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The Rise Of The Madden Football Phenomenon

The Rise Of The Madden Football Phenomenon

Photo: Argus Leader/USA TODAY Sports

Just say the word “Madden” and football comes to mind.

John Madden is a cultural icon, whether it’s from his time as a Super Bowl-winning coach for the Oakland Raiders, his many years as America’s favorite NFL broadcaster or his incredibly popular video game franchise.

Simply known as Madden, the video game bearing his name has been the dominant sports game since its release for Sega Genesis in 1990. From a shaky start, it has grown into the foundation of an entire sports gaming culture. 

As the Madden NFL video game has grown in popularity, Madden the player and coach has begun to fade into the background. But to fully understand the history of Madden, it’s important to know a little about the game’s namesake. 

Madden’s football career

After playing college football for the Cal Poly Mustangs, Madden was drafted as an offensive lineman by the Philadelphia Eagles as the 244th pick in the 21st round of the 1958 NFL Draft. 

However, he never played a game in the NFL. Madden suffered a knee injury during his first training camp and his NFL career never really took off. 

When did Madden become a football coach?

Madden became an assistant college football coach in 1960 at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria. He was quickly promoted to head coach two years later. 

Following the 1962 season at Allan Hancock College, Madden was hired as the defensive coordinator at San Diego State University in 1963. He coached there for three seasons until 1966. 

In 1967, legendary Raiders owner Al Davis hired Madden as defensive coordinator for the AFL’s Oakland Raiders. The team reached Super Bowl II that same season. 

After the team’s head coach resigned to take another job, Madden was promoted to head coach of the Oakland Raiders on February 4, 1969. 

At 32 years of age, Madden became the youngest head coach in professional football. He led the Raiders to a 12-1-1 record and an appearance in the AFL Championship Game against the Kansas City Chiefs. The Raiders lost 17-7.    

The following year, in 1970, the AFL merged with the NFL.   

Madden’s record as a coach

As head coach for the Oakland Raiders, Madden had an overall record of 103-32-7. His team reached the AFC Championship Game five times before winning Super Bowl XI against the Minnesota Vikings in 1977. 

During his run of AFC Championship Games, Madden lost the “Immaculate Reception” game to the Pittsburgh Steelers when Franco Harris caught a deflected pass from Terry Bradshaw and ran it for a touchdown. 

As head coach of the Raiders, Madden became the youngest coach to win 100 games and only trailed behind George Halas and Curly Lambeau as the fastest to do so. During his time as head coach, the Raiders made the postseason in all but two seasons.

Retiring from football

After an incredibly successful career as an NFL head coach, Madden retired from coaching on January 4, 1979, citing worsening stomach ulcers. 

According to an article from the January 5, 1979 edition of The Washington Post, coaching had taken a huge toll on Madden’s overall health and mental well-being. 

From the NFL sidelines to the announcer booth

Madden became an NFL broadcaster for CBS in 1979, the same year he retired from coaching. He turned down an offer from Pete Rozelle to work in the league’s front office. 

By 1981, Madden was a color commentator next to Pat Summerall and was calling the most popular games of the week. The pair would go on to call eight Super Bowls together. 

As NFL television contracts changed, Madden moved from network to network but was always part of the top broadcasting team. After working with Summerall for many years on FOX, he joined Al Michaels in the booth for ABC’s Monday Night Football in 2002

The duo moved to NBC’s Sunday Night Football in 2006. 

Madden’s final NFL game as a broadcaster was Super Bowl XLIII on February 1, 2009, between the Arizona Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers. 

What was Madden’s RV called?

Throughout his broadcasting career, Madden traveled from game to game in a vehicle called the “Madden Cruiser.” The original Madden Cruiser, a converted Greyhound bus, was donated by Madden to the NFL Hall of Fame in 2018.  

In 1987, the debut of the Madden Cruiser, it logged 55,000 miles. That mileage increased through the years to an average of 80,000 miles per year. 

Before he got his own custom bus, CBS once rented Dolly Parton’s tour bus for Madden. 

Why was Madden afraid of flying?

In a 1987 interview with the LA Times, Madden said that it’s not that he fears flying, he’s just afraid of dying. He also cites claustrophobia. 

In the aforementioned 1979 article from The Washington Post, it’s also reported that Madden luckily avoided a flight in 1960 that ended in the death of several Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo players, and has avoided flying since. 

