Think you watch film? Go inside the development of EA Sports Madden 19 and see how Game Designer Anthony White studies NFL playbooks, NFL game film, gets exclusive clinics with NFL coaches, and uses X&O Labs to build the best video game on the planet.
By Mike Kuchar
Senior Research Manager
Madden 19 dropped earlier this month and it’s almost become a rite of passage this time of year for football fanatics to scramble to their trusted retailer to buy the latest version of perhaps the most intelligent sports design ever created. Though my gaming hours have been shaved by a family of four, I continue to be impressed with the game play simulation. Not sure that there has never been a football game that more authentically represents the NFL than this in terms of presentation and depth.
So, you can imagine my excitement when I found that Anthony White, the primary game designer for Madden Football is an X&O Labs Insiders member. He’s a former Pop Warner coach who has attended football clinics for years in order to make sure that if it’s in the game, it’s “in the game.” He’s responsible for implementing teams’ playbooks, how they call plays and how tendencies are established. I’ve been playing Madden football since its inception in 1990 (on a Sega Genesis console), so I was pumped to talk to Anthony about how the best video game on earth is created. Turns out he’s a researcher, just like us, who happens to have one of the coolest jobs on the planet. And he was gracious enough to talk to us about how he creates the game.
Editor’s Note: We recommend you follow Anthony White on Twitter (@AWhite_73). He shares a lot of what he’s working on and what he’s learning—including sharing game film.
Mike Kuchar (MK): Tell me about the process you use when designing team specific play concepts in the game.
Anthony White (AW): “All of us are looking at film. The NFL sends us film every week. Tuesday mornings I get all the film from the past Sunday’s games. We get All 22 film. We have a tool through the NFL that allows us to go through and do all kinds of searches to look at down and distance, field position, searches by quarter and by player. It’s a video tool that they developed in-house and it allows us to pull up video clips on any statistical category that is tracked by the league. We can also do player searches as well. At our facility, we have NFL film that goes back to the 2004 season, every regular season and playoff games. So, it definitely helps a lot in terms of making cut-ups, film study, and analyzing team play-calling tendencies. Then I separate these by run and pass. I have my actual spread sheet which is a lot like football editing programs software that includes formation, play type, hash location and then I make my notes. I’m usually noting if the play is currently in our system or is it something that we need to create?”
MK: Seems like a ton of film study for a designer. How many clips does that equate to?
AW: “We study every team’s full season and every play that they ran. Usually you have a thousand plays per year with post-season. So, what we try to do is identify the formations they are using most. This is what they generally lay their hat on. Once you identify the primary things they are doing, you sort of need plays and formations that they need in a variety of situations. For example, if a team is in the shotgun 63% of the time, they will have most shotgun formations in the playbook.”
MK: How do you use this research to develop tendencies that are specific to these teams?
AW: “When we’re looking at the plays, we are depending on the level of complexity. Will we need to do motion capture or a type of technique or hand off that we don’t have? I continue doing this with all the teams. So much so that I have built up a file on the all the teams. And as I’m going through and studying a team like the Philadelphia Eagles, as I did for Madden 19, I’m going through run/pass ration, formations and runs and personnel groupings which is the biggest thing. We want to make sure they are using their players the same way as they do in real life. We cross reference things from last year. We also rely on situations. What are they doing when the game is close? What are they using when the game is out of hand? When they are far ahead? We try to correlate all that info. We get games that show a variety of situations. Then we build out their playbook based on what you’re seeing on film. Now we tag the plays in a team’s playbook based on various situations. We look at calling the correct plays in the correct situations such as score, down and distance, field position and quarter? How will they plan out their attack? If they are winning 21-0 they will start calling plays from that section of the game plan. The game plan is specific to each team in real life, but we’re careful to be generic. Because a user can pick any team.”
MK: So much has been made about the artificial intelligence of the motion capture of a player’s technique in Madden, but it seems the game play process hasn’t been uncovered.
AW: “We constantly have designers watching film for motion capture. We want to see how a defender is transitioning out of his backpedal or getting in phase with receiver. These are all techniques common with the particular player. But aside from this, we try to figure out what can the player execute properly? How can we assure it gets it to the right player?”
MK: Is it true you take it a step further by bringing in coaches to validate your research?
AW: “We bring coaches in and they are floored with what we do. When you’re writing a game design, it’s like writing a game book where you’re including formations, adjustments and you supplement it to a video. Then you need to be able to explain that to an engineer because they are writing a code. They are testing it and seeing that these plays are doing what they are supposed to do. So, we bring in the NFL coaches first and foremost to get their opinions and thoughts on the various things that we've built for that particular year. For example, if we're working on adding something to the game that's defensive coverage related, we usually look to bring in a secondary coach and then we will let him give us feedback in terms of things we built so far. We would then follow that up with the second part of the visit by letting him clinic us on new techniques and trends that are currently happening in the league so that we can evaluate them to add to the game.”
MK: How, specifically, does X&O Labs contribute to this research process?
AW: “I’m always looking to gain insights from a coach’s perspective, so I use X&O labs as one of the chief resources to keep up with the trends of the game. The RPO clinic reports and special reports were thoroughly detailed breakdowns and served as a baseline for our research on these topics. There ARE always other perspectives on how to do things and X&O Labs is an asset to have at my disposal. I’ll look at your drill videos and use those as a reference when we go to motion capture. We put them through the various movements that we need to go through for that particular coverage.”
MK: Was there a specific X&O Labs report that was directly implemented into game play?
AW: “An example I can think of is the Quarters coverage special report. We were introducing it to form Madden 19. It gave me a lot of good ideas. One of the more valuable aspects from that report was reading the sections with the varying perspectives on specific coaches’ techniques on how they fit the run vs. several formations. I got a lot of coverage solutions to particular problem areas. I also used the drill section as a valuable source for motion capture on how defenders reacted. For example, in this edition we used the “scootch” technique for motion capture in quarters footwork for the secondary. We also developed the footwork of the seam defender in Rip Liz match based on one of your reports.”
Madden 19 is now available in stores and on line, but if you want to be completely versed in the Quarters coverage game play before picking up the controller, you may want to read our special report. It's available in our Insiders membership website (in the Special Reports section). Go here to join the Insiders.