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How Madden’s RPOs could one day help bring back NCAA Football

Getting these plays into the video game was harder than it might seem.

Lamar Jackson runs an RPO in Madden 20 by EA Sports. EA Sports. Banner Society illustration.

Tracing the emergence of the run/pass option back to one moment is impossible. Ask a dozen coaches, and you’ll get a dozen answers, though everybody agrees the RPO went fully national in the early 2010s — first in college, then in the NFL a while later.

Finding the origin of RPOs in video games is easier. In Week 1 of 2013, they caught the attention of game developers at EA Sports.

It was Chip Kelly’s first game as an NFL coach. He’d brought elements of his Oregon offense to Philadelphia, where he had the ideal option triggerman in Michael Vick. All Monday night long, Kelly called a play that gave Vick handoff, bubble screen, and seam-route options. Washington never caught on.

The Eagles walked out of Daniel Snyder’s ugly stadium with a win. Anthony White, a designer at EA, walked away with a dream item to add to Madden.

White had studied college offenses for years and seen RPOs pop up here and there in the NFL. After the Eagles’ show, White knew he wanted RPOs in the video game.

Madden’s namesake did, too. Along with Clint Oldenburg, a senior gameplay designer, White made annual trips to talk with John Madden, who’s remained a sounding board. During their first visit after Kelly’s arrival in Philly, the guy with his name on the box wanted White and Oldenburg to run through Kelly’s playbook in the video game.

“I don’t know if he thought we were putting the wishbone in there or something,” White says. “But we showed him all the shotgun stuff, based on what Oregon was doing.”

RPOs weren’t part of the presentation, though. EA had no clear way to make them.

In real football, play design leads to copycats. It takes no more than a week for one coach’s play to show up on another’s chalkboard. But electronic design is a different beast.

Why did EA have no way to get this emerging attack into its game? The avenue it’d often used to get new concepts into Madden had already closed. The studio’s NCAA Football franchise had died in 2013 because the NCAA didn’t want to let players get paid.

When EA still had NCAA, the game worked with Madden in much the same way college football works with the NFL: tactics from college filtered upward. Madden has had a suite of non-RPO option plays for years — the tech came from NCAA, because unlike a pre-2010s NFL game, a college football video game without the option isn’t a college football video game.

“When the college game went away, that really put us in a little bit of a tough spot,” White says. “A lot of times, the college game was almost like a sandbox where we could sort of create cool concepts.”

Later versions of NCAA had a play you could break in order to make it RPO-ish. PA Read was a pass play in which you could hold the same button you’d hold to hand off during an option run. That would turn the play action into a real handoff.

But that was just a hack. Offensive linemen weren’t run blocking like they would during a real RPO, there were no RPO-specific decisions for defenders to make, and there was no illegal man downfield penalty, one of the RPO’s risks in real life.

Real RPOs start as run plays, and the QB can give the ball up or not. For years, EA’s problem was that it couldn’t program QBs to keep the ball and throw it on plays otherwise designed as runs. EA’s tech triggered handoff animations when players reached certain points, and developers didn’t have a way to check out of those and into a throw.

“You build a 20-story building, but you get to the 19th floor, there’s this new thing you want to put in,” White says. “You have to go down to the first floor to work your way back up.”

By 2017’s season, Kelly successor Doug Pederson was winning a Super Bowl while dialing up tons of RPOs for Nick Foles. The suddenly ubiquitous play’s absence from Madden was becoming increasingly awkward by the year.

“Even though we didn’t necessarily have RPOs, we sort of had bubble screens, and we had inside zone, outside zone plays next to them in the play call, so that you sort of get that feel,” White says. “If you see a loaded box, you can audible to the other play and throw.”

In January 2019, recent hire Siddharth Suresh was toying with Madden 20. He came across the solution: to build an RPO, EA had to work in the opposite order of real-world RPOs.

“I was like, ‘OK, we can’t take a run play and pass out of it, but we can take a pass play and hand the ball off,’” Suresh says.

Suresh had been working on installing a double reverse, needing a way to trigger multiple handoff animations on the same play. By figuring out how to add a new handoff mid-play, Suresh found the RPO eureka. He walked to Oldenburg’s desk.

“I have RPOs working,” Suresh told him.

Oldenburg, a former Colorado State and NFL O-lineman, looked at it: “Well, this is pretty cool.”

“It’s not really an RPO,” Suresh explained to White. “It’s more of a PRO.”