However, Madden himself never cited that as a reason. 

The history of the Madden NFL video game

It’s hard to imagine that Madden ever had a video game console in the Madden Cruiser, despite how tricked out it was otherwise. So how did he become the icon behind one of the most successful video game franchises in history? 

Madden partners with EA sports

Madden was approached by the founder of EA Sports, Trip Hawkins, in 1984. Hawkins, who started working at Apple Computers in 1978, calls himself an “avid sports fan.”

According to Madden, he was interested in how computers could be used for coaching, so he was intrigued when Hawkins, a Harvard graduate, approached him with the idea of a computer game based on football.  

In an interview with ESPN, Madden commented that he thought Hawkins’ idea could be a great teaching tool. Plus, he considered anyone who could use a computer at the time to be a genius.

At the time, most computer games based on football didn’t feature 11-on-11 gameplay. Madden was insistent that his game have 22 players on the field. 

According to Madden, and as any EA Sports fan will recognize, he wanted it to depict real football. If it’s in the real game, he wanted it to be in the video game. 

What were the first football video games like?

In 1978, Atari released a game called Football for its Atari 2600 system. It only featured three players per side with very limited controls. The solid-color players resembled misshapen squares. 

Then came Intellivision’s NFL Football in 1979. It consisted of five players per side and had over 160 offensive plays. But, you could only control one player on either offense or defense. The players were a little more advanced than Football on the Atari 2600, but they were still far from resembling anything close to an actual football player. 

10 Yard Fight was released for Nintendo in 1983. It made a huge jump in graphics and the players took a little more shape, with discernible legs and arms in multi-colored uniforms and helmets. 

Tecmo Bowl, the prequel to the much-loved Tecmo Super Bowl, was released in arcades in 1987 and ported to Nintendo two years later. With NFLPA licensing, it featured real players and teams and made a big leap in graphics. 

It only had four offensive plays but allowed for much more control over the players on the screen—most notably, Bo Jackson. However, it still didn’t feature 11-on-11 gameplay.  

Creating the game playbook

Madden’s first involvement in the computer game was drawing up plays for Hawkins and Joe Ybarra and introducing them to a playbook.   

They wanted to create a “football simulation,” meaning it was highly complex and more detailed than other football games on the market. 

Even with all their efforts, Madden still admitted that it didn’t really look like football, but he was still impressed with what they were able to produce.  

Madden’s insistence on authenticity created challenges for the game’s developers. 

Hawkins was a huge fan of Strat-O-Matic Football, a tabletop football board game first released in 1968 and played with cards and dice. It’s heavily based on statistics and chance, but also involves a lot of strategy. 

Each player has a set of cards that correspond to different players with unique abilities. One player plays offense and the other plays defense. 

The outcome of each “play” is determined by the roll of the dice and the card held by each player. Some cards work better against others, and the plays are more or less effective based on the roll of the dice and how the cards correspond to each other. 

Hawkins’ love of this type of “simulation” gameplay is what sparked his desire to develop a more intricate and strategic computer football game compared to others on the market. 

It’s also why the original John Madden Football released in 1989 was far different in concept from what we know today, or even the game that was released a year later in 1990.

A love of football creates odd train fellows

Although one was a legendary NFL football coach and the other a computer-obsessed Harvard grad, both Madden and Hawkins shared a passion for football. Both loved to get lost in the X’s and O’s of the game and were interested in how an intricate string of decisions led to an ultimate outcome. 

Ybarra, who worked with Hawkins at Apple Computer, left with him in 1982 to create Electronic Arts and acted as producer for the very first Madden game. 

During a two-day train ride in 1984 (the Madden Cruiser was still three years away), Madden, Hawkins, and Ybarra discussed the game and worked out the approach they wanted to take. 

On the dining car of an Amtrak train en route from Denver to the West Coast, the three, along with the games lead programmer, spent two days immersing themselves in football. Madden, who was teaching football at extension classes at UC-Berkeley, saw the Madden computer game as an opportunity to create a teaching tool. 

That’s why Madden was so insistent on the game featuring 11 players on each side. Without that, it’s not a “real” football game. However, this wasn’t an easy task for the game designers due to technology limitations at the time. 

The meetings continued at Madden’s home in Oakland. The game designers pointed out the technical difficulty of putting 22 players on the field. Madden wouldn’t relent and refused to put his name on the game until it had been achieved. 

