Americans love football. ESPN finds new and creative ways to talk about the NFL every single offseason, and EA Sports' long-running Madden NFL series is routinely one of the best-selling games of the year. EA Tiburon, the long-time developer of Madden, has been able to make the series more and more realistic through the last and current console generations, to the point where understanding the Madden games helps you understand football better.
The problem there, though, is the learning curve involved with football strategy. Unlike basketball, soccer, or hockey, there's more to a football game than just learning how to control a player. Football is more like a game of chess — to succeed against the AI or a real player, you need to understand how offenses and defenses are run, and what plays to call at what times and how to execute them. As a website like Smart Football proves, there is plenty of depth and strategy to football play-calling.
This is why, in my Beginner's Guide to Sports Games in June 2009, I suggested avoiding NFL or college football games as your first experience. Even as a diehard football fan, I was struggling three and four years ago to become better at the NCAA Football series of games because I hadn't learned enough about the sport. Thankfully, the new GameFlow system in Madden 11 helps to rectify that problem.
EA Sports' football games have had "suggest-a-play" options for a long time — offered up as Ask Madden in the Madden series and Ask Corso in the NCAA Football games. However, GameFlow takes this a few steps further by essentially offering the player an AI offensive and defensive coordinator to help manage the game for them — just as a quarterback would have in a real football game.
As the first image of the article shows, after every play you can choose GameFlow or to go into the full playbook (which provides the traditional play-calling options). If you choose GameFlow, the above image shows what you will see and hear from the offensive coordinator. The play's design is overlaid on the field, the receiver the play is designed for is shown in red, and the coordinator provides a quick explanation for what to look for. Suddenly, calling plays goes from reading and deciphering a foreign language to following instructions and using terms that even casual football fans understand; more people know and understand having the quarterback in the shotgun, but fewer people know mesh plays, drive routes, or stick routes. The same is true on defense: select GameFlow, receive instructions, look at the play art, and follow your orders. In Madden and NCAA Football 11, you're now given the option to hold down one button (A on 360, X on PS3) to have your player perform the route or coverage they were assigned in the play, which is great for learning where to go on defense.
It's also possible for beginners to move up from learning the basics and relying on GameFlow entirely to adjusting calls. With GameFlow on, you can still choose to go into the full playbook — an option I would use when I know, in a certain situation, exactly the play I want to call. Outside of the gridiron in the options menus for Madden 11 is the ability to manage your offensive and defensive GameFlow gameplans. The secret to GameFlow is it's broken down the game of football into numerous scenarios — 1st and 10, 3rd and long, passing on the goal line, etc. Again, casual football fans understand this terminology and these situations. In GameFlow, there are 10-15 plays per scenario, and how often they're used is weighted; moreover, this is all customizable in the game. Players can tweak how often plays come up, add new ones that they know would work in certain scenarios, and remove plays that just aren't working. For beginners who've learned on GameFlow and veterans alike, this is a powerful tool.
Soccer and basketball may be games of individual brilliance and skill, but football is all about execution. Teams in the NFL are stacked with amazing athletes; it's the teams that execute the plays well that win. Learning what plays to call and how to execute them has been the biggest barrier to new players in the Madden and NCAA Football series for years, but GameFlow helps rectify that. Moreover, because you're not spending 20-30 seconds calling plays, it helps cut game lengths — EA Sports claims games can be done in half the time now.
I've been playing football games since the Genesis, and only recently started to learn how to play these games well — and the difference has been in play-calling. However, if I'm playing against the AI on a single-player career, I don't always want to invest my time in calling every play. Even just playing the Madden demo, I can tell GameFlow is something I would use a lot of the time — especially on defense, because I hate having to mix up my defenses. This is a great way to make football games accessible to more people who want to play them and, incredibly, a great way to learn about football.