The Madden franchise wears many hats. It caters to the diehard Franchise players, the ever-lucrative Ultimate Team community, the plug-and-play online head-to-head fans, and more.
One community not totally served, however, is the series’ more casual fans. Franchise, MUT, and online play each require a level of dedication and knowledge about football that scares off some players, and understandably so.
This year, Madden 21 seeks to be more inviting with The Yard, a brand-new backyard football-inspired mode that allows for trick plays, quick scores, and stylish celebrations. After a few hours of hands-on time with the mode, The Yard proves its concept, but surprisingly, not just for more laidback football fans.
As a diehard, I’m excited too.
The Yard is a 6v6 game mode with up to three human players per team. Immediately, this new effort stands out from the rest of the game‘s suite of modes due to its commitment to shorter fields and flashier equipment.
When you first enter The Yard, you’ll first make an avatar, choosing their face and body features, their name, and some of their other attributes, just like you would in an RPG.
Next, you’ll choose your Prototype. From game to game, you can change this facet of your digital athlete from a list of Prototypes the Madden team says will grow as the season goes on. The system was a bit confusing at first, as each Prototype has its own skill tree and stats that can be improved through use, but a producer likened them to suits of armor one might find in a role-playing game, which clarified the concept.
It’s a smart idea too, as it gives players a long tail of upgrades to chase. Maxing out one Prototype, like “Truzz,” based on scrambling QBs like Lamar Jackson, or “Zeus,” modeled after dominant tight ends like Travis Kelce, is only the beginning of what’s possible.
You can play 1v1, 2v2, or 3v3 in terms of the number of human players on the field, but games themselves are always made up of 12 total athletes. Therefore, solo mode means you fill out the whole roster for your team, while in twos or threes, you divvy up the roster evenly among your teammates, literally picking them from a lineup the way you would in the backyard football days.
The Yard’s best attribute is its versatility. With “Ironman” rules in play, all six players on your team play both sides of the ball. Positions are merely markers for where players start a play, and they have little to do with what their role may be on any given down.
I had Matt Stafford at “wideout,” but that only meant he lined up as my X receiver. With tons of pre-snap motion available, plus unlimited passing behind the line of scrimmage and a strong suggestion to lateral the ball, any player could be the one to come up with a big interception or score a TD in the same game.
Games are played on a smaller 80-yard field, which means scoring comes more often, and each of the four locations at launch offers “House Rules” that further modify things, such as how many drives each team gets and where they may begin on the field. Scoring is wacky too, but in a really exciting way. After a 6-point touchdown, players can go for 1, 2, or 3-point conversions from increasing distances, sort of like how last year’s XFL handled point-after attempts.
Interceptions will earn you a point as well, and it was explained that the best scoring play one could achieve, a long interception returned for a touchdown followed by a successful 3-point conversion, can swing the score 13 points in one’s favor.
Because there are no offensive linemen, the game respects the timeless “Mississippi” rule, where defenders can’t cross the line of scrimmage until the timer is up. I spent countless summers playing with these rules, and The Yard brilliantly taps into that nostalgia and fantasy at once. Suddenly, it’s not pudgy 12-year-old me in my “husky”-labeled jeans returning a pick, it’s Tarik Cohen in a colorful getup dancing in the endzone.
The game’s post-launch roadmap seems evident from this pre-release glance, even as the dev team wasn’t ready to confirm some of the details I had in mind. “We have no plans to announce a Season Pass at this time,” they told me in a virtual roundtable Q&A, with the key phrasing there being “at this time.”
With a focus on cosmetic unlocks to make each avatar look slick, silly, or even solemn, like an anti-racism cosmetic set I found in my preview, and multiple currencies to unlock these styles with, The Yard feels destined to be a live-service akin to MUT, only for a different audience.
With play-art that looks drawn in the sand and trick plays that would leave the Harlem Globetrotters in awe, Madden 21‘s The Yard infuses the otherwise diehard-focused Madden lineup with something that feels fresh, welcoming, and totally timely.
Next year, 2K intends to challenge Madden, at least in an arcade sense, but The Yard may have already clinched a victory.