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Madden adjusters leave 'no stone unturned' to create authentic gaming experience

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Clint Oldenburg was one of the first people the Washington Commanders players saw when they headed to the locker room after practice on Aug. 18. In fact, a lot of players were looking forward to meeting him. 

Oldenburg's job was to hear the players' feedback about their portrayals in the Madden 24 video game. Some thought their tackling or speed needed to be bumped up; others, like quarterback Sam Howell, wanted their facial features to be more accurate. Oldenburg heard their perspectives, both positive and constructive, and jotted it down on his notepad before moving on to the next player. 

This has been Oldenburg's life as a Madden adjuster for more than a decade. He travels around the country hearing from players about how they can make their game more immersive, authentic and entertaining. Almost every player wants their ratings to improve, though, so while Oldenburg is always open for a discussion, his priority is making sure the game stays as balanced as possible. 

"We know how important it is to the players, not only the NFL players, but our gamers," Oldenburg said. "We know how important ratings are to them. So, we try to leave no stone unturned."

As a former player himself in both senses of the word, Oldenburg can sympathize with those emotions. He has loved the Madden franchise from the time he first started playing the game on Sega Genesis as a kid in the 1990s.

As an NFL player in the late 2000s and early 2010s, he cared deeply about his Madden rating. He admitted that his was never high enough for him to complain about (he hovered between 63 and 66 throughout his career), but it was always exciting to see himself in a game that he had played since he was 10 years old, and he always wanted to improve his rating.

So, when a player comes to him explaining how they want to get certain stats improved by a couple of points, he knows exactly how they feel. And unsurprisingly, an overwhelming majority of players approach him hoping they can convince him they're deserving of that extra bump. He's only encountered one player who was completely satisfied with their rating: Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith.

"He's the only guy that I ever remember saying, 'I'm good,'" Oldenburg said.

There's a wide spectrum of how players approach their ratings in Oldenburg's experience. Most are serious about it in a joking sort of way; others, not so much. Either way, the adjusters will take any feedback they can get, because they want to get it right.

"So anytime a player doesn't think his rating is a hundred percent correct, we're more than happy to have a conversation," Oldenburg said. "Give us some information we can use to maybe go update it."

For other players who are not considered one of the best players in NFL history, Madden and EA SPORTS start every season with a list of players they think could quickly improve upon the rating they're given each year.

There are a few ways for players to make the list. Some may have been hurt the previous season, or perhaps they haven't gotten enough of an opportunity to show their skills. Those players are among the first the developers take a second look at to see if they "blow up," as Oldenburg put it.

For the Commanders, second year wideout Jahan Dotson is one of those players. Madden 24 was released with Dotson at a 77 overall, but there are several factors, such as his usage and comfort level in Eric Bieniemy's offense that point to him being better than that number would suggest.

That's why EA SPORTS and Madden send Oldenburg and the rest of the adjusters to NFL practices. They want to see if their initial suspicions are actually true. In Dotson's case, they seem to be correct.

"You can see that Jahan feels a lot more comfortable in the system," Oldenburg said. "He's been featured more. He's got a ton of reps. He's a guy that, if you follow fantasy football, there's fantasy football buzz about him."

Of course, the adjusters can't know about every player primed to improve, which is why they take information from every player about where their rating could be more accurate. That was the situation with Darrick Forrest, who said that his zone coverage rating, a 74 at launch, should be raised.

Forrest told Oldenburg to look back at his film against the Philadelphia Eagles, when he had six tackles, an interception and a pass breakup in the Week 10 win. A few minutes later, a fan told Oldenburg the same thing.

There are a few ways for the adjusters to verify if players' rating do deserve to be increased. With Forrest, Madden and EA SPORTS have access to the NFL's film archives. That's where Oldenburg's experience can come in handy, because he can provide insight into how accurate the ratings are at any point in the season.

"If you watch a game and you watch just the offensive line, it's not always clear what they're trying to do," Oldenburg said. "I can kind of translate what an offensive line is trying to do."

For example, if a quarterback gets sacked on a play, it can be a little ambiguous in the moment as to who is at fault, even after watching. People like Oldenburg can help identify whether a sack is truly because of the offensive line or if a running back missed an assignment.

Speed is a popular metric that skill players want to see improved during the season. Terry McLaurin, for example, said that Curtis Samuel should be faster than him in the game. So, Oldenburg and the adjusters can pull stats from Next Gen Stats on players' average miles per hour.

"We'll use literally any tool at our disposal," Oldenburg said.

And occasionally, Oldenburg will find a player not in the system that deserves more attention. That was the case with practice squad offensive lineman Mason Brooks, who wasn't even on the roster when the game launched earlier this month. That might change soon, as Oldenburg left Commanders practice impressed with the undrafted free agent.

"I put his name down here, and he's a guy that we're gonna go make sure we have him included," Oldenburg said.

This is not the only time Madden will update its ratings between now and the end of the season. Increases and decreases happen each week, Oldenburg said. Ratings will fall with poor performances, but they will also increase if a team performs above expectations.

The Commanders as a team were given a rating of 80 at launch, but if they can have the season the coaches and fans believe is possible for the squad, that number should increase throughout the season.

"I was really excited about the receiver group," Oldenburg said. "They got a lot of really good athletes in that group. Not only McLaurin and Jahan, but Dyami Brown looked really good. The biggest thing that stuck out was Sam Howell. I hadn't seen him in person until today. He looks like an NFL quarterback. He's got really good feedback here. I'm excited to see what he does with the full season."

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