Rex Dickson spent over 6 years as the creative director of EA Sports’ football video games like Madden and NCAA Football. Then one day around a year ago, Electronic Arts and Mr. Dickson parted ways over creative differences.
Since then, the role he vacated has been filled by a few different people and seen plenty of turnover in the under 12 months since his departure. During that time, community sentiment towards Madden is way down and an overwhelming portion of the community views Madden 19 as the worst Madden game in a long time.
Mr. Dickson brought a steady hand and experienced leadership to Madden. During his tenure as the creative director of Madden, there were a few big wins. We overlook many of them now but at the time they were very important and the rewards from them are still seen today.
- MUT Squads – Bringing back the popular team play feature that was removed in the past was a huge win for much of the Madden community.
- More defensive coverage options – It may seem like a long time ago but before Madden 17, we had extremely limited zone defenses. There was a time when a light blue zone was a light blue zone and there was no situational adjustment you could make to it. The Madden community may complain about coverages today but it was only 2-3 years ago that the Madden team introduced 10 new zone defenses. Now a light blue zone can be a hard flat, cloud flat, or a soft squat.
- Huge prize pools for competitive Madden – The state of competitive Madden is a topic for a different time. While it may not be run very effectively at present, before Mr. Dickson’s tenure there were no million dollar prize pools every year.
You couldn’t find a more engaging creative director in all of gaming. Responding to community feedback every day, stopping in on Twitch streams large and small, always granting interviews to podcasters, YouTubers, and websites. You can’t find a more generous person with their time.
The interactions with Rex were largely driven by angry fans yelling about issues they wanted fixed. It isn’t too big of a stretch to imagine that 90% of what he saw on a day-to-day basis was angry comments from fans who just wanted to vent and he made an easy scapegoat.
If you talk to anyone deep into the Madden community: Twitch streamers, websites, Youtubers, etc every single one of them will tell you about how much Mr. Dickson cared for Madden.
You can see the outpouring of love from the community upon his departure. While anyone leaving an old job generally gets well wishes for the future, he received hundreds of comments from fans who genuinely wanted to thank him.
Much of the community still doesn’t understand that the people who make the game aren’t the people who decide the budget/development areas/resources for the game. Sure they have some creative leeway, but it isn’t nearly what you’d expect.
The big decisions are made by corporate suits based solely on the potential return on investment. After all, Electronic Arts is a publicly traded company with a responsibility to their shareholders.
The tweet below shared by popular sports gaming YouTuber MrGoldenSports sums up how these conversations can often go.
Many fans assumed that because the Madden franchise had struggled to improve lately, it was all Mr. Dickson’s fault. We often assume that employees working on the game don’t care, aren’t talented, or aren’t working very hard.
None of these could be further from the truth. Often times the people who go work on these games are hardcore fans who spent years working for free in the community. Guys like RG, Sgibs, Zfarls, Kraelo, Moonlight Swami and Mole are just a sampling of the many guys currently working on Madden that are bigger fans of the Madden franchise than 99.99% of the community will ever be.
That isn’t to say that the employees working on the game deserve absolutely no blame for the lack of progress in Madden but the rage that many of these employees encounter on social media certainly isn’t proportional.
Mr. Dickson was often the lightning rod for customer rage with what felt like the entire Madden community calling for his job every time a new bug was discovered in the game.
As fans, most of us have no idea what is going on behind the scenes of a $30 billion dollar corporation like Electronic Arts.
Just because a new feature isn’t added or an annoying bug isn’t fixed, doesn’t mean that the employees didn’t fight for it. At the end of the day, it isn’t always their decision to make.
To put it into a long football analogy, Mr. Dickson was the steady head coach of an NFL team with a terrible owner and general manager. He never got the support he needed from the higher ups but still managed to put out a decent product on the field.
His team would steadily perform but never “wow” you. They would go 7-9 every year, always competing, always feeling close but not quite there yet.
After years of this decent but never mind blowing performance, fans get anxious and start calling for the head coach’s job on social media. They’d blame the head coach for every problem, when really the coach was doing a pretty good job given the situation he was in.
At the time, many thought Rex Dickson was former Los Angeles Rams head coach Jeff Fisher. “If only we could get rid of him and get a new young and innovative coach like Sean McVay, all our problems would be solved.”
That wasn’t at all the case. In reality the whole situation relates much more closely to the Oakland Raiders. A once proud franchise with good players and a lot of passionate fans but shortsighted owners seeking instant gratification.
Every year or 2 they change head coaches, draft the exciting players, and sign a few free agents promising that this time it will be different. Sometimes the Raiders would show signs of life and sometimes they would have a decent season but in the long run they are still the Raiders. Always trying to win right now and never doing the painful (and unrewarding in the short term) work of fixing the real issues of the franchise.
Jack Del Rio was the head coach of the Raiders from 2015-2017. He went 25-23 with the team over 3 seasons.
The Raiders had 8 head coaches since the year 2002 before Del Rio took over. Not one of them had a winning record over the course of their time with the team.
Before he took over the Raiders, Del Rio led the Jacksonville Jaguars from obscurity into a yearly playoff contender from 2003-2011. The Jaguars fired him and in the 8 years since have had 4 coaches and only 1 decent season.
The Raiders ownership hasn’t been great lately. The Jaguars ownership has never been great but in Del Rio you had a coach who massively overachieved given the resources he had. Still, the end product left fans wanting more.
Is Jack Del Rio a Hall of Fame coach? Absolutely not. Did he make a lot of decisions that fans didn’t like? Sure, but at the end of the day he led competitive teams when the odds were stacked against him.
At some point you have to stop blaming the coaches (Mr. Dickson) and the players (Tiburon employees making Madden). Instead, the attention must be turned toward management and the owners (EA).
Fans have just as much of a chance to change the management policies of the Oakland Raiders as they do of changing the policies of Electronic Arts. While fans can’t change the overall direction of the franchise, they can demand more transparency from companies.
Mr. Dickson was a leader in the movement to make the people behind our favorite games more accessible. He was one of the first creative directors to make himself available on social media websites like Twitter where he routinely engaged with fans and answered many of their game related questions.
During his time at EA, one of his priorities was to be more transparent with the community. Many of the employees working under him could also routinely be found on social media chatting with fans.
Since his departure, the only people we hear any news from are community manager types. AKA people whose job it is to engage with the community.
Just last year their used to be a thriving culture of engagement and transparency on Twitter. Guys like Clint Oldenburg, Jake Stein, Sgibs, Zfarls, Equipment Guru and countless others used to be much more open and active within the Madden community.
Over the last couple of years, misguided fans have started attacking many of them personally, some even escalating to death threats over flaws in Madden. We’ve decided not to publish any of those tweets but fans who are active in the Madden community see them pop up with astounding regularity.
This is one of the many reasons why people working on Madden no longer engage with fans. Unless they are a community manager, it isn’t in their job description and they only do it because of their passion for the game.
Why would they spend their free time getting attacked for things that are outside of their power to change? Once things escalate past a certain point and their mentions are filled with people attacking them, it is a natural response to step back.
That of course leads to less transparency from people inside EA and more frustration from fans. And thus the cycle continues in a downward spiral.
A few years ago, we would get decent (while admittedly not amazing) Madden games. As it stands today, we have a franchise in disarray changing creative directors every year with the results getting worse and no clear vision or direction for the future. Fans are now left completely in the dark.
The very same people who were calling for Mr. Dickson’s job in the past are now begging him to return and save the Madden franchise.
The old saying, “You don’t know what you have until its gone” rings more true today than ever before.