As sports fans clamor for something—anything—to watch in the wake of public safety closures, video game publishers like EA Sports have enjoyed increased exposure on cable stations like ESPN—where virtual sports are better than no sports at all. This weekend, that didn’t necessarily work out in EA’s favor.
Madden Bowl 20, the latest “world championship” for players of the annualized Madden NFL game series, hinged so much on a massive, unpatched issue in the game that its winner sported an in-game username that seemed to spit in EA Sports’ face: “iRUNyouPASSiWIN.” The winner, Raidel “Joke” Brito, played the entire week-long tournament without running a single pass play—this despite Madden being a series that traditionally features quarterbacks on its covers. This all culminated in a Saturday broadcast on ESPN2 of Brito cruising to victory in the tournament’s semifinals and finals.
How could an American football simulator be so exploited that its winner forgoes half of the sport’s options? Did Brito discover a tiny loophole that caught EA Sports unaware until the last minute? Not even close.
Instead, Brito already favored the series’ running game, which has been criticized as overpowered and imbalanced for some time. This led him to a clever exploit of Madden Bowl 20’s “Salary Cap Ranked” rules. Each participant gets a certain amount of in-game currency to pick players from various official NFL teams and combine them as they see fit. Traditionally, this means you spend more on things you want to emphasize (run defense, fast wide receivers) and sacrifice certain categories in exchange.
Run, run, run as often as you can
But this gave Brito license to spend a bare minimum on the quarterback position, and for much of the competition, he opted to put a dirt-cheap punter in the QB’s place. Bingo: this gave him more points to spend on every other crucial position, particularly an offensive line (in order to create gaps for his endless running game to blast through) and a dominant defense. He built the rest of the team accordingly—why pick wide receivers with great “catch” stats if he only needs them to block?—and then marched through game after game in the tournament, starting on May 9 and finishing this past Saturday, May 16.
In prior tournaments for the Madden NFL 20 esports cycle, Brito was forced to contend with a more randomized “Madden Ultimate Team” draft mode, a mode that might otherwise be considered more “unfair” in terms of making players contend with out-of-nowhere player rosters. In those matches, Brito held his own, proving that his exploit-driven win in the Madden Bowl 20 tournament wasn’t exactly a fluke. Still, his exploit of the Salary Cap Ranked ruleset led to ESPN2 commentators dryly remarking on Brito’s running-only dominance, either unwilling or unable to comment on the fact that a punter was taking the snap on every single offensive play.
The fact that Brito could call running play after running play and still leave his opponents unable to win by simply tapping “of course he’s about to run again” coaching decisions is among the more astonishing game-balance fails we’ve ever seen at Ars Technica. That would be embarrassing enough as hosted to tens of thousands of Twitch users, let alone millions of ESPN2 viewers.
This weird series of events comes months after EA Sports’ ironclad hold on the NFL’s exclusive video game license came to an end. The sim-football genre used to include multiple major contenders, particularly the innovative NFL2K series at the turn of the century, but EA secured an exclusive license for NFL games beginning in 2005. The NFL opted not to renew that contract after it expires this season, which led the 2K Sports game-publishing group to immediately announce its interest in returning to the genre—though whether that will include simulation-style football games remains to be seen.