Vision cones and street ball: how an obsession with hyperrealism has suffocated modern sports games
It’s that time of year again, when the doldrums of summer are broken by the annual release of Madden NFL. In celebration, I want to discuss one of the most hated mechanics in the history of the series, one that didn’t last very long but claimed many casualties: the vision cone.
Sports games grow and evolve slowly. With little to no changes to the actual sport on which they are based, how much is there for developers to do from iteration to iteration? The developers must work within the same framework that has been in place for decades. Ten yards for a first down; 6 points for a touchdown for four quarters. Sports game developers have to find a way to surprise people when audience knows exactly what is coming -- that’s the challenge confronted every year by Madden developer EA Sports.
When faced with this task of adding an annual wrinkle to this legacy franchise, EA would usually turn to what can’t be measured on the field of play. In Madden 2006 they did exactly that, giving the vision cone its debut.
When most football analysts talk about “immeasurables,” they are talking about a player's ability to read the game, or a player’s “football IQ.” For years, Madden has noted a player’s mental aptitude for the game through the “awareness” stat. This stat was functionally cosmetic, as you the player are the only one making the decisions in-game. It doesn’t matter if the player you are controlling is a fresh-faced rookie or a seasoned vet. As long as you knew what the optimal play was, it just came down to execution. With the Madden vision cone, EA took a chance trying to make that awareness skill mean something and have tangible effects on the field of play.
In Madden 2006, when your quarterback takes the ball and starts the play, a cone of light would beam across the field, representing the quarterback’s field of view. Players have to manipulate the cone with the right analogue stick to throw to ball accurately to receivers downfield. Athletes with low awareness have a skinny sliver; experienced players have enormous cones.
This was EA’s first attempt at mechanizing a part of football that could not be measured by a clock or yardstick, and it did not go well. Longtime Madden fans cried that the mechanic was too "gimmicky." It felt like a Mario Party mini game was interrupting their immersive football sim. So it was scrapped. The vision cone made one more turn in the next edition and never appeared in the franchise again. The abrupt end of the vision cone sent a firm message through the EA offices and the sports game community at large: no tricks, no gimmicks, just simple football as it has been presented in previous Madden games. However, it wasn’t Madden that was most affected by this fan reaction, but to another beloved sports game franchise.
When EA Sports were facing vision cone damage control, just down the hall studio EA Sports Big was bearing the brunt of the impact. Big was a division of EA Sports that developed street sports games, with titles including SSX, FIFA Street, NFL Street, and NBA Street. These games were alternative takes on the sport, and took more creative liberties with the widely understood systems of these sports. As a result, they were perfect gateways for players unfamiliar or uninterested with the procedures of professional sports. As Madden and its ilk pulled from strategy games, street games pulled from platformers and fighting games. In particular, NFL and NBA Street injected new verticality to their games, introducing players to things like 20-foot dunks and game-breaker moves. The rough edges and malleable structure in street sports games reflected the experience of watching a sport and how it feels to be a fan, rather than a participant.
Unfortunately, following the outcry from Madden’s vision cone mechanic, EA Sports decided to prioritize realism over mechanical diversity in its titles, including those in sibling studios. EA Sports Big was shut down in 2008, ceasing all development of future projects. EA has not developed another street sports game since. In 2012 EA released a reboot of the SSX series, but though the game was released to critical acclaim, it struggled to gain the same fanbase the series had captured with SSX Tricky. Meanwhile, EA’s stranglehold of licensing for most the large North American sports leagues leaves the future of street variant titles uncertain.
The drought of street sports games undercuts EA’s long legacy of fantastic, approachable party games. While NBA Jam and NFL Blitz remain staples at arcade bars, there is a whole segment of players who have turned their backs on modern sports games and the avalanche of mechanics that have been added since they have played. Few working adults have the time to dedicate to a 40-minute Madden game when they could be playing a few short sessions with friends in SSX Tricky.
So when you see all the reviews online of the latest Madden trotting out its shiny back-of-the-box features, think about the other path history might have taken. Imagine a timeline where the vision cone was not quite so reviled, and dream of wall jumps, behind the back passes, and in-game smack talk. We don’t have to sacrifice wackiness in the everlong chase for realism. There is room in games for both these styles of play.