The most unloved portion of what Americans call football seems to be the plays where foot actually contacts ball.
Punting? An admission of failure. Extra points are when you go to the john. Half the time, kickoffs are just a transaction. Even the field goal is regarded as a three-point compromise. Yes, these can be exciting plays — but usually it's when someone fields the kick and does something sensational with it. There is only one kicker and one punter in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and few successful acts of kicking ever become part of the league's lore.
Kicking just isn't one of those back-of-the-box features that sells a football video game. So it would not figure that anyone expected Madden NFL 15 to make kicking the football fun, or anything more useful than just giving the ball back without it being returned very far. But it does. It is — read this in a John Facenda voice — The Greatest Punting and Kicking Madden in NFL History, thanks to the stubbornness of an offensive lineman and the ingenuity of a wide receiver.
The wind's effect is now visualized with the help of a swaying arc, helping the user aim the kick while also providing an engaging challenge to holding its accuracy through the motion, or time the snap between gusts. The kicking trajectory makes punting even more dramatic, providing a stronger idea of where the ball will likely land or travel out of bounds, helping the player keep it away from a deadly returner or land it in the coffin corner. It's a blast to go into multiplayer and stinkpalm the other guy with a punt that goes out of bounds at the 3-yard-line. That kind of spite defines the basement-couch camaraderie of Madden multiplayer.
But every time Clint Oldenburg brought up kicking in EA Sports' Tiburon studio, no one was listening.
"Going back to Madden 25, when we first got on the next-gen console, I was standing on tables and beating windows that we had to make our game look next-gen in every facet of the game," said Oldenburg, who butted heads with the Mountain West Conference as a starting tackle at Colorado State. "One thing that every user's going to see multiple times in the game was the kick meter. I was on a soapbox, we have to update the kick meter."
Madden's kicking game had been inconsistent and incoherent for more than a decade, waffling between analog controls, an on-screen meter, the presence and absence of visual aids, and hindered for the past few years by an embarrassing error: The wind blew in the opposite direction from which the heads-up display indicated. The analog kick meter in Madden NFL 25 and earlier had some effect on accuracy but you rarely saw it outside of long field goal attempts. On the flip side, punting provided no visual cue as to where you were even ideally aiming the kick, leading to a lot of shanks going out of bounds at the 40 yard line when conditions were ripe for pinning the other team inside their 20.
It's a blast to stinkpalm the other guy with a punt that goes out of bounds at the 3-yard-line.
None of this would be tolerable if it affected the passing game. But as kicking is the parsley of American football, giving clarity to that was on nobody's list of priorities at Madden's studio. "It wasn't going to fit in scope because, like you said, it wasn't a back-of-the-box feature," Oldenburg said.
That's where the receiver comes in: Dan Gau, who joined EA Sports as an intern this year. Gau caught passes in high school and kicked the extra points. "We had no kicker," Gau explained, "so I was always the one who ended up kicking."
With a rookie experienced in handling thankless duties, Oldenburg went back to creative director Rex Dickson to lobby for time to overhaul kicking. "I said, 'We got an intern, we've got a few extra hours, let's bring this back."
Oldenburg got permission to create a design and handed it to Gau, who got to work. But it's not what you see in the game. The swaying kicking arc came from a testing tool Oldenburg asked Gau to build to help him with another, even more thankless task: testing the ratings for the kickers and punters.
"It was so I didn't have to go kick every single kick with every single kicker in the game," Oldenburg said. "He could just give me some debug info so I could visually see if he could make it or not."
Gau was having a hell of a time accounting for the variable influence of wind in delivering Oldenburg that kind of data, so he made a visual prediction of where the ball would go based on the game's physics engine. "I was like, hey this looks sorta cool, and I'd show it to people, and everyone agreed that this was a sweet thing to have in the game," Gau said. "That tiny little arrow wasn't good enough to show you where the ball would go. Half the time I'd try to do a coffin-corner punt and I'd put it 20 yards out of bounds."
That said, having such precise coordinates on where a punt would land or what trajectory a place kick needed could make special teams overpowered and give it an outsize role in the game. Oldenburg cooked up a fix: the arc fades out the All-Pro difficulty level and higher. (All-Pro is the locked difficulty setting for ranked online matches in Madden NFL.) He said borrowed this idea from the way a pitching target can fade out in advanced difficulty settings for MLB The Show. The arc also makes a kicker or punter's accuracy rating more real to the user. It's much tougher to hold the aiming point with the left stick with Oakland's Sebastian Janikowski, who has great range but 76 accuracy, than with a guy like Denver's Matt Prater, rated 99 in that attribute. This had no manifestation in previous editions of Madden.
"Now, right when you cross the 50, and you're on third down, you're already thinking who your kicker is, who your punter is," Oldenburg said. And he is right. Currently, only seven kickers and six punters are rated 90 overall or better, and only the San Francisco 49ers have one of each.
"You're thinking 'Do I want to try a long field goal and get three points, or pin that guy deep?'" Oldenburg reasoned. "That aspect has never really been in our game before, where it encourages players to play field position more than just going for it on fourth down or attempting a 60-yard field goal. That mind game is coming up more often now."
"For me, kicking plays used to kind of fall into 'Oh, I'm on a kicking play, flick the sticks and get to the next play,'" Gau said. "I feel a lot of people felt like this. This changes this to where you have to pay attention. The experience changed from a gap in play to more of a continuous play experience."
Though Oldenburg says Gau's future with EA Sports was secure, regardless, his work on overhauling the kicking game definitely earned the walk-on a full ride at EA Sports; Gau made full staff at Tiburon, and now is working with the PGA Tour game due next year. "We'd pull him back [to Madden] immediately if I had anything to say about it," said Oldenburg.
"As an intern," Gau said, "I was just trying to get on the back of the box."
Roster File is Polygon's news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games. It appears weekends.