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How John Madden Became the Gaming Industry's "Larger-Than-Life" Face

Madden, who died on Tuesday, was a key figure in the development of a series of football computer games that have grossed $7 billion since 1988.

By Grecu Daniel CristianPublished 3 years ago 6 min read
Top Story - January 2022
John Madden’s video game franchise debuted in 1988 for the Apple II computer.

Trip Hawkins met John Madden in the dining compartment of an Amtrak train going from Denver to Oakland, Calif., in 1984, after Madden agreed to give his name and football prowess to a video game. Madden, the famed coach and announcer, made it apparent right away who would be in charge.

Due to the limitations of computer processing power, Hawkins, who had formed the gaming business Electronic Arts two years prior, proposed a video game featuring seven-on-seven football rather than the 11-on-11 version played in the National Football League. Hawkins remembers Madden simply staring at him and saying, "That isn't really football." He had no choice but to agree.

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

The extra time spent building a more realistic game, John Madden Football, for the Apple II computer, which released in 1988, paid off. The Madden NFL video game franchise continues to sell millions of copies each year, has helped EA become one of the world's most popular gaming businesses, and has made a lasting influence on football fandom and the National Football League.

Despite coaching the Oakland Raiders to a Super Bowl victory and being praised for his work as a television pundit, Madden, who died Tuesday at the age of 85, is better known to legions of younger sports fans as the namesake of the legendary video game brand that has grossed more than $7 billion.

"Right now, people are sitting down playing Madden in every dorm room, every basement, every couch," said Scott Cole, a longtime sports announcer who has called games for the Madden Championship Series, the most competitive Madden NFL events, for several years.

According to the corporation, Madden was far more than a frontman for the gaming series, which sold more than 130 million copies in its first 30 years. For a decade, Madden was the face of the game, not star athletes like Jerry Rice or Barry Sanders. He offered his broadcasting voice and spent days in a studio recording color commentary to narrate the simulated games while players controlled their teams in early editions of the game.

He insisted on realism from the outset, guiding devs on minute things like how a defensive player should tackle and which stances linemen should take during various formations.

Despite being friendly and amusing, Madden took the development process seriously, as seen by their early meeting on the train – Madden had a lifelong phobia of flying.

"Whatever John has to say is definitive." Hawkins remarked, "He had that kind of presence and the capacity to be the commander." With a giggle, he continued, "It didn't matter that I was running my company; he's still going to tell me what to do."

From 2012 to 2018, Rex Dickson, the creative director of Madden NFL, said he and his team of developers would go to Madden's football compound in Pleasanton, Calif., to grill E.A. on game changes and then sit down with them to watch football while eating breakfast burritos and ice cream sundaes.

Madden conducted court in a "gigantic man cave," according to Dickson, with televisions strewn about and Madden's family members and former Raiders players passing by. Madden sat in the room's center.

"He was clearly a larger-than-life guy," Dickson said, "but what I remember about him the most is how fascinating he was."

The trip was meant to be a reward for top E.A. employees, but it could also be stressful because Madden would interrupt a presentation to explain why the game was incorrectly implementing a mechanic.

"He wouldn't be afraid to stop you in the middle of a game and quiz you on your football knowledge or ask you to justify why something was worth the money, and you'd better know what you were talking about," Dickson said.

Donny Moore, who has worked on the game for E.A. for the past 20 years, recalled when Madden was given the first version of the game with referees. Moore stated, "John's first reaction was that the referees were too close to the line of scrimmage."“It was something a football coach and analyst would spot right away. Game designers and video game people might not catch that the first time.”

Madden's ambition to make the game as accurate as possible arose from his realization that the real sport he adored did not always correspond to how other people enjoyed themselves.

In 2012, Madden told Grantland, "I went insane one time, in fact, when my son Joe and Michael Frank played." "They were on the bus, and the score was 98-96," says the narrator. Neither of them has ever attempted a punt. It'd be a fourth-and-20 situation, and they'd go for it. I was enraged to the point of rage. 'You've got to punt,' I said. They also didn't want to punt."

Nonetheless, he hoped that the video game will assist everyday fans in learning the intricacies of football plays and allowing them to enjoy the sport more fully.

Madden sprinkled instructional moments throughout the game creation process. Hawkins taunted Madden for not providing a playbook containing 150 plays that might be used in the game, as required by his contract, at Madden's house.

Hawkins remembered, "He just yanked a 1980 Raiders playbook off a shelf and handed it to me and said, 'Here you go.'" "I'll hand you the playbook and tell you how to figure it out."

Madden's goal of bringing football to the masses inspired Tim Esfandiari, a former college football player and Twitch streamer who streams Madden games and chats about football to his almost one million followers.

"What he intended to achieve is similar to what I try to do with my streams," Esfandiari said, noting that many of his viewers "are not Americans, don't know anything about football, but have now become into football" thanks to the video game.

"Fans who never had the chance to see Coach Madden on the sideline or hear his voice from the booth know him and have been touched by his legacy through the Madden NFL franchise," said Cam Weber, executive vice president of E.A. Sports.

A generation of players and coaches were also affected by the game.

Raheem Morris, who has stated that he studied in Madden in college, was hired as the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2009, when he was only 32 years old. He credited Madden with sparking a youth movement among football coaches: "They've been building franchises, playing the game, setting up plays, developing plays since we were around 12," he once told The Tampa Bay Times.

Madden NFL 22 is the latest incarnation of the franchise.Credit...

Madden NFL's popularity has changed over the years, as it has with most long-running series. The game's cover featured Michael Vick, who impressed real-life football spectators with his blazing speed and rushing skills while being game-breaking and unstoppable in the computer game.

Vick spoke with Madden and commentator Al Michaels ahead of the Atlanta Falcons' wild-card playoff game against the Green Bay Packers in January 2003. Vick claimed Madden informed him that if the Falcons upset Green Bay, a 6-point betting underdog, he would put Vick on the cover of the next cycle of the video game. That's exactly what the Falcons accomplished.

"I didn't think it was just because of John — I was one of the most dynamic players at the time, and it was just the perfect fit," Vick said in an interview. "But John did promise me that, and he kept his word," Vick said.

People frequently tell Vick that they enjoy playing as his character in the video game, which he attributes to the comprehensive player profiles and distinct styles.

"Me being on the game and what I represented on the game drew more attention to myself and quarterbacks that looked like me and played the game like me," Vick explained. "It no longer matters how you appear or play - anyone can adorn the front cover now."

However, gamers have complained that the game has become stale in recent years. Unlike other popular franchises such as League of Legends or Dota, which have single-player games with regular updates, EA produces a new Madden NFL every year, and gamers frequently grumble that each version seems largely the same, with few new features aside from roster revisions.

"Things start to come apart," Esfandiari explained. "For the most of the 2010s, a lot of people were dissatisfied with the condition of Madden."

Despite their complaints, gamers continue to flock to the game, to the point where some younger fans are unaware that the phrase Madden refers to something other than a video game.


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Grecu Daniel Cristian

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    Grecu Daniel CristianWritten by Grecu Daniel Cristian

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