How John Madden Became the Face of a Video Game Empire

Trip Hawkins first met John Madden on the dining car of an Amtrak train traveling from Denver to Oakland, Calif., In 1984, after Madden agreed to lend his name and footballing prowess to a video game. football simulation. Madden, the legendary trainer and host, was quick to point out who would be the prime contractor.

Due to limitations in computer processing power, Hawkins, who had founded game company Electronic Arts two years earlier, pitched the idea of ​​a video game with seven-on-seven football, rather than the one-man version. 11-on-11 used in the NFL Madden just looked at it and said “it’s not really football,” Hawkins recalls. He had to agree.

“If it was going to be me and it was going to be professional football there had to be 22 guys on screen,” Madden once said. says ESPN. “If we couldn’t have that, we couldn’t have a game. “

The extra years spent developing a more realistic game called John Madden Football and released in 1988 for the Apple II computer have paid off. Decades later, the Madden NFL video game series continues to sell millions of copies each year, helped make EA one of the world’s most important game companies, and left a lasting mark. on football fans and the NFL.

Although he coached the Oakland Raiders to a Super Bowl victory and received praise for his work as a television analyst, Madden, who died Tuesday at the age of 85, is best known to the Legions of young sports fans like the namesake of the iconic video game franchise which has generated more than $ 7 billion in revenue.

“Every dorm right now, every basement, every couch, there’s people sitting playing Madden,” said Scott Cole, a longtime sports broadcaster who called games for several years for the Madden Championship Series., the most competitive Madden NFL tournaments.

Madden was much more than a figurehead in the game franchise, which sold over 130 million copies in its first 30 years through 2018, according to the company. For a decade Madden, and not star athletes like Jerry Rice or Barry Sanders, graced the covers of the game. For the early iterations of the game, he lent his broadcast voice and spent days in a studio recording them. full-color commentary to recount simulated games as players controlled their teams.

From the start, he insisted on realism, instructing developers on such fine-grained details as how a defensive player should approach and what positions linemen should use in certain formations.

The early interaction on the train – Madden had a fear of flying his entire life – showed Hawkins that Madden, despite being affable and entertaining, took the development process seriously.

“Everything John says is the last word. He had that kind of presence and the ability to be the commander, ”said Hawkins. “It doesn’t matter if I’m running my business, he’s always going to tell me what to do,” he added with a laugh.

Rex Dickson, who was the Creative Director of Madden NFL from 2012 to 2018, said he and his team of developers would visit Madden each year at his football complex in Pleasanton, Calif., Where he would brief EA on changes to the game. game, then sit down to watch soccer with them while eating breakfast burritos and sundaes.

Madden held court in a “fat man cave,” Dickson recalls, with televisions everywhere and Madden family members and former Raiders players entering and exiting the sprawling complex. Madden sat in the center of the room.

“He was definitely a larger-than-life character,” Dickson said, “but what I remember the most about him is how magnetic he was.”

The trip was a reward for EA’s stellar employees, but it could also be stressful, as Madden stepped in during a presentation to explain why the game was implementing a mechanic badly.

“He wouldn’t be afraid to stop you halfway through and ask you about your football knowledge or ask you to validate why something was worth it, and you would certainly know better what you were talking about,” said Dickson.

Donny Moore, who worked on the game for EA for 20 years, recalled showing Madden the first version of the game that included referees. “John’s first response was that the referees are too close to the line of scrimmage,” said Moore. “It was something that a football coach and analyst would notice right away. Game designers and video game enthusiasts might not understand this on the first try.

Madden’s desire to make the game as precise as possible came even as he realized that the real sport he loved didn’t always match how other people had fun.

“I actually went crazy once, when my son Joe and Michael Frank were playing,” Madden said Grantland in 2012. “They were on the bus and the score was 98-96. None of them have ever kicked. It would be like a fourth and twenty, and they would. I was so pissed off. I said, ‘You have to kick.’ And they never wanted to punt.

Still, he hoped that video games would help everyday fans learn the intricacies of soccer games and enjoy the sport more fully.

Madden has punctuated the game’s development process with teachable moments. Once at Madden, Hawkins teased Madden for never delivering a playbook with 150 coins that could be used in-game, as his contract demanded.

“Basically he pulled a 1980 Raiders playbook from a shelf and handed it to me and said, ‘Here we go,’” recalls Hawkins. “Here is the playbook, you will find out. “

Tim Esfandiari, former college footballer and Twitch broadcaster who broadcasts Madden games and talks football to his nearly one million followers, said Madden’s goal of bringing football to the masses had inspired him.

“What he wanted to do is a lot like what I try to do with my streams,” Esfandiari said, adding that a lot of his viewers “aren’t American, don’t know anything about football, but have now entered the game. football “via video game.

Added Cam Weber, Executive Vice President of EA Sports: “Fans who have never had the chance to see Coach Madden on the sidelines or hear his voice from the booth know him and have been touched by his legacy. through the Madden NFL franchise.

The game has also influenced a generation of players and coaches.

Raheem Morris, who said he majored in Madden in college, was hired as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach in 2009 when he was just 32 years old. He credited Madden with a youthful movement among sports coaches: building franchises, they play the game, they put up games, make games since we were about 12 years old, ”he said. day. Tampa Bay weather.

Like most long-standing franchises, the popularity of Madden NFL has fluctuated over the years. A spike came in the 2003 NFL season when the game’s coverage featured quarterback Michael Vick, who dazzled real football audiences with his scintillating speed and rushing ability while becoming revolutionary and unstoppable. in the video game.

Prior to the Atlanta Falcons’ playoff game against the Green Bay Packers in January 2003, Vick spoke to Madden and announcer Al Michaels. Vick said Madden told him if the Falcons, a 6-point betting underdog, beat Green Bay, he would put Vick on video game coverage for the next round. This is exactly what the Falcons did.

“I didn’t think it was just because of John – I was one of the most dynamic players back then and it was just the perfect fit – but John promised me that and he kept. word, “Vick said in an interview.

Vick said people constantly tell him they enjoy using his character in the video game, credit to the detailed player profiles and distinct styles.

“The fact that I was on the game and what I represented on the game brought more attention to myself and the quarterbacks who look like me and who have played the game like me,” said Vick. “Now it doesn’t matter what you look like or what you play – now anyone can adorn the cover.”

In recent years, however, players have said the title has become obsolete. Unlike other successful franchises like League of Legends or Dota, which primarily feature singular games with continuous updates, EA releases a new Madden NFL every year, and players often complain that each version is largely the same, with few new features besides the updates to the list.

“Things are starting to fall apart,” Esfandiari said. “There were a lot of people who were unhappy with Madden State for the majority of the 2010s.”

Still, their grumbling hasn’t stopped gamers from continuing to flock to the title, so much so that some younger fans barely know that the word Madden means anything other than a video game.

“You won’t see Bill Belichick Football in 40 years,” said Moore. “It’s unique in video games, it’s unique in sports to see how a person’s name transcends the sport itself. “

Emmanuel Morgan contributed reports.

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