A Quick Question

Madden RefI like to think I spend a fair amount of time thinking about life’s so-called “big questions,” but I spend way more time pondering ultimately trivial but personally pressing questions. Today’s question, which I bring to you, loyal NPI reader: Why are there penalties in Madden?


Now, obviously some penalties should be included: If you move a player across the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped, then that should be called. If you tackle a wide receiver, then that should be called. But why are there holding calls and face-mask calls? In real life, those penalties are called because someone committed them, but in Madden they are arbitrarily included in the middle of games. As my brother can attest, this can be very frustrating.

Look, video game referees, I did not hold anyone. I was busy trying to kick my damn field goal. Even if I were the type of person who controlled linemen when I played Madden I couldn’t hold; to the best of my knowledge, there is no “hold” button. There is no way to intentionally have your defender hit someone’s face-mask. It just happens because it is built into whatever predetermined algorithm governs the Madden universe.

I get that there is a realism element: If there were no holding penalties in Madden, the game wouldn’t feel like a real football game. But why is this kind of realism desirable? It’s almost as stupid as the game including challenges, in which the game intentionally gets a call wrong so it can “realistically” replicate human error. Why would I want the outcome of my Madden game affected by something so arbitrary and uncontrollable? Does anyone have an answer for me?

7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Josh on October 9, 2009 at 1:31 PM

    On the whole, I agree: I think a perfect example of the ridiculousness of Madden is the fact that you can now Challenge calls. That means the algorithm purposely makes the refs make the WRONG call, so you can try to spot that and Challenge and correct that. While I don’t like this, I DO understand the appeal. Challenges are fun! It adds another element to the game besides playing. You need to spot the refs errors in addition and what’s more joyful than correctly spotting an error and having the call overturned.

    Playing the devil’s advocate, a defense of holding penalties is:

    1. Holding is done more often by certain lineman than others and certain DEs and DTs are more likely to provoke holding than others. So, how much you get called for holding is partially in your control, in the sense that you choose which players to start (or draft, if you’re doing a league).

    2. I think the realism argument carries slightly more sway then you admit. Most people who play Madden are not football players: they are football spectators, fans of football. When fans watch a game, they usually won’t see holdings and sometimes even face masks. They appear to just happen. A flag appears on the field and you get really excited that the other team’s big run is getting called back. There obviously usually IS an actual hold, but the fact is that the fan doesn’t usually see that hold. He’s just happy that his team benefits or is annoyed that his team is harmed. So, when it comes to playing Madden, the feelings are similar and the Madden player will want to reproduce those feelings he feels during the real game as much as possibly.

    With all of that said, I actually agree with you, but that’s just my attempt at an explanation.


  2. Posted by Carl on October 9, 2009 at 2:52 PM

    Since you can alter the settings so that there are no penalties, I don’t really understand the issue…seems kind of silly to me


  3. Posted by John S on October 9, 2009 at 5:48 PM

    To Josh: I do agree that overturning challenges is a fun part of video games…although “booth challenges” in the last two minutes are pointless. As for your devil’s advocation: 1) Do you have any evidence that the frequency with which particular offensive or defensive linemen are called for holding is built into the Madden algorithm? I’m dubious. 2) I suppose it is a replication of the experience of being a fan, but I am not playing video games the same way I am a fan; I play because I am (somewhat) in control. Whether or not a fan realizes holding happened, a long run is often the result of someone on the team doing something illegal. But I commit no crime when Madden penalties are called.

    To Carl: You can turn the penalties off, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are the default. As for the silliness….well, I kind of admitted that, didn’t I?


  4. Posted by Phil on October 11, 2009 at 1:02 PM

    The probability of being called for a facemask penalty increases when you try to strip the ball, so Madden factors that in. I agree with your point on holding penalties. It does add to the overall realism of the game, though


  5. Posted by Douglas on September 21, 2010 at 2:56 PM

    I’ve been thinking about this for almost a year now, and I think Josh could be right about the holding thing. It’s definitely true that rookies or bad players will commit offsides violations more often, so while I understand your dubiousness I also don’t think it’s a stretch. Also, and this is more theory without rigorous testing, but certain tackling techniques (as Phil mentioned) and holding techniques, for example trying to block someone from the back or the side, seem to lead to increase percentages of penalties. I don’t think I’ve ever personally recorded a face masking penalty because I always use the hit stick to tackle, except in cases where I’m behind the player in which that same penalty never seems to occur. Holding is a bit more frustrating because you can’t control the players on the line very easily, if at all, but I have noticed (via playing cooperatively with my brother–I know, it’s hilarious, but still) that if you try to block someone by running into the back of them or even to the side, you can get a penalty and ruin the play. As a result, we’ve learned not to block in situations like that where it doesn’t really matter–something that probably does reflect an actual practice. But let’s say that none of those things hold up under rigorous testing. Would you rather there be no penalties, or for Madden to go back and make them more controllable? Let’s say that the game increased a player’s holding penalties when it determined that he was overmatched on the line, and that you’d have to assign help or make adjustments to the line to counter that. Are you in favor of that type of thing for the sake of realism and complexity, or would it still just diminish the fun for you?

    Just answer when you get a free moment. I’ll check back in a year or so.


    • Posted by John S on September 21, 2010 at 3:08 PM

      I’m glad you’ve put the proper amount of time and thought into this conundrum. To answer your question: I would much rather there be penalties in the game so long as the penalties are controllable, or at least correspond to something a player actually does or can do. The fact that trying to strip the ball more often results in face-mask penalties, as Phil pointed out, is a good example, since it both make sense (since if you go for the strip you are more likely to grab a player’s face-mask) and, more importantly, introduces a rational element of risk/reward that a player must consider in the course of the game. To put it another way, deciding when it is worth to go for the strip and risk the call becomes an element of skill in the game. If there were corresponding elements to holding calls and ALL face-mask calls, then I would definitely be in favor of it. My objection is to things that arbitrarily affect the outcome of the game, such as holding calls or (as Josh mentioned) blown ref calls that cannot be controlled.


  6. Posted by Douglas on September 21, 2010 at 5:24 PM

    Nice. Your link above to the “big questions” led to my comment on your atheism post, but it made me laugh because I had also discovered your post entitled something like “The Big Question”, which was about Polly Pocket. Both interesting.


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