Mike Scantlebury watched Super Bowl LV in February, and one play sequence continually stuck out. For most, it would go unnoticed. You likely don't even remember it. The Madden NFL video game designer, though, couldn't let it go. It confirmed much of what he already thought.
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes had thrown a fourth-quarter interception, and the San Francisco 49ers were driving. Then, with 10:37 left in the game, Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones stuffed 49ers running back Raheem Mostert for a 1-yard gain. The next play, 49ers tight end George Kittle slid over to help double Jones on a play-action pass. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo threw a rushed, incomplete pass. San Francisco punted, and Kansas City went on to score 21 straight points.
In Scantlebury's eyes, those two plays shifted the momentum of the game and showed Jones' impact, which is what the designers of Madden strive for each year. It's a big reason Jones was given a "Momentum Shift" X-Factor attribute in Madden NFL 21, which launches to the public Friday.
"We want those players to have abilities that really speak to them, to what they do on the field," Scantlebury said. "That no other player should be acknowledged for."
Scantlebury and fellow game designer Nick Farah are the Madden employees in charge of deciding which 50 players receive X-Factor abilities -- unlockable in-game attributes that temporarily power up star players when they are "in the zone" -- each year. They also decide which players get Superstar abilities, strengths created to accentuate a particular high-level skill a player possesses even if their overall ratings don't match it.
The X-Factors debuted in Madden 20. By the end of last season, they garnered attention among gamers and NFL players. Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu, an X-Factor this year, tweeted about his excitement at being selected. Madden designers said this year's cover athlete, Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, requested a signature X-Factor called "Truzz."
Madden gave me that X factor I'm too turnt up.— Tyrann Mathieu (@Mathieu_Era) July 31, 2020
In order to unlock X-Factor abilities, a gamer must complete a defined set of in-game tasks and will then remain "in the zone" until they either fail at a task or an opponent stops them.
"The vision for 20 and continued into 21 is to make stars feel like stars," said Clint Oldenburg, a former NFL offensive lineman and producer for Madden who came up with the X-Factor concept. "In order to be able to, you've got to elevate the elite and you got to lower the non-elite because it's a star-driven game. People tune in to watch the stars, and the stars are having the most direct outcome on every football game.
"As a former player, the line between good and great is pretty thin, but the line between great and elite is pretty large. And that's what we want it to reflect, and that's what we're going to continue to reflect."
The idea sparked from a piece of feedback Oldenburg and his team received about three years ago. A relatively new Madden player expressed frustration in playing with Odell Beckham Jr. and it not feeling like it was really Beckham. How could Madden make some players -- the elite of the elite -- different?
Ratings can do only so much. What if there was a way to transcend ratings at points in the game to show what it is like when a player really takes over? What if this helped gamers create more attachments to their favorite virtual players. Oldenburg devised a pitch, and X-Factor was created.
"The best example I can give you is Michael Thomas," Oldenburg said. "If you watch a Saints game any Sunday, if it's a tight game in the fourth quarter, everyone in the stadium knows that Drew Brees is going to throw the ball to Michael Thomas and he just throws the ball to him repeatedly. The other team knows he's going to get the ball. And he's still catching it. They can't stop it.
"That's what we want it to reflect. How can we get a guy in what sports people know as the zone and become this factor that kind of takes over the game."
Not every ability is crafted for a certain player. Six players -- Julio Jones (Falcons), Mike Evans (Bucs), Travis Kelce (Chiefs), DeAndre Hopkins (Cardinals), Davante Adams (Packers) and Adam Thielen (Vikings) -- have "Double Me" abilities. It's the X-Factor Farah and Scantlebury consider the best in the game because when it's turned on it means the pass-catcher is going to win an aggressive catch against single coverage. To neutralize it, the defense needs to double the receiver.
It takes into account strategy football coaches have to deal with every week and the challenges defenders face when playing a top-end receiver or tight end.
"It gives that effect of when somebody like a Randy Moss in his prime was so unstoppable you have to double him all the time," Scantlebury said. "That ability in my eyes is exactly football combined with video games."
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They don't make player decisions willy-nilly. The vast majority of X-Factor selections come after a combination of film study, NFL Next Gen Stats, Pro Football Focus and other culled information -- not dissimilar to how the game's ratings are decided.
Some players are obvious. The question is more about which X-Factor they will have rather than whether they'll get one at all. When it gets toward the bottom of the 50 -- like the bottom five of the X-Factors and top five of the Superstars -- debates can get heated.