In fact, for Ybarra, the game’s production wasn’t a pleasant experience. He has stated that all his memories are of pain. He didn’t watch football for a year after the game was finished. 

With the game being so complicated to develop, Electronic Arts called in for some help and asked Bethesda Software for assistance. 

Even after four years of development, the original John Madden Football game was so difficult to produce that it became known among EA’s outside accountants as “Trip’s folly.” 

After so much time and money, it seemed the game would never actually be finished.  

When was the first Madden Football game released? 

The Madden computer game took three years to develop once production began. The first version, called John Madden Football, was released on June 1, 1989.

Initially available only for Apple II, it was released for MS-DOS (Microsoft) and Commodore computers the following year

Madden’s insistence on the authenticity of 11 players on each side took its toll on the final product. 

Mike Mika, who was involved in the game’s production, remembers that it was one of the ugliest football games he’d ever seen. But, it did fulfill Madden’s requirement of displaying 11 players on each team. 

The game only achieved modest sales, and Electronic Arts considered scrapping the whole idea of a football game. 

Following the lackluster sales of the original John Madden Football, the team at EA decided the game needed a complete overhaul. The newly released Sega Genesis offered a machine with more graphic capabilities. 

On December 1, 1990, John Madden Football was released for Sega Genesis. The first console version scrapped the strategy-based gameplay for a more arcade-style of play. 

It still wasn’t a great game, but it was leaps and bounds beyond the Apple II version. Sega expected the game to sell 75,000 copies but it far exceeded expectations with sales of 400,000 copies. The following year, in 1991, it was released for Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). 

The console version of the game continued to improve each year of its release. But it wasn’t until the 1994 edition that it went from John Madden Football to Madden NFL Football. This was the first year they had an NFLPA license to use real teams and players.  

A timeline of Madden Football on consoles 

In the following years, a new version of Madden NFL Football would be released every season for all major gaming consoles, including a version of Madden 2013 for Nintendo Wii. 

What versions of Madden NFL had the most impact on the series?

The game only continued to grow in popularity over the years. From “one of the ugliest football games” to cutting-edge graphics and gameplay, Madden NFL Football has always been at the forefront of video game technology while raking in billions of dollars in sales.   

Some versions of the game have had a bigger impact than others, adding new elements and depth to the game that have helped propel it to cultural icon status. One of the biggest developments was franchise mode, which was added to the game for the first time in Madden NFL 99

Franchise mode in Madden NFL games takes users off the field and lets them control other aspects of running an NFL team, including acting as a team’s general manager with the ability to trade and sign players. 

Franchise mode continued to expand after its introduction in Madden NFL 99, adding RPG-style elements like skill trees that allow users to develop players and coaches over time. 

There’s also a Scenario Engine that responds to the decisions users make on and off the field to create a dynamic narrative that evolves week-to-week during the NFL season. 

As it has grown, franchise mode in Madden NFL has become incredibly in-depth, giving users almost complete control over every aspect of running an NFL team, from the owner’s box to the scouting combine.  

Other versions of the game have also been important in the overall evolution of the game. In Madden NFL 2004, online play was introduced. Madden NFL 2005 added the Hit Stick, which has been in the game ever since.

Madden NFL 97, the first version released for the Sony PlayStation, had an unexpected impact on the history of the game. 

The Madden NFL game that never was

After a one-time 32-bit release on Hawkins’ 3DO gaming console in 1994, the next 32-bit version of Madden NFL Football was supposed to be released as Madden NFL ’96 on the original Sony PlayStation. 

In 1994, a studio called Visual Concepts took over the production of Madden NFL Football for Electronic Arts. The first two versions went well, but in the time leading up to the Madden NFL ’96 version, programmer Jason Andersen and software engineer Steven Chiangto left to start their own company, Tiburon Games (who developed the SNES version for that year). 

Visual Concepts was left without any employees who had experience working on Madden NFL games. They scrambled to get it done, while also living up to the expectations of the franchise and its release on a next-generation console. 

But issues kept popping up. There were some struggles to adjust to the new technology of the PlayStation, and the early development kit paperwork was in Japanese. Ultimately, the game was canceled before it was ever released. 

EA executive producer, Scott Orr, also said that the support they got from Sony was limited. Coincidentally, Sony America was working on its own football game, NFL Gameday, at the time. 

However, this small hiccup in the overall history of the game didn’t diminish its growth in popularity. From its first release on Sega Genesis in 1990, Madden has established itself as a titan in the gaming landscape.

