Overtime football is great, at least in college or high school. In the NFL, it’s usually pretty good. But at every level, it can still be better!
We want to figure out how, so we’ve enlisted help from a handful of folks who make a living designing games to be fun and fair.
- JP Kellams, Tom Lischke, and Jake Stein are EA Sports producers who work on Madden. Their work includes adding unique game modes on top of regular football, such as in Madden’s Ultimate Team, which includes all sorts of interesting football scenarios.
- EA producer Ben Haumiller has worked on everything from NCAA Football’s dynasty mode to Madden’s “QB1,” a college-inclusive story mode.
- Sooners fan Jake Solomon is the Mumme/Leach of the turn-based tactics genre. In his XCOM games, small teams of individuals with varying skill sets take territory from space aliens before running out of turns — exactly like football, minus space aliens.
Here are 15 schemes on a spectrum from “blah” to “DO IT NOW.” The game-makers will help us understand why they could work or couldn’t.
15. Declare the game a tie.
Every level of football started getting rid of these many decades ago, for good reason.
FINE BUT FLAWED, AND WE ALREADY SEE IT EVERY WEEK ANYWAY, SO LET’S GET WEIRDER
14. Trade regular possessions until someone wins, possibly starting at a specific yard line. (This is most of the current college system and part of the current NFL system.)
It runs the risk of dragging on forever, decreasing health meters. It’s also unfair. About 55% of NFL teams that win the OT coin toss win in sudden death. The number is about the same in college.
FOOTBALL-ADJACENT MINIGAMES THAT WOULD BE FUN TO WATCH BUT SUPER IRRITATING
13. Have a penalty kick-style shootout, but with field goals. SLAPPERS ONLY, except with feet.
Kellams finds it “emotionally really resonant” when soccer comes down to individuals. Football could settle games with kicker duels from progressively harder distances. But this isn’t tethered to the vast majority of football skills.
“Why don’t you just do the Punt, Pass, and Kick at that point?” Haumiller says.
“Nobody likes field goals,” Lischke says.
12. Play 7-on-7.
Not fair to teams built on beef.
“All the skill players, that’s fine, but that kind of takes away what makes football interesting,” says Solomon.
TOO DANGEROUS FOR LABOR
11. Shrink the field as overtime goes on, gradually reducing players at the same time, until the game is decided via a slugfest.
The old Oklahoma drill is dangerous enough that the NFL banned it in 2019.
“That’s what the game should be, if you wanna simplify it,” Solomon says, noting it’d never work because of player safety. And in the same way 7-on-7 favors small teams, this would overly favor trench-heavy teams. But if players were invincible, it could make sense as a final battle.
10. Like in pro wrestling, hide cartoonish weapons around the sidelines for everyone to discover.
This would get to resolution quickly, at least.
9. Teams get to pick the other team’s lineup or disqualify a player. Maybe that player was the reason the game was deadlocked for 60 minutes.
Allowing your opponent to pick that lineup, but knowing that they’re gonna do the same thing, is super cool and will also expose a lot of players who don’t get the opportunity to play a game and make them really important. If you knew that that was always an option, the amount of quality reps that somebody’s gonna get in practice, and how you develop players that are further down the line, knowing that they have a potential ‘shit, our entire season could be on the line and this third-string quarterback who just got called up to break a tie’ would be really cool, as far as player investment.
The trouble: what happens when a team really doesn’t have depth? A backup left tackle could be a medical liability for his quarterback.
NOW WE’RE HACKING ACTUAL FOOTBALL
8. Award more points for scoring from farther out.
“What’s interesting to me is trying to create larger analog score differentials, especially if you remove kicking,” Kellams says. “Right now, the kick is medium good, and if you go for a good-better-best situation, you’ve got a field goal, a touchdown, and then a two-point conversion on top of a touchdown.”
This could even be kind of like football H-O-R-S-E, with the sides agreeing on new point values, although “you wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, I’m gonna start from my 20 and only pass,’ because the defense would have it too easy,” Kellams says. “You would know what to defend against.”
A 20-yard TD could be worth double points, he says. A 30-yarder could be worth triple points. Maybe longer field goals could be worth more as well.
“I’m a proponent of a four-point field goal past 50[-yard attempts],” Solomon says.
Or teams could play conservatively, going for higher-percentage drives.
7. Use a spinning wheel to introduce new rules for every period.
Solomon’s games are famous for breaking the player’s heart via cold math. Having a 90% chance to land a shot and then missing feels tragic, even though the game told you it wasn’t a sure thing. He finds randomness to be the equalizer — the same fluctuating rules work against both teams and speed the conflict toward resolution.
“The problem is that randomness, when it’s involving a single-player game, is fine, or if players are playing cooperatively against a system,” says Solomon. “You introduce randomness into just multiplayer, let alone a multi-billion dollar sport, that’s so galling.”
But mixing up rules could provide fans with the only thing we crave as much as wins.
“Players never admit this. But we need questionable officiating and the human element. What randomness would give you is an out,” Solomon says. “People hated the computers being involved in the BCS. What they actually wanted was a subjective system, so you could blame the officiating. ‘Aw, we got a horrible random roll.’”
He suggests a spinning wheel, which could change the number of players on the field, starting yard line, number of downs, or even point values — teams would know each OT touchdown would be worth between four and eight points, says Solomon, but wouldn’t know until after they’d scored exactly how many points they’d earned.
“Everybody’s gripped by what the random roll is gonna be, and then both teams have to abide by it,” he says.
6. Allow teams to wager with each other during the game.
This could be anything, but let’s go for maximum stakes. For example, both teams could agree to bet the entire game’s outcome on a long field goal. If it goes in, the kicking team wins. If not, the defense’s team wins.
