Twitter blew up this weekend with a new Madden 21 hashtag: #NFLdropEA. Madden NFL 21 was released worldwide on Friday, August 28 and critical reviews of the game have been middling. On the website MetacriticMadden 21 has a Metascore of 64. That’s a passing grade. At Sports Gamers Online, we gave it a 5/10. Generally, this is how Madden NFL games are received nowadays, as modestly improved iterations on the previous year. Madden NFL 20 got a Metascore of 76, averaging generally favorable reviews. So why are we talking about it? Something about 2020 just hits different, I guess.

Metacritic shows two review scores for each game in its system. This includes the Metascore, which is a weighted average of reviews from reputable critics. It also shows a User Score, a feature where anyone who has a Metacritic account can leave a score from 0-10 on a game. If you look only at Madden 21’s user score, you see a different picture of its quality.

Madden NFL 21 Review Scores Metacritic
Madden NFL 21’s Review Scores on Metacritic.

This isn’t just a bad User Score:  it’s champion-level historically bad. As of writing, Madden 21’s user score is 0.4, tied with Tom Clancy’s The Division 2: Warlords of New York for the worst score ever on Metacritic.

So is the game this bad? User Score rating may at times be a measure of user sentiment than game quality. Controversial games can get review bombed, a term for when thousands of users all give a game a 0 rating around the game’s launch, for a variety of reasons. Metacritic even had to change its review policy earlier this year to help stem it. Modern sports games tend to have low user scores, but never this low. So, how did we get here?

#NFLdropEA, #FixMaddenFranchise, and the Drive for Change

Even if you aren’t a fan of Madden 21, you might have seen the hashtag #NFLdropEA. At its peak, it was #2 trending worldwide on Twitter, including responses from NFL players.  The hashtag is filled with clips of bugs from Madden games accompanied by a basic plea: Please, NFL, find a new official developer. But such a change is easier said than done. EA has owned the exclusive right to make NFL simulation football games since it signed the deal back in 2005, and in May it renewed that exclusivity, presumably for another five years.

The #NFLdropEA hashtag comes on the back of the #FixMaddenFranchise hashtag, which gained a ton of momentum this summer. In response to Madden 21’s Franchise reveal trailer in June, Forbes contributor Brian Mazique tweeted an image expressing his frustration with the direction of Madden’s franchise mode.

“Madden franchise fans… I say to u now the same thing I’ve said to unhappy fans of any game,” the image reads, “it’s time 2 show your unhappiness by not buying this year’s game w/o an update 2 classic franchise that drastically improves it. Believe me, if it’s impacting enough financially, EA can and will PATCH it.” 

The hashtag became a rallying point for dissatisfaction with the development, or lack thereof, of Madden’s franchise mode. Players and outlets alike ran stories and created videos about the hashtag, us included. The hashtag caught the attention of the Madden developer team, who addressed the hashtag by promising continuous development. So, perhaps the visual success of one hashtag portends the eventual success of another?

Some Fans Step Over the Line

Viral campaigns like #FixMaddenFranchise and #NFLdropEA can be a vehicle for valid criticism and bring change to something you love. They can also serve as a cover for harassment. When these things trend, messages about them fill the mentions of anyone even associated with the targeted game. Ty Stover, a talent manager at EA, has locked his twitter account. EA producer Erika Esola-Imburgio tweeted about the harassment directly. “I always listen to criticism and critiques of the game I work on,” she tweeted, “But when you personally attack me I’m gonna block/mute you.” 

There are legitimate, healthy ways to deal with your frustrations of a game. Constructive things you can do for your own sake and to gently influence the development of a AAA title like Madden 21. They literally never involve harassing developers or anyone else involved in the game’s production. No one should have to hide their lives from the public eye because they helped model your favorite NFL running back.

What can I do, then?

Well, money talks. Don’t buy or play Madden 21. If you’re buying yet another game in the Madden series, putting 40 hours into it on launch weekend, then giving it a 0 on Metacritic, you aren’t making any kind of real point. When you aim at the people who worked on Madden 21 with the hashtag #NFLdropEA, you’re just venting at people who don’t deserve your vitriol.

Despite EA’s continued exclusivity on simulated football games, the NFL Player’s Association has inked several deals this year. The first was a renewed deal with Take-Two Interactive, who signed with the NFLPA to make a series of “non-simulation” football games. The second is a new deal with Bit Fry Game Studios, who make the Ultimate Rivals series of arcade sports games. New games with the NFL license are coming, and supporting these games will show the NFLPA that there is a market outside of EA Sports.

If you want to stick to simulation football, people are working on that as well. Games like Axis Football and Maximum Football have been slowly improving their simulation football games for years. Axis Football 20 announced a series of new Franchise mode features in July. Doug Flutie’s Maximum Football 2020 is trying to recreate the magic of EA’s old NCAA football games. These independent developers are playing catch-up with the 20+ years of experience EA has developing simulation football, but they’re learning fast. They need support to continue to develop these games year by year, and they’re small enough that they can hear your feedback. These decisions help widen the market, which does its best to challenge EA’s yearly football game. You can show EA that you’re unhappy with Madden NFL 21 without driving people away from the games industry.

If you’re still curious if you’d like the game, you can watch our video review of Madden NFL 21 below.