Nine Things Nerds Can Appreciate about Football’s Game Design

The Super Bowl is this weekend, and you know what that means: Superb Owl! and Sportsball! memes galore. But I noticed that many of my friends who mock the sport also love strategy games like Magic the Gathering, Starcraft, or 7 Wonders — and thus I know they can appreciate a well-designed game.

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There are plenty of reasons to criticize the NFL: a hypocritical position on brutal hits, stinginess in paying the refs, the exploitation of unpaid college athletes, and of course the (somewhat improving) issue of concussions and player safety.

But for my fellow nerds, here are some elements of the National Football League that you can look at on a strategic game-design level and say “Ok, that’s actually really cool.”

Nine? Elements of Football that Reflect Good Strategic Game Design

Resource Management:

Like most good games, a key component is making smart decisions about where to invest your resources.


In the NFL, the collective bargaining agreement between owners and the players’ union sets a salary cap to set a maximum (and minimum) that teams can spend each year.

Would you want to pay premium for a star or spread that salary around and upgrade more positions? It might depend on synergies with the rest of your roster. (Or you can get lucky with a player like Tom Brady who takes less money than his market value so his team can surround him with more talent.)

Rookies, as unproven quantities, are typically signed on a very affordable contract for their first few years, whereas established veterans can be much pricier. Teams are faced with the question of where they can afford to have uncertainty on their roster — contenders rarely want to risk an unproven player at quarterback, while teams that are a bit further away can take that gamble.

Time / (Plus Good Catch-up Mechanics):

In any game, there’s incentive for the person losing to resort to riskier higher-variance strategies. In football, that’s passing plays, which have a chance of gaining a lot of yards or not being caught at all. A neat aspect of football is that incomplete passes can stop the clock.

When a team is behind, time is one of the most precious resources it has, so this means the game is structured to give them every opportunity to claw their way back. Deciding when to burn time (and time-outs) is cruicial, and something even the best coaches struggle to do well.

Energy Level in Game:

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This is a minor point, but one I found really neat: Playing defense tends to be more exhausting than playing offense. If an offense can run many plays in rapid succession without huddling up or substituting — and thus prevent the defense from substituting in fresh players as well — they can gain an edge over an increasingly-tired defense.

Synergies Between Players and Schemes

Building a roster

Of course, the downside of this kind of “Hurry up offense” is that the offense is also stuck with the same players on the field and doesn’t have as much time for coaches to call the next play. Teams that want to use more hurry-up offense may need to hire versatile players who can be counted on to run many types of play, and an experienced quarterback who can make smart changes on the fly.

Since players have unique skill sets, teams need to build around who’s coming out of college and who they can afford to sign. Just like putting together a Magic the Gathering or Netrunner deck to find and build on synergies, Football has fantastic interplay between skills, style, and strategy.

Finding a generational talent like Detroit’s ultra-elusive running back Barry Sanders opens up a host of new options for a team. The Detroit Lions never focused on their offensive linemen — who would try to clear the way for him — because, frankly, Barry could succeed without them. (Until he got fed up and retired early, which is a story of its own.)

If a team has a quarterback with pinpoint accuracy but a weak arm, paying for blazing fast wide receivers to race down the field and catch deep passes doesn’t make as much sense as signing shifty and precise route-runners. However, to make good use of a quarterback with a cannon-arm, fast receivers aren’t enough — he needs strong offensive linemen to protect him and give him time to throw.

There are countless interactions between strategic decisions and I love it.

Strategic Structural Asymmetries

Stadiums and Cities Matter

Even the stadium and climate in a city factor into a football team’s strategy.

Because it’s considered more difficult to pass the ball in cold and windy weather, teams in the frigid Northern divisions are more likely to focus on building a running attack and a defense that can stop the other team from running successfully. As winter approaches, they can count on the environment to limit the passing game.

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However, roughly a third of teams play in indoor stadiums — eliminating the weather and the wind to make passing strategies more effective. Since half a team’s games are played at home, it has disproportionate impact on how they want to build a roster. A few stadiums even have retractable roofs, which let them decide whether to allow the elements to impact the game!

Leveraged Division Structure

An NFL division is comprised of four teams who play each other twice every season. The team in each division with the best record is guaranteed a spot in the playoffs. (Even if NONE of the teams were very good – the Washington Football Team made the playoffs this year despite losing more than half their games!)

This makes it even more crucial to plan how to counter division opponents’ schemes, and those rivalry games are usually close and exciting.

If an opposing team in your division has exceptionally tall, strong receivers you can’t afford to be caught assigning small cornerbacks to guard them. You’d need to keep that in mind when building a roster.

Well Designed Scoring System

Intermittent Scoring to Build Excitement Throughout

In the NBA, a jaw-dropping feat of athleticism… gets 2 or 3 points. Since teams average over 100 points a game, there’s a limit to how impactful any one play can be until the last minutes of a game.

On the other end of the spectrum, each score in soccer is rare and thus hugely important. Unfortunately, goals are so infrequent that historically, over 30% of English league games end with neither team scoring more than once. Those rare goals are dramatic, but personally I find it difficult to get excited about the intervening dribbling and passing when I know it’s very unlikely to shape the final result.

It’s a tradeoff, and football’s rules situate it nicely between these extremes. There are typically around 8 scoring plays each NFL game, and even the non-scoring plays are impactful (see below).

Building Progress / Tension

Getting a player on base in baseball or softball, winning a game or a set in tennis’ Game/Set/Match structure, or defeating a video game monster and getting to heal at a save point — these smaller discrete goals build toward the larger one.

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Football is designed to have two key ways to make non-scoring plays significant. First, teams are only given four chances (downs) to score before they turn the ball over to the other team — but the count is reset every time they gain another 10 yards. Every third-down and fourth-down opportunity has more importance because it’s approaching that impactful mini-goal, breathing more life into a drive.

But even without this ratcheting structure, non-scoring progress matters because field position is a ‘stateful’ element which persists from one play to the next. Where one play ends, the next one begins. Every yard one team moves forward is an extra yard the opponents will need to win back. It’s a tug-of-war with scoring opportunities on the line at any time.

“Legacy” Narratives

Legacy games are all the rage, and for good reason. (Our country even decided to LARP a game of Pandemic Legacy!)

The fact that players, teams, and coaches have storylines, rivalries, and arcs is a big part of the human element to football. We’re watching some of the legends of their craft face off each week, with history between them and human motivations.

On Sunday, we get to watch completely different quarterbacks compete: young phenom Patrick Mahomes against the unaging Tom Brady. Mahomes, who won last year, is widely considered one of the best in the league despite being only 25. In contrast, Brady is 43 and amazingly this is his tenth Super Bowl appearance. He’s been playing at an elite level for decades, and he won his first Super Bowl in 2002 — when Mahomes was 6.

Most of Brady’s 20 years were spent under coach Bill Belichick, known for being brilliant and famously taciturn. (Unless, of course, you ask him about the history and minutia of football kicking rules, which makes him light up and talk for ages.) However, last year Brady decided to leave Belichick and the New England Patriots, so people were wondering whether he could succeed with a different coach. He’s answered those questions in dramatic fashion.

When storylines carry over from campaign to campaign or season to season, it’s a great way to build long narratives of meaning and importance.

Whether or not you enjoy watching the sport, there’s a lot it does well from a design perspective and I recommend anyone who enjoys strategy to try playing some of the Madden video games — how I initially got excited about the game.

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