There aren't many video game franchises that can be called "sure things," but the "Madden" series is about as close as you can get.
Since 1988, the football simulator from Electronic Arts has captured player attention and its release is considered the flagpole event that kicks off the industry's holiday season. And it's always among the year's top-selling titles.
The release of "Madden NFL 18," which hits shelves Friday, marks a shift, of sorts, for the title, though. While new iterations usually have small tweaks, this year's entry in the series has one of the biggest additions of the past several years.
In addition to the game's usual pick-up-and-play and multiplayer modes, this year's "Madden" includes a track called "Longshot Mode," a narrative single-player game that puts players in the shoes of an NFL rookie as he starts on the long path of becoming a star. It's a story mode in a sports game, something that "Madden" has never done before (and few sports games have tried before Take-Two Interactive Software's "NBA 2K" series did it two years ago).
The publisher hopes the new gameplay elements will increase the game's immersion factor for players — and while it's likely fans will embrace the addition, it's hard to see how they could be more immersed in the franchise.
"'Madden' is a machine that keeps rolling on," says P.J. McNealy, founder and CEO of Digital World Research. "There's a dedicated fan base that loves the NFL and 'Madden' is a huge part of it."
Beyond taking a more personal look at football (which encompasses the sacrifices players make early on, the stress of going through the NFL combine to impress scouts and, ultimately, the price of celebrity and the potential downsides it can have for people around you), "Madden NFL 18" also boasts a notably improved graphics engine and fans will be able to play upcoming NFL matchups with updated stats and rosters as well as fresh in-game commentary.
The game is earning some of the best reviews for "Madden" in years, which is likely to cheer EA investors. But even if it draws a larger-than-usual audience, it's unlikely to negatively impact sales of other titles coming out later this year.
That's largely due to the difference in genres. While players are buying fewer titles each year than they used to (and spending more time with those titles), that has generally only extended into competitors in the same style of gameplay. For instance, while there's still some cross-purchasing for Activision's "Call of Duty" and EA's "Battlefield" franchises, a significant number of gamers opt for just one of those shooters.
"Madden" is also a game that's family friendly, meaning parents can play with their kids, then swap in "Assassin's Creed Origins" when those kids go to bed.
Of course, some football enthusiasts will play "Madden" almost obsessively. The release of each year's game is marked by a series of superfans who call in sick on release day. And NFL players regularly check their in-game player rankings to see that they're adequately represented, though some (especially rookies) tend to overestimate their numbers, as EA tweeted in this video leading up to the game's release.
EA's domination of the sports genre has wavered a bit in recent years, as Take-Two has built the dominant NBA game in the industry with "NBA 2K." But since 2004, EA has had an exclusive licensing deal with the NFL and the NFL Players Association, ensuring that its crown jewel wasn't stolen.
And while some fans occasionally take to gaming message boards to wish for a competitor, analysts say those hopes are likely in vain.
"If you look at the past 16 years, there have been several competitors who tried to take down 'Madden' — and, to date, all have failed," said McNealy. "I don't see that changing this year."
Strauss Zelnick, CEO of Take-Two, is even more succinct.
"We're pretty certain that EA has the NFL locked up," he says.