Oldenburg argued passionately for Buffalo cornerback Tre'Davious White, who was given a "Shutdown" X-Factor. A larger conversation ensued surrounding Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who had a down season when compared to his 2011 and 2014 MVP peak years.
"There was a fair amount of debate on Rodgers with how his performance had changed," Scantlebury said. "And how much of it was really on how well the Packers defense had played versus Aaron Rodgers' ability to be that high-level gunslinger."
There were strong arguments on both sides, but Scantlebury and Farah make the final decisions. This is where gamer expectations and real-world football reality can often clash. Rodgers is one of the best quarterbacks ever, a future Hall of Famer. So unless his on-field skills deteriorated to the point where they had no choice, Rodgers would likely remain a player with an X-Factor throughout his career.
"They would have to really, really tank," Farah said. "Like, we're probably not taking Tom Brady off of the X-Factor list. Regardless of what he does with the Bucs this season, it's just unlikely, you know, for someone that has that storied history.
"We almost always go to stats, tape ... figure out whether a player is actually performing at that level. But 5-10% of the time, we'll try to print the legend, you know, over the hard stone facts."
It came down to Dallas' Dak Prescott or Rodgers for the last quarterback X-Factor. Rodgers, with his history and legacy, won out. So Rodgers still has his "Gambler" X-Factor.
When Oldenburg got the project approved for Madden 20, Rodgers was the first player planned to have X-Factor abilities. In preparation before analysis, they felt he was strong throwing on the run.
They began crafting an ability to tailor to Rodgers' skills for it -- now known as Superstar ability "dash-and-deadeye," which allows for perfect passing accuracy on the run outside the pocket. One issue: The stats -- Rodgers completed just 41.2% of passes outside the pocket in 2018 -- didn't match their belief.
"So we took it off of him and that made us do our homework a little bit more and figure out, like, what are these guys actually good at," Oldenburg said. "And what are the fans' expectations of them? So that's how we started assigning the abilities."
In Rodgers' case, "Gambler" exists because he rarely throws interceptions but takes chances, even though he is smart about throwing into coverage. This is the balance between game play and real life. Rare is the average Madden gamer who will often throw the ball away, but in order to accurately reflect Rodgers' decision-making, the designers had to make an ability in which he didn't turn the ball over but also didn't throw interceptions in coverage often.
Deciding which players get which X-Factors is a process that begins in a file Farah created in EA Sports' internal document folder. Anyone is able to access the folder and submit a potential X-Factor.
When someone submits an idea, Farah also asks, "Hey, did any players inspire this ability?" This allows consideration of who he might be building for if they produce it. While Scantlebury is the man who assigns abilities to players, Farah is tasked with building them.
One suggestion came from Lamar Jackson, who didn't like how much he fumbled in the game last season. Farah decided they could alter that with an X-Factor, creating Jackson's signature "Truzz" for Madden 21.
They took last year's X-Factor, called "Protective Custody," and renamed it -- still needing five carries of at least 1 yard to unlock the ability and losing it when a player loses yards on a play. This year, only Jackson has the ability at launch.
Similarly, Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald is the only player with "Blitz," which will have his built-in AI resistance bars wiped when he is "in the zone," triggered by two sacks by the defensive line.
"He can wreck a game all by himself, and that's what we could think of that was representative of his impact on a game," Oldenburg said. "Once you get that guy in a zone, he makes the entire offensive line worse. He's had such a good game to this point they are kind of nervous and getting beat up a little bit.
"We felt that was really representative of Aaron Donald."
Same with Jones' "Momentum Shift." It wipes the progress made toward unlocking abilities by his opponent and it takes a lot -- three hit-stick tackles or two sacks by a defensive lineman -- to unlock.
"It's meant for this motivator-type guy," Oldenburg said. "This leader of the team who impacts all the rest of his teammates. Again, Chris Jones personifies that."
Which is what the Madden developers are trying to do by adding X-Factors. While it might stand out on the field, that's the entire point. Some players are just that good that there was no other way to account for them in the game.
They want to keep it fun while trying to keep the realism intact.
"The most important factor that especially our core doesn't want to recognize is that these are authentic," Oldenburg said. "People like to call them out among our core of being arcade features or being NBA Jam-like.
"And while the concept is very similar, these are meant to highlight real-world skills and abilities that these players show every week."