This was on a Friday. On Saturday, Suresh and White tinkered with code to make sure the run-blocking and defensive intelligence on these new RPOs were sound. The concept got buy-in from EA’s powers, despite it being late in the cycle for such a big add to Madden.

Once EA had the core tech, virtual RPOs started to resemble real ones.

In 2017, the Bengals ran this common RPO. An inside linebacker stepped up to play the run, so Andy Dalton threw a slant behind him:

Like every play that goes into Madden, White diagrammed it out on his computer, with exact route depths and turning angles:

How a play looks when it first goes into Madden’s computer system — in this case, a “Peek” RPO in 2019’s release.

Now you can hand off by holding down a button or keep the ball and throw it.

Madden 20 has three families of RPOs. That is part of the “Peek” group, which have a QB reading a linebacker (marked by a “P”) and then either throwing or handing off, based on what that linebacker is doing.

There’s “Read,” a true triple (or more) option that includes a QB keeper. Playing with Lamar Jackson is advised:

There’s also “Alert,” basically turning a run play into a hot route throw. If a bunch of defenders aren’t clustered at the line of scrimmage, you can just snap the ball and let your QB hand off. But if they are, you can choose to throw instead. One limitation is that you can’t then adjust the newly added passing route, because EA worried that’d be too hard to defend.

To make the video game RPOs real, EA had to install a penalty for ineligible linemen downfield.

Within two days of figuring out RPOs, EA had the first version of a penalty that would prevent RPOs, as in real life, from becoming impossible to stop.

The NFL officially lets linemen go one yard before the ball must be thrown, while the NCAA gives 3 yards. But enforcement of the illegal man downfield rule is usually a joke. In that spirit, Madden won’t penalize you if your QB holds the ball a beat too long.

When figuring out whether to call a penalty, the game also considers whether a lineman is affecting the play or just hanging out downfield.

“A lineman may be 5 yards downfield, just because our players move pretty fast and they move in a straight line, and they get to the places they’re moving very quickly,” former lineman Oldenburg says. “So we said, ‘OK, even if a lineman’s downfield, if you’re throwing the ball in what we would consider a reasonable amount of time on an RPO, we’re not gonna penalize you.’”

EA’s code teaches offensive linemen to chase defenders. So a gamer playing defense might send a nose tackle running backward in an attempt to create a penalty. That might seem like a great hack, but the result should be the same as it would be in a real game.

“You absolutely are probably gonna get an illegal man downfield penalty,” Oldenburg says. “My question to that user on offense is, ‘Why didn’t you run the ball?’”

A few months before Madden 20’s release, EA gave 16,000 gamers access for a weekend of testing. Confusion reigned.

“There’s a lot of people who play Madden that have no idea that that penalty exists,” Oldenburg said.

About 2 months before release, some college football people alerted EA to what they thought was a bug in its RPO system. Madden was assessing penalties for ineligible men downfield even on passes caught behind the line of scrimmage.

EA informed those people that the college rule allowing linemen downfield on passes caught behind the line does not exist in the NFL. Those people were Bud Elliott and me.

These virtual RPOs carry echoes of EA’s college franchise. They’re also a preview of what any future college video game would look like.

One of the most enjoyable plays in later versions of NCAA was a triple option that used a slot receiver for a pitch. The same thing is now in Madden, only instead of a pitch, there’s a bubble option:

The flow of concepts from the college video game to Madden mirrors the flow of concepts from actual college ball to the NFL. It’s not the flexbone, but it’s the triple option.

This coincided with another NCAA-like twist: Madden’s introduction of a substantial college mode. Madden 20 offered 10 college teams (a bunch of legacy programs plus Texas Tech, because Patrick Mahomes is the cover star), giving you control of a QB who starts his draft journey in the College Football Playoff.

People who’d know saw it as a necessary step toward the college franchise’s potential return. EA needed licensing agreements with all 10 schools (and the Playoff itself, where it already had NFL stadiums), something it’d lacked when it stopped making NCAA.

EA was always going to need more than the right legal climate to bring back NCAA. It would also need updated gameplay after years away. NCAA’s hiatus has meant skipping at least a whole generation of consoles.

The idea of NCAA Football on modern consoles has long made gamers salivate. It’s excited designers, too, as one told Richard Johnson in 2018:

‘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.’

Nobody could ever make a college football video game without getting the option exactly right. That used to mean the triple and zone read, but now it means RPOs as much as anything.

So that means an NCAA Football return would bring EA’s titles full circle. NCAA used to innovate for Madden. Next, it’d need to be the other way around.