The NFL is fascinated by the idea of cracking the UK, and it may have found a surprise way in via its official video game.
American football may not necessarily be your sport of choice, but in gaming terms Madden has never been more appealing.
This year’s offering – Madden NFL 18 – is not just another half step forward in sporting game terms – a description that is often true of sports games – but a complete overhaul of an experience that had become tired.
This is down to the introduction of a dramatic story mode called Longshot, but also the first use of EA’s Frostbite game engine, which has raised the visuals to another level.
Never has the simple setting of an American football stadium looked so alive and dynamic, and the same can be said of the players who take the field.
Facial expressions, sweat and movement is more realistic than ever, and that feeds into the playing experience, which more than ever feels like a broadcast of a live game that you, the player, in fact control.
The on-field action has never looked more alive, but it is off-the-field where Madden NFL has made its biggest strides.
At the heart of this drastic step change is Longshot, the game’s new cinematic story mode that follows the example of FIFA 17’s The Journey in taking the repetitiveness of a sporting career and turning it into fully fledged story filled with multi-dimensional characters.
While it might be a stretch to call some of the figures that featured in The Journey interesting – aspects of the story and character acting was wooden to say the least – the premise and execution of taking players deeper into the world of professional sport is an enticing one.
It’s an idea that Longshot does an even better job of presenting.
The story focuses on the life of Devin Wade, a promising young quarterback who starred for his high school team before quitting the sport at college when form deserted him amid a personal tragedy.
The road to doing this includes a reality TV show, a washed-up former coach also looking for a comeback and a cameo from NFL legend Dan Marino.
Oh, and a game of seven-a-side on an Army base in Dubai. Of course.
Unlike The Journey, which quickly fires its protagonist Alex Hunter to the upper echelons of the game, players spend several hours of gameplay simply trying to earn Wade some redemption after his college exit, and opening the door for a return via the NFL Draft.
Yes, at times it can get cliche-heavy and become excessively cheesy, but through gritted teeth these cut scenes are worth persevering through because there’s rewards to be found down the line.
A footballing education
Longshot is also far less match-driven than The Journey – apart from flashback sequences to Wade’s high school days, actual football gameplay is short and sweet.
Instead, short puzzle and challenge sequences are the main currency of the story, with performance in each helping Wade improve his skills as he attempts to climb the NFL ladder and helping players do the same.
This is what makes Longshot such a clever experience – for casual NFL fans and Madden players alike this mode is a chance to educate yourself on the subtleties of the sport, slowly changing how you play the game in general.
If you’re a casual fan, suddenly offensive runs, defensive positioning and receiver movement feel more understandable in wider gameplay, and picking the correct pass becomes clearer too.
Watch out though – there are some educational tests on position and formation names that pop up a couple of times during Longshot that might just catch out NFL newbies.
Madden on the map
The 2018 instalment in the Madden series has the potential to be a true boundary breaker for a sport that is growing ever more popular in the UK.
At least two games are played in London every year now and, with general interest in the sport increasing, it’s noticeable that EA Sports and the NFL have taken active steps to welcome in these new fans.
Longshot is a thoroughly enjoyable new way to play Madden, but it also serves as a beginner’s guide to the sport – a dramatic introduction to its lore and finer points that once inducted to, spark a new appreciation for the sport.