“Beers would rain down on the field,” Kellams says.
You’d probably need two tired teams, and you’d need a distance at which the defense would be comfortable accepting the risk of a walk-off. Imagine the thinking that would go into one coach throwing the flag while the ball rests at a specific yard line and the pressure on the other coach to respond.
Also imagine the winning kicker being carried off the field while shushing the enemy head coach who dared him to try a 59-yarder.
5. Both teams submit a yard line where they’d be willing to start with the ball in sudden death, and the team agreeing to the longest field gets the ball.
Engineer Chris Quanbeck proposed this bidding system in 2002. This would require each team to calculate how far it’s willing to go in order to have the ball first.
“I would not think any team would go below their own 15-yard line,” Stein says.
“Being a Packers fan and watching Aaron Rodgers not touch the ball in overtime several times, I would take the ball at the fucking one with Aaron Rodgers,” Lischke says.
But if you have Nathan Peterman, maybe you just give them the ball.
4. Put both offenses and both defenses on the field at the same time, alternating downs on opposite ends of the field. Team A’s offense runs a play against Team B’s defense. Team B’s offense gets a snap. Then it’s second down for Team A’s offense.
This would lessen the intelligence advantage for the team that gets to play defense first, since it might only have that advantage for a single play.
“If somebody runs back an interception, maybe the 50-yard line is the end zone,” Solomon says. “That’s the spectacle you want for overtime.”
The rebooted XFL is doing a two-point conversion shootout (five tries per team), with both offenses and defenses taking turns.
“I would definitely not want 50-yard-line tickets to those games,” Kellams says. “I don’t know how good that is from a fan experience point of view. I get it. It’s interesting.”
ENTERTAINING, FAIR, AND EFFICIENT
3. Eliminate all special teams (or maybe just eliminate punts). Both teams get a possession from their own 25 or so. But if a defense gets a stop ahead of its own 25 or so, its offense gets the ball on that yard line. If the score is tied after one possession each, repeat with the opposite possession order.
Essentially, good defense means not just ending the enemy’s turn, but also improving your own field position — just like regular football.
“That second drive [in regular overtime], one mistake can end your game,” Kellams says. “Making the same kind of mistake on Player A’s drive be dangerous [would be] actually really cool.”
Also, we’d use analytics to figure out the fairest offensive starting point.
It’s better than the OT systems the NFL has used for decades, because it guarantees both offenses get a possession. It’s better than college’s, because it offers a reward for defense, which would appropriately become more important than kicking.
“It’s just so much more organic,” Lischke says. “One team starts at the 25. Wherever the defense can stop them, that’s the value of stopping them. If you stop them here, cool. I get the ball here to go in, because I played great defense.”
It also lessens the informational edge of taking the ball second. With no kicking, there’s nothing to do but aim for eight points each drive anyway.
2. Eliminate all special teams. Spot the ball at the 50, and give each team four plays, alternating offenses each play. If Team A gets five yards on its first play, Team B’s first play is from its own 45. Whoever has pushed the ball the farthest after the eight combined plays wins. If ball is still on the 50, each team gets another play. A touchdown ends the game, as long as the teams have run the same number of plays. If both teams score after the exact same number of plays, repeat.
This is intense, pretty fair, and almost guaranteed to resolve quickly. This also makes overtime like regulation football in one key way.
“Every play matters, and good becomes analog,” Kellams says. “When scoring is the only rubric for success, you either score or you didn’t. But in tug-of-war situations where you have yardage, good becomes an analog metric. So 15 yards is good, 16 yards is better, 17 yards is even better than that. And 10 yards is bad. So there’s a spectrum of good, and it’s not just a binary.”
In current OT, there’s little difference between being forced to kick a 27- or 28-yard field goal, and there are only six degrees of good or bad for each possession: zero, two, three, six, seven, or eight points.
In this system, there are 100 degrees of good and bad: 49 yards in either direction, plus end zones. A wider range of numbers means more ways for the two teams to distinguish themselves and wrap the game up.
A point of disagreement among our developers: whether the second team to play offense in an OT like this should get two plays in a row, serpentine style. That could make it less likely the second team is stuck behind the 8 ball for the entire OT, psychologically speaking.
Also, it’s easy to foresee fans becoming irate when a borderline intentional grounding penalty costs a team 10 yards — and thus a game.
“To me, that isn’t a [design] mistake,” Kellams says. “How often do you watch a football game where a coach is just super pissed at his squad because they keep making simple, dumb mistakes and getting penalties?”
THE ACTUAL BEST CHOICE
1. End with STRENGTH COACH COMBAT.
“You start at the 50. If they go one series, then sure, march ‘em in,” Solomon begins. “Eventually you go to a crazy situation where you can only do two-pointers. And then you end with the strength and conditioning coaches doing Oklahoma drills.”
CHOOSE YOUR FIGHTER:
Here's the video of Scott Cochran with last year's 2nd place trophy...— Jamey Barnes (@JBarnesRTR) January 4, 2018
Hey UCF... This is how you do it. pic.twitter.com/nzLDFc7K0b
Or start with STRENGTH COACH FIGHT.
“Maybe that’s how you determine who [gets the ball] second: two going-on-50-year-old dudes with thighs like tree trunks facing off,” continues Solomon.
Either way, in overtime, all the coaches have to make themselves useful.
“Coaches are the millionaires,” says Solomon. “Your head coach has to pick a position within the tackle box to play. Something a little Thunderdome-y would be awesome.”
What do you think? We’ve been arguing for well over 100 years about how to end football games, so let’s just add these ideas to the pile.