Ever since its first release in 1988, EA’s Madden franchise has been a mainstay of the gaming world. For many players, it’s often their first introduction to competitive gaming, even if it’s only between siblings vying for little more than bragging rights. Despite the franchise’s popularity, however, it’s only in the last few years that EA and the NFL have taken steps to give the game the full-on esports treatment. This year’s Madden Championship Series (MCS), timed to coincide with the release of “Madden 19” earlier this month, represents the most expansive ecosystem for competitive Madden yet, with four major events and more than $1.25 million in prize money up for grabs over the course of the next nine months.
It’s important not to make strict comparisons between competitive Madden to more traditional esports, like “League of Legends” or “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.” While neither the NFL nor EA would, of course, object to having massive viewership for competitive Madden, the purpose of the Madden League is as much about providing new avenues for brand engagement as it is attracting spectators to a new media product.
“Competitive gaming and esports are one of the most exciting ways to engage a larger, younger and digitally savvy NFL audience,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement announcing last year’s iteration of the MCS. “Collaborating with EA to create the Madden NFL Club Championship presents a unique opportunity to capture the excitement of NFL action and the passion of our fans with competition that anyone can participate in.”
That “anyone can participate” qualifier is key. True to the game’s living room roots, the Madden Championship Series takes a relatively grassroots approach to its ecosystem, making it easy for anyone (in theory at least) to earn their way into the game’s highest tier of play. Like NFL Films’ slate of non-competitive content, the MCS is really just another way to enjoy the game of football and engage with the brand that “owns” it.
One of the most distinctive features of the MCS, however, is that it employs multiple formats throughout the season. Esports, traditionally, demand standardization across tournaments in order to ensure that the experience is as consistent as possible for players and spectators alike – you won’t see the League of Legends Championship Series switching between Summoner’s Rift and Twisted Treeline, for example. But Madden is up to something a little different, in part because there’s no standard about what competitive Madden is yet. Accordingly, each of the year’s major events has modest differences in format and game mode, likely because the MCS wants to appeal to as many types of players as possible.
It’s a bit complicated, but let’s break it down. The 2018 – 2019 MCS, which runs roughly alongside the NFL proper, is comprised of four majors. Throughout the year, in addition to cash prizes, players will accrue Madden Championship Series Points. The six players with the most points will receive a seed to compete at the year-end Madden Bowl, where they’ll join the winners and runners-up of each of the preceding Majors.
Qualifiers: Aug. 21 to September
Offline Finals: Oct. 11 to 13
Perhaps the most straightforward tournament in the MCS ecosystem, all games for Madden Classic are played using the franchise’s long-standing Head-to-Head mode, which is what you might use if you were playing a friendly pickup game with friends. True to these roots, instead of online qualifiers, Madden Classic major requires players to attend one of four satellite tournaments – in Jacksonville, FL, Dulles, VA, Santa Ana, CA, and Carrollton, TX – to compete in person in a 256-person bracket. The top two players from each will qualify for the live finals, which will take place in Las Vegas in October. There, players will compete for a pot of $165,000 and two direct seeds to the Madden Bowl next spring.
Madden Club Championship
Online Qualifiers: Aug. 7 to Oct. 23
Offline Finals: Jan. 30 to Feb. 1
Arguably the most interesting of the season’s events, the Madden Club Championship is where most of the prize money is concentrated – and most of the bragging rights. Not only do players compete for cash and MCS points, but also the right to represent their favorite NFL team. Throughout the fall, players will compete in an online ladder and subsequent elimination tournament, narrowing the field of competitors from thousands to a few hundred. Then, in December and January, each team in the NFL will host a local event, held at their stadium or a local cultural hotspot, to determine who will earn the right to hoist each franchise’s banner. Finally, thirty-two players representing thirty-two teams will head to Redwood City, CA, to compete in an offline finals at EA’s headquarters – a season of the NFL in microcosm.
Online Qualifiers: Nov. 19 to Feb. 25
Offline Finals: March 15 to 17
In the Madden Challenge, players will compete using the Madden Ultimate Challenge game mode, the most lucrative (for EA at least) in Madden. MUC uses a Hearthstone-like card collecting system, more-or-less forcing players to shell out for card packs filled with elite NFL players if they want to be serious, competitive players. The top players in the game’s online ladder will qualify for an online elimination tournament designed to narrow the field from 256 to 16. The remaining players will then gather at EA’s headquarters for another offline finals, this time for $190,000.
Last Chance Qualifier: March 11 to April 15
Offline Finals: April 20
Competitive Madden’s own version of the Super Bowl will take place next April, not long after the inevitable, collective Super Bowl hangover wears off. The 16-competitor field is comprised of direct invitations given to winners and runners-up from previous events, a last chance qualifier, and the top six MCS point earners. The Madden Bowl will bring the 2018-2019 MCS to a close, with players taking home their share of $200,000 while they wait for the next season to begin.