The lore of the Madden Curse

Being named the cover athlete for the latest version of Madden has always been a coveted honor. But for a while, it seemed to be a mixed blessing. 

Technically, the first NFL cover athlete on a Madden video game was two NFL players, Erik Williams of the Dallas Cowboys and Karl Wilson of the San Francisco 49ers, who appeared in the background of the cover for Madden NFL 95.  

As for the first official cover athlete, it was Garrison Hearst of the San Francisco 49ers. He prominently shared the cover with John Madden for the ’99 version of Madden NFL Football. 

Hearst broke his ankle during the playoffs the season he appeared on the game’s cover. Suffering complications after surgery, he missed the next two seasons.  

The following season, in 2000, Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders was supposed to be the cover athlete, but suddenly retired. He was replaced by the running back for the Green Bay Packers, Dorsey Levens, who had a disappointing season and was eventually replaced on the starting roster. 

Perhaps owing to bad luck more than a “curse,” the Madden NFL 2001 cover athlete, Tennessee Titans running back Eddie George, missed a routine catch during a playoff game that was returned by the other team for a pick six, thus ending his team’s season. 

Each year afterward, a new cover athlete would appear on the latest version of Madden. For many, the honor seemed to have a mysterious backlash. 

Which NFL players fell victim to the Madden Curse? 

The so-called curse would continue to strike for several consecutive years:

The end of the Madden curse?

Following the 2014 season, there were two consecutive non-cursed athletes. 

In 2015, Seattle Seahawks cornerback, Richard Sherman, avoided any major injuries or declines in performance. 

In 2016, New York Giants wide receiver, Odell Beckham, Jr., also avoided any major injuries or a decline in performance.  

The Madden curse returned in 2017 to afflict New England Patriots tight end, Rob Gronkowski, with a season-ending back injury. However, Tom Brady’s appearance on the cover of Madden NFL 2018 didn’t cause him any harm. 

The cover athlete for 2019, wide receiver Antonio Brown, had a stellar season on the field before having a tumultuous offseason. However, he could be considered a victim of his own success more than the Madden curse.

In recent seasons, cover athletes have more often avoided the curse than fall victim to it.  

Madden NFL evolves into a cultural phenomenon

Since its debut, Madden NFL has been such a huge success that an entire culture has evolved around the game. Rivalries have gone from friends playing at each other’s homes to nationally televised Madden tournaments. 

The game even spawned its own reality competition show called Madden Nation that aired on ESPN2. The show debuted on December 6, 2005, and ran for four seasons.

Madden Nation traveled the country following some of the top competitive Madden gamers as they faced each other head on. The finale took place in Times Square. 

Another television show, Madden NFL America, aired on the NFL Network in 2016 and 2017. It followed Madden gamers as they competed in a series of events for the Madden NFL Championship Series tournament. 

How much money can you make playing Madden

The contestants on the reality show Madden Nation were vying for a $100,000 prize. But other tournaments take place all over the world. 

The Ultimate Madden Challenge, a multi-part tournament sponsored by EA Sports, can have prize pools up to $1 million, culminating with the Madden Bowl where $250,000 goes to the winner. One of the more famous competitive Madden gamers is Raidel “Joke” Brito, who has won more than $200,000 playing Madden.

Along with the prize money, winners of the Madden Bowl also take home the Madden championship belt: a 24-karat gold-plated belt featuring over 700 Swarovski crystals and weighing 12 pounds.

Madden tournaments are often aired by ESPN, Turner Sports and Fox Sports and are widely covered by major news outlets. The games are recapped in the style of an actual NFL game and can be followed live as they happen. 

What is the Madden Bowl held at the Super Bowl?

Another big part of growing Madden‘s popularity has been a different kind of Madden Bowl. Apart from the tournament for competitive Madden gamers, the original Madden Bowl has taken place every year since 1995 at the host city for the Super Bowl. 

This event features NFL players taking each other on in their own Madden tournament. Reggie Brooks of the Washington Redskins won the first two Madden Bowls. Dwight Freeney and Alex Smith have also both won the tournament in back-to-back years. 

The relationship between NFL players and their Madden ratings

The competition among NFL players surrounding Madden NFL Football goes beyond just going head-to-head in the video game. 

