Last week, EA Tiburon unveiled a new mode for Madden NFL 21 inspired by backyard football. The Yard delivers fast-paced, 6v6 football on a smaller field with adjusted rulesets, but the differences don’t stop there. You customize your own avatar, deck them out in gear you unlock, and join forces with other players to dominate the competition across global locations. I got my hands on this all-new mode and chatted with its producer to learn more about what players should expect when they first step onto The Yard.
Upon firing up Madden NFL 21, you’re asked to create your avatar, choosing their vital information and looks before decking them out in custom gear. The more you play, the more gear options you can unlock, so aside from some generic Madden-branded items and official NFL team uniforms, don’t expect a huge collection to choose from right off the bat. As you play, you earn items and Cred, a currency used to purchase in-game items. Once you finish your initial pass at creating your character, it’s time to step on the field.
The Yard takes several football conventions and turns them upside-down. The 6v6 gameplay on a smaller field already significantly impacts the flow of the game, but the rules of The Yard enable you to do things like multiple passes, snapping to other players on on your team, and trick plays. Since there aren’t enough players to have a full offensive line, you operate under the “Mississippi Rule,” where you have to the count of “One Mississippi” before the defenders can cross the line of scrimmage to rush the quarterback.
Additionally, the six players on your team play both sides of the ball, so while some skills like speed transfer to the other side of the line of scrimmage, others, like throw accuracy, mean little on defense. All those hours you’ve put into past Madden games transfer from the NFL simulation side, but if my first few plays were any indication, it takes a short while to retrain your brain to the new strategies and flow of The Yard.
“We want the ruleset to be 80 percent familiar and 20 percent weird,” The Yard producer JP Kellams says. “Having an invisible wall, there’s your 20 percent. We don’t want to deviate too much and be like, ‘You have to triple pass,’ because the things you’re going to have to remember are going to get too onerous. So we want to keep as much familiarity and the rules, and then just tweak a little bit. It feels interesting and different, but it doesn’t require you to rethink everything that you know every single game.”
Another thing that took some adjusting is how the teams don’t look as different from each other due to the custom gear each player sports. Even with different loadouts for home and away games, I mistook members of the other team as my own squad on multiple occasions. When you play online, the game puts visual indicators under the players you can switch to, but the team wants to keep coming up with better solutions.
“I think we’re going to keep iterating on those kinds of systems for player identification because it does take a little while for your eyes to adjust to a football game that’s not two uniforms on the field,” Kellams says. “It’s really strange because you don’t think about how important that is to your visual understanding of the game until it’s not there anymore. I think the same with a lot of mechanics in The Yard, it’s going to take a few games for people to kind of lock into what they’re doing and what they’re seeing and what they’re playing because it is so different.”
While touchdowns are still the ultimate goal of any drive, you can score bonus points for pulling off double-pass plays, long touchdowns, and interceptions. Additionally, each team only has a three drives apiece, and no kicking extra points opens up new rules for tacking on even more points if you manage to find the endzone; instead of lining up to kick an extra point, you choose if you want to go for a one, two, or three pointer, which dictates how far away your one shot at adding on points is.
With all the different ways to score, it’s rare to end regulation in a tie, but if you do, you settle things under a modified version of the college football rules, with the teams trading drives until one pulls ahead and stops the other. During my hands-on time, I forced a brief overtime period, which abruptly ended when I picked off my opponent on their opening drive and ran it back into the endzone.
When you’re playing in The Yard, you can compete in single-player CPU challenges, online co-op versus the CPU, or online head-to-head multiplayer. The online head-to-head allows for teams of one to three human players, with A.I.-controlled players, which you can switch to if the action goes their way, populating the remaining slots. Of course, the obvious complaint is that you can’t play with teams fully populated with human players, but the developer experimented and found that it didn’t work as well.
“We tried lots more humans on the field and it was just a super iterative process to find the thing that felt right,” Kellams says. “When early word of The Yard started coming out, people were like, ‘Six on six? That sounds amazing!’ Six on six with six humans would have be real rough because you would have spent a lot of time watching plays and trying to get yourself into position. But because we have that Crew system where it’s three [humans] but then you’ve got the partner characters with you, you’re almost always involved in every single play. You don’t end up watching a lot, which I think is really key to feeling like you’re engaged in the moment.”
Prior to entering every game, you select a prototype for your character to be modeled after for that game. These prototypes are modeled after NFL superstars and legends, with players like Lamar Jackson or Odell Beckham, Jr. serving up sure-to-be-popular templates. At launch, you have 13 prototypes to choose from, each of which has a baked-in X-Factor ability, attributes for categories like speed, finesse running, throw accuracy, catch, and tackle, and additional modifiers like weaker catch-in-traffic attribute, or a higher throw-on-the-run attribute.
Because you’re playing both sides of the ball in The Yard, you need to be careful to match the correct prototype with the position you’re planning on playing. As you earn experience with each prototype moveset, you level that prototype up, earning new abilities and attribute points. This encourages you to play with a wide range of the available prototypes.
In selecting the prototypes at launch, the team tried to find a good balance of play-styles and skills in the NFL, and how they’d translate to a mode like The Yard. “We started thinking about the people who really typify that sort of play in the league and wanted to put them as kind of the prototypical contest receiver, the prototypical scrambling quarterback,” Kellams says. “I think over the course of the year, as we add more prototypes, you’re going to see more variety and we’re going to start thinking about, ‘Who was Ray Lewis? He was the prototypical mean-ass linebacker.’ And how does that translate into skills you would want to upgrade? There’s a lot of fun in re-envisioning these players as Ironman players.”
At launch, you can play across four locations: FOB Nico in an undisclosed location, Miami Port, Brandenburg Football Festival in Germany, and Lambeau Tailgate outside of the iconic Green Bay football stadium. Each location has unique progression, as well as distinct gear you can unlock through playing there. The team wanted to lean more towards surpsing choices instead of going with obvious locations like South Beach for Miami or the Eiffel Tower for Europe.
As for what The Yard looks like going forward, the team is planning to add new prototypes, gear, and locations, as well as address any player feedback. “Every mode that I’ve worked on in Madden, Superstar K.O. or this, it’s really about a conversation with our users about, ‘What would you love to see? What should we change? What’s cool?’,” Kellams says. “What we’re going to release in a couple weeks is basically just the opening line, and how it develops is really going to be a conversation with our user base.”
Madden NFL 21 is set to hit PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC on August 28. A PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X, and Stadia version will launch at a later date.