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The option’s evolution in video games mirrored real life

Just like in real football, the pro game learned from the college game.

In the NCAA Football video game, Braxton Miller pitches the ball. EA Sports. Banner Society illustration.

During the 2006 Sugar Bowl, EA Sports playbook designer Anthony White watched Rich Rodriguez’s West Virginia carve up Georgia, deploying a type of play he hadn’t seen. We know it now as the run-pass option, offensive football’s most recent evolution.

“Pat White was in the shotgun. It’s like ok, every time Georgia would load the box, they’d throw like the bubble screen or the quick hitch outside to the receivers, or they’d run the ball with Steve Slaton and they’d gash ‘em for big yards,” White said.

It is White’s task to make the old tagline “if it’s in the game, it’s in the game” a reality for millions of gamers who’ve played the Madden NFL video game series or its on-hiatus college cousin, NCAA Football.

In its heyday, NCAA was more than just the college version of Madden. The sharing between games made both better. And the void NCAA left is about much more than merely no longer seeing it on the shelf at your GameStop. NCAA’s exit has actually impacted Madden.

When the Wildcat became popular, when Ronnie Brown was running it, it was easy for Madden to add it because it was already in NCAA,” EA Sports Producer Ben Haumiller said. “The pistol formations were easy to come over to Madden because they were already in NCAA.

“A lot of that stuff was already in and working because college was doing it first.”

The option scheme has always been a part of the games, at least since college games came around.

NCAA Football’s predecessor was Bill Walsh College Football. As with Madden, EA partnered with a coach who had name recognition. Teams weren’t licensed, and instead gamers could play with teams like South Bend and Tallahassee through a regular season that culminated with a 16-team playoff.

Tucked into those games were playbooks that had flexbone and wishbone formations — the common setup to old school option attacks.

Bill Walsh College Football

Gamers on the Super Nintendo or the Sega Genesis could run a primitive option with a pitch ...

Bill Walsh College Football

... or a give to the fullback ...

Bill Walsh College Football

... or a keeper.

The early option got the job done. But as the game evolved, so did the scheme.

By 2004, when the release of NCAA Football was a July ritual, the option was a staple, even coming with a tutorial voiced by Kirk Herbstreit, in which he calls the scheme “the greatest offense ever invented.”

By the mid-2000s, the option was changing IRL football in novel ways. That 2005 West Virginia team showed what the zone read could do and ushered in a new era that was no longer wishbone or flexbone. Arkansas cut out the middle man and involved the quarterback in the running game by putting a running back behind center in the wildcat formation. In both the real and virtual worlds, college football principles filtered up to the pro game.

And as the zone read truly swept the college game, Madden eventually followed.

Madden NFL 18

The option certainly wasn’t an easy thing to get right.

EA went for motion capture with players who’d actually ran the scheme, rather than any old former football player looking at a video screen and trying to replicate what he was watching. EA tried to get former Georgia Tech quarterback Josh Nesbitt, to really get the motion capture of option footwork right. They wanted to get actual option running backs and flankers and fullbacks, to nail how every player works in concert.

“Back when we were still making NCAA, we didn’t have the same system — the same technology that we have now,” EA game designer Larry Richart said. “Quite frankly, we didn’t have the animation memory to support the stuff that we do now on the Generation 4 [consoles].

“Honestly, we would all love to be able to do more option stuff, if we ever get the opportunity to do NCAA again. We would be all-in on getting the option and getting in the whole Georgia Tech and Navy backfield and getting those animations exactly right.”

NCAA Football 2005

The limits of the recent console generation really got tested as developers tried to evolve with the scheme.

Tim Tebow, the cover athlete on NCAA 11, had this bread-and-butter play with former teammate Aaron Hernandez in Urban Meyer’s spread offense:

It’s a different type of triple option, with three options for the quarterback: keep, shovel or pitch. The developers found the shovel option difficult to get it to work. But by the time Meyer had moved to Ohio State, NCAA 14 had 31 different option types, including the shovel.

NCAA Football 14

Even with the option’s evolution, developers still had to find a good way to teach it to gamers.

For that, they revamped their tutorial system after looking at coaching film. The game taught gamers to run the option in a way that mirrored how a coach would teach his players during the first week of fall camp install.

“First was teaching you the dive read, when to give it, when to pitch it,” White said. “Same with pitch reads. Then, of course, we put you in a drill environment to simulate actual game conditions, where you ran the various types of options against an 11-man defensive structure, if you will.”

NCAA Football 14

As the years went by, option gameplay got better on offense because the defense got better.

“If you think about defensive logic we’ve had over the years, going back, defensive linemen would just chase ball,” White said. “Then you start building in other pieces of logic, where you get something where the defensive end is reading the give or the keep, so that gives you then something on the offense to play off of, to say ‘OK, am I going to hand it off or am I going to keep it, based on what this end is doing?’”