For many players, most of whom played the game growing up, how they’re rated in the game really matters. Being ranked too low can be a source of contention, especially when another player is ranked higher than them. 

After the release of Madden 17, two players, Josh Norman and Patrick Peterson, got into a “Twitter beef” over their rankings. Both play the same position (cornerback), and Petersen took issue with being ranked lower than Norman. He went as far as tweeting that Madden is a joke. 

Another player, Leonard Fournette, was so upset by his rating of 87 for speed that he tweeted that he wanted to be removed from the game entirely. Joking back, the official Twitter account for Madden NFL sent him instructions on how to appeal his rating.  

In 2009, Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Roy Williams was upset over his speed ranking of 86. Another wide receiver, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, disapproved of his speed rating of 91. 

In a few cases, Madden has updated its ratings after a player complained.

Known for their egos, NFL players getting mad over their Madden ratings seems to be a yearly ritual.

How do they rate players on Madden

Despite what some NFL players may think, the data-based, analytical website FiveThirtyEight reports that the player speed scores are actually quite accurate. They point to them as the most telling example of how Madden‘s rating system reflects what actually takes place on the field. 

One of over 50 characteristics measured by the game, the speed ratings on Madden go beyond simple 40-yard dash times. The team known as Madden ratings adjustors takes information from practices and games, including a player’s measured on-the-field speed during games.  

FiveThirtyEight also points out that, based on their data, not all the ratings are purely empirical. In some cases, reputation goes into it as well.

Tyreek Hill, a wide receiver renowned for his blazing speed, has the video game’s highest possible speed rating of 99 despite being slower, based on actual game speed, than four other players since his rookie season in 2017. 

Other Madden ratings are based on watching game film, analyzing NFL Next Gen Stats and comparing different players within the same position to each other. 

Since the ratings are set on a 1–99 scale, if a player, for example, quarterback Aaron Rodgers, is determined to be the best quarterback in the league one season, his rating will go down if another quarterback, like Patrick Mahomes, comes along and outperforms him the following season. 

For one season, the Madden ratings adjusters watched over 5,000 hours of film. They also talk to the players themselves, position coaches and other experts who study NFL players to gain insight for the ratings.

How do you become a Madden ratings adjuster?

If you’re not one of the game’s designers, it’s a secondary unpaid job for employees of EA Sports. It also helps to be a former athlete. 

Barry J. Sanders, son of Barry Sanders and former running back at Stanford University, works in the EA Sports marketing department and volunteers as a Madden ratings adjuster. Clint Oldenburg, a former Washington offensive lineman, is the game’s lead gameplay designer and also an adjuster. 

While the position is not exclusive to former athletes, it is exclusive to employees of EA Sports. Potential adjusters without extensive football experience have to pass a qualification test.  

While the position is technically unpaid, travel and expenses are covered, as well as access to practices and games. 

Madden NFL Football’s lasting impact on the game

With all that goes into the game now, from player ratings to playbooks and franchise mode, it appears that things have gone full circle for the Madden NFL Football game.

From its roots in 1988 as a strategy and data-focused simulation computer game to a more arcade-style console game in the 1990s, it continued to merge the two styles with increasing complexity behind the gameplay. 

NFL Hall of Fame

Recognizing its impact on football, the NFL Hall of Fame added a 300-square-foot exhibit dedicated to Madden NFL Football in 2003. Even if a marketing agreement was involved, it’s still a sign of respect that the vaunted NFL Hall of Fame would make space for a video game.   

There’s now an EA Sports video game suite in the Hall. Interestingly enough, Madden himself wasn’t added to the Hall of Fame until three years later in 2006.

How much money has Madden made?

The Madden video game franchise is worth well over $4 billion and has sold more than 250 million copies. 

EA Sports doesn’t expect the franchise to slow down anytime soon, signing a $1.5 billion deal in 2020 to retain its exclusive NFL license.  

Madden NFL Football is part of American culture

Much like the game of football itself, Madden has entrenched itself as a lasting icon of American culture. 

It has also attracted a love for football overseas, bringing the game to millions all over the world. The 2019 version of Madden NFL topped European sales charts in the first week of its release. 

Every year, games of all ages eagerly await the chance to play the latest edition of Madden. It’s brought countless hours of fun and competition to millions of people. 

All the while, it teaches the game of football, which is why Madden wanted to create it in the first place. As every new season arrives, more and more of his original goal is coming to pass: If it’s in the game, it’s in the game.



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