After an atrocious season, the Pittsburgh Steelers were on the clock with the second overall pick in the NFL draft, a spot reserved for the teams who need young and talented players the most. Amid the desperate need for fresh talent, they had one constant to anchor their roster — a highly ranked superstar quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger. The second overall draft pick could improve their defense, wide receiver corps, or almost anything else on the 53-man roster besides another quarterback.

“They ended up picking a QB that was projected to go in the late first round,” said Justin West, an avid NFL fan and Madden football player, recalling a simulated season from Madden 20′s franchise mode. “They cut him after that season. … We absolutely lost our minds laughing."

The erratic AI logic displayed by EA’s best-selling NFL series has pushed West and other frustrated fans like him to take matters into their own hands. West is among a group of modders who have accessed and altered the game’s code to tailor the simulation more to their liking. Finding EA’s familiar motto (“If it’s in the game, it’s in the game”) to be farther from the truth than they’d prefer, modders have refined AI behavior around computer drafting and trading, and tweaked in-game AI to emphasize things like fatigue and pass-blocking to tone down what they see as the game’s arcade aspects, and better reflect the real NFL.

The aforementioned AI Logic mod, for example, was made specifically to prevent Madden’s version of the Pittsburgh Steelers general manager from making a fool of himself on draft day. It adjusts the computer’s logic in the franchise mode, improving the AI’s ability to draft rookies and make trades. It’s one project among many trying to add depth and realism to Madden’s franchise mode — which some players still consider too restrictive in its default customization options.

“I wish it gave me more freedom to do what I want to do,” professional Madden player Kevin “Dakingg” Johnson Jr. said. “They need to open it up for more diversity, instead of the strict limitations it has now.”

Madden modders are trying to give players like Johnson Jr. that freedom. Other mods include the Revival Gameplay Mod that improves minute-to-minute gameplay by adjusting certain statistical averages to more closely mirror those displayed by real NFL players and teams. The Franchise Editor lets players customize team rosters and player attributes so they can match almost any real NFL roster, beyond the standard updates administered by EA. The Progression Tool makes players develop more naturally and not just through the accumulation of experience points. Major gameplay overhaul mods refine in-game physics for tackling, pass blocking and running. Modders have also added new uniforms, stadiums (like the soon-to-open SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles) and even player tattoos to the game.

West and others waded into the world of modding after experiencing frustrations with what they saw as inadequate work from the game’s makers.

“We’re making changes almost daily,” said Anthony Martinez, another modder in the community who says he’s put in more than 400 hours of work adding classic rosters to Madden. His focus is on giving players the ability to recreate almost any roster in NFL history. He’s finished adding rosters and draft classes from 2002, 2003, and 2004 and is working on other years now.

Madden 19, which launched in August 2018, was the first game in the Madden series to come to PC after a 10-year hiatus. While Modders like Martinez had been working on the console versions over the past 10 years, the PC version gave them more access to the Frostbite game engine that developer EA uses. The Madden modders piggybacked off the modding communities of other games that use Frostbite, like EA’s Battlefield franchise.

Mods, while incredibly common, aren’t strictly legal. End-user license agreements (EULA) usually contain language prohibiting players from modifying in-game files, although most studios take a relaxed approach to handling communities like this one.

“The copyright holder always has the right, but unlike trademarks they don’t have to protect it,” attorney Richard Hoeg said when asked about how publishers could respond and halt modders. “If you look at the EA license, you’re not technically allowed to stream, but there are plenty of Twitch streamers playing Madden.”

Hoeg, who runs a YouTube Show called Virtual Legality that examines software and video game law, says that modders are infringing on EA’s copyright, but publishers are unlikely to send a cease and desist unless the modders do something to hurt their brand or strain EA’s relationship with the NFL.

“If EA looks at your content and finds it’s not offensive they may see it as enhancing the quality of their product,” Hoeg said. “But the NFL is an incredibly litigious organization[.] If they find something and flag it that could lead to it getting taken down.”

Most of what the modding community does could be considered positive, but there have also been attempts to introduce off-the-field issues common within the NFL within Madden. For instance, modders have tried to replicate holdouts and suspensions due to illegal performance enhancing drugs by adding in-game events that would interrupt the franchise mode and force the player to deal with them. The modders Launcher spoke with for this story said they’ve encountered trouble in making this work within Madden’s rigid systems.

“The NFL is going to be mostly concerned about brand good will, being associated with the bad parts of football,” Hoeg said. “They’re going to encourage [EA] to remove that.”

The Madden community doesn't operate in secrecy, but it is spread across different forums and programs like Discord. “We've been around for so long, I don't see what would change with EA now,” Martinez said. “We don't charge, it's all free. We're building something for ourselves and hope to continue to see it grow."

Martinez says the community is adding new content and features almost daily. Some parts of the game they modify are small, like changing the ESPN broadcast logo to FOX when the wrong network is displayed in-game for a specific matchup. The change might seem subtle, but it’s an important element for players who want the most authentic experience possible for their time with Madden.

“It’s an immersion thing, we want to experience the same thing that comes up when we watch a game on TV,” Martinez said, noting a hope their work eventually becomes an official part of the game. “We want to make the experience better for us and get EA to see what we’re doing.”

Aron Garst is a writer covering the video game and esports industries. You can find his work regularly in ESPN, WIRED, The Verge and EGMNOW. Follow him on Twitter @GarstProducton.

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