And you can see that defensive logic on full display in Madden. Watch the edge defender, # 50, read the play, react, and stay home.

Madden NFL 18

“It was 2013 when we last made an NCAA game, and the strides we made defensively from a logic perspective make the option so much fun to run against now.”

Developing the playbook for any video game is an arduous process.

White and others working on Madden probably know your team’s scheme better than you do. They study to improve the playbooks every year, using All-22 film, with tools the NFL provides to make it easier to search. The playbook development cycle for the next Madden starts right after the last game ships, and in pre-production, EA developers break down teams to figure what they’re running and what’s changing from year to year.

“Sean Peyton and Drew Brees, they’ve been pretty consistent for however long they’ve been together. Brady and Bellichick are another one,” Richart said. “But any time there are coaching changes, we really emphasize those first.”

The Ravens will have zone-read plays in their playbook in Madden 19 because they drafted Lamar Jackson. Baltimore’s tinkering with ways to get Jackson in the field, and gamers will be able to play around with Jackson in a scheme that suits his athletic abilities from Day 1.

But if Jackson gets anywhere near a current version of Madden 2004 Michael Vick, would the zone-read become too powerful and need to be somehow dialed back?

EA says that entire specific plays aren’t usually too overpowered; it’s more like elements within a certain play need to get tweaked along the way. For instance, a “nano” blitz seems to always get in the backfield, or a certain route can always beat a certain coverage, like the corner route at times.

Those are little things that can have a big effect when you’re trying to beat your friends.

With the option in NCAA Football, the overweighting was something consistent, rather than game-breaking.

“The fullback give portion of it was always good for two to three yards, enough to keep the game moving, but I think gamers would get impatient with just going that route,” Haumiller said. “While it was a little probably overpowered in that way, it’s probably less used because it was more fun to take it out with the pitch man and get something big there.”

NCAA Football 08

In NCAA 14, the QB keeper was automatic until your QB got hurt. The standard fullback dive was also money. It was even common to see Georgia Tech dominate in Dynasty Mode. Perhaps NCAA 15 would’ve adjusted for this.

It’s been over a decade since White first noticed the run-pass option, so why no true RPO in Madden 19?

The first way developers tried to blend run and pass beyond the standard play action was the old option pass.

NCAA Football 08

But if you were killing it with that play, it didn’t have much to do with your skill.

“It was always the belief from my side that that was a run play,” Haumiller said. “[It was] a gimmick play that you could pass on, but there was no real logic in there. So, if you completed a pass it was more on luck then it was the defender breaking on the option ... it was fun, but the game was easier — not as complex as it is now.”

EA says they want to get RPOs into the game, but the topic of logic rears its head again.

“The original code for our blocking logic was never really meant to run the ball on passing plays and pass the ball on running plays,” White said. “It’s sorta like you’re building a 30-story building — you get to the 30th floor, you want to put this new thing in, but you’ve gotta go back all the way to the first floor and re-do the building all the way back up to the 30th floor.”

This mirrors the debate over the play in real life. If you remember the pop pass fad — when the RPO truly become mainstream — you’re familiar with the way that an RPO blurs the lines of what is pass blocking and what is run blocking. It drove defensive coaches crazy. The NCAA made it a “point of emphasis” for its officials to crack down on blockers going more than three yards downfield. When the QB threw the ball with blockers downfield, it was essentially a real life version of run blocking during a pass play.

A simple RPO with just a read option in the backfield and bubble pass attached was close to becoming a reality in NCAA 14, but it didn’t make it into the game.

While there weren’t true RPOs in the video games, there were ways to get close with some play actions that at least looked like a bit like an RPO. In later versions of NCAA, when you hit the right button, the QB would give the ball to a running back on what was actually a called pass.

NCAA Football 08

To change that blocking logic, EA estimates that it would take one engineer an entire development cycle. It’s a question of where EA wants to devote resources. They say that taking one or two engineers and devoting them to RPOs means taking them off other projects in the game.

EA also hints at unintended consequences when re-programming blocking logic. The handoff system in the game would need to be overhauled to make things look more natural and defensive logic would need to be tweaked to the AI responds in organic ways to a complicated play. Then there’s commentary, user interfaces, and the playbooks themselves.

For now, EA is massaging in more malleable defensive coverages and fronts for a possible future with RPOs in Madden. Cover 4 palms will make its debut in Madden 19, a coverage variant that doesn’t ask corners to automatically bail out and play deep, and looks a bit like a cover 2 on the field.

But the most gutting answer to the question lies in the now-annual gripe we all have every July.

As we continue to live in an NCAA-less world, we continue to lose the shared ideas that pushed both games to be better.

RPOs aren’t the be-all and end-all of football strategy, but having them in the game creates a more realistic experience for gamers who seek that out.

“If NCAA was still around, there’d be no doubt we’d have RPOs in [NCAA] and in Madden,” White said.