match me with more players at a similar skill level, I’d probably play multiplayer more. There’s still lots for me to learn about American football, and I enjoy the sport so I’m going to keep watching it live and playing games like Madden NFL 21 in attempt to deepen my understanding; hopefully I can take what I’ve learned the last few weeks and use it to get better. Playing online, though, I think I’ll retire at 1-16.
Have you ever struggled this hard to win in an online multiplayer game? What was your approach to fixing up your issues, and were you successful in the end? Throw into double coverage in the comments section below.