How Madden Became King of the Gaming Gridiron

With the dawn of a new NFL season, we take a look at how Madden NFL became a sports video game revolution and took over the gaming gridiron.

The Madden NFL series has brought in more than $3 billion in revenue for EA over the last three decades. In that time, the game has transcended both the video game industry and even the man who originally lent it his name. “Madden” to most people these days is not a legendary head coach and color commentator – but a video game.

Even John Madden himself admitted as much way back in 2002 in an article in the Los Angeles Times

Madden was in a hotel room in San Francisco when a Philadelphia Eagles player walked in asking, “Where’s Madden?” 

Everyone else in the room pointed to the then Fox commentator.

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“No, not that Madden,” the player said. “I want the game.”

The story of how Madden NFL became one of the best-selling video game franchises of all time starts, oddly enough, on an Amtrak train.

All Aboard

It’s well established that John Madden has a fear of flying. So it should be no surprise then that when the football giant sat down with Trip Hawkins and Joe Ybarra of Electronic Arts in 1984 to discuss what would become John Madden Football, the conversation took place on a train traveling from Denver to Oakland.

EA founder Hawkins, an avid Strat-O-Matic football player, had long wanted to make a realistic football game for computers. With the recent success of the Apple II and other mass-market hardware, there was finally a platform that could make that dream a reality. But in order to truly achieve a realistic game, Hawkins wanted a football mind on his team. He wanted John Madden.

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Madden had signed a contract to endorse a game for EA by this point, but there was still debate over what kind of game was going to be made. Hawkins and Ybarra laid out their game plan. They wanted to make the most realistic game possible. Real playbooks and formations with maybe seven players on each side…

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Madden called timeout immediately.

“If it’s not 11 on 11,” he said. “It’s not real football.”

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Hawkins countered that a lower player count on the field would allow the game to run at a faster frame rate, but Madden made it clear there would be 22 players on the screen or there would be no game.

The game was in development for four years, largely because of legal trouble with Bethesda Softworks, a company that had made a similar football sim and was at one point under contract with EA to help develop the Madden game. When that didn’t pan out, the companies parted ways and EA released John Madden Football on its own in 1988. It did indeed feature 22 players on the screen, but it also suffered from slow performance and a limited feature set as a result.

Still, the playbooks were deep, and when Sega was looking for a football sim for its new Genesis console, it took notice of EA’s accomplishments and, after signing a deal for a Genesis version of Madden, also signed a deal with EA to create another exclusive game under the Sega brand.

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Madden vs. Montana

The Sega and EA partnership remains to this day one of the strangest in the history of the industry. Sega was looking for a new first-party title for the Genesis, but because they lacked the resources to make it, the company outsourced the game to the developer that was already making a competing game.

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In hindsight, the result was to be expected.

Sega’s game, called Joe Montana Football, thanks to a partnership with the San Francisco 49ers quarterback, ended up being inferior in every way to Madden. And that was no accident. EA started with Madden as its foundation, but then stripped the playbook and cut the realism of the graphics. Madden ended up being the superior product, but both games were on best-seller lists that holiday season.

The strange rivalry and sales success of both titles helped the 16-bit era of gaming take off. The Sega Genesis had been in competition with the Super Nintendo, and prior to the release of the football titles, Nintendo was the clear market leader. Nintendo had first party titles that Sega’s franchises couldn’t keep up with on the sales charts.

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But with the success of both Madden and Montana franchises, the Genesis quickly developed a reputation as being the best console for sports games. The market expanded. High school and college jocks who would normally be more likely to taunt someone who identified as a video game nerd suddenly found themselves playing for bragging rights on all-night sessions of Madden.

Future editions of Joe Montana Football were made at another developer, freeing up EA to concentrate on only Madden. The rivalry between the games continued and became especially heated in 1992 when Sega was the first company to obtain an official NFL license. Real uniforms, stadiums, and logos left Madden in the dust. EA struck back hard in 1993 with Madden NFL ’94, the first to feature fully licensed teams and an all-star collection of previous Super Bowl squads. The very next year saw the addition of a license from the NFL Players Association, which allowed EA to include the players’ real names. It took a while, but the truly realistic game first envisioned by Hawkins was now a reality.

Bringing the Game to Life

The transition to the 32-bit era of video games demonstrated how Madden could push innovation in the industry, even when it wasn’t on top. The first 32-bit Madden was actually on the 3DO, a doomed and short-lived console launched by Hawkins after he left EA. But the game served as a test drive that prepared EA for later years. The game featured life-like graphics and full motion video of the players.

Madden NFL ’96 is a notorious title in franchise history. This was to mark the debut of the franchise on the Sony PlayStation, but Visual Concepts, the developer EA was working with on the game, bit off more than it could chew and the game was delayed for so long that EA threw in the towel and again released a 16-bit version.

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Sony capitalized by releasing a 32-bit first-party title called NFL GameDay and a new annual war akin to the Joe Montana Football days was born. EA went all out with Madden NFL ’97 in a bid to get back on top, firing Visual Concepts and partnering with Tiburon Entertainment to create the game again from scratch. The game was a success, but the AI was sloppy and GameDay remained the game of choice for a lot of PlayStation owners. The following year, Madden stepped up its AI complexity, only to watch as GameDay moved to full 3D ahead of Madden.

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There was no love lost between the two competitors. Sony’s Kelly Flock once remarked to a gaming magazine that “if you want to play next year’s Madden early, buy this year’s GameDay.” Ouch.

EA was back on top by the time the 1999 season rolled around, which marked the debut of Madden’s franchise mode, one of the game’s bread and butter game modes to this day.

Sega Strikes Back

While EA and Sony were duking it out, EA’s old sparring partner Sega was backstage working on its comeback plan. 1998 saw the release of the Sega Dreamcast, the first console of the new generation. Sega initially tried to get EA to build a game for them again, just like in the 16-bit days. Details are murky, but an agreement was never reached and EA decided to hold out for Sony’s upcoming PlayStation 2 console.

Sega then acquired Visual Concepts, the same company that failed to release EA’s ’96 title on time, and put them to work on the NFL 2K series. The first game on Dreamcast was a huge success, and upstaged Madden NFL 2000. The back and forth continued with EA’s support for Sony’s console being a contributing factor in the demise of the Dreamcast. The PlayStation 2 was clearly the superior machine from a graphics perspective, and the Madden titles for the PS2 milked every last drop of power out of the system.

Even after it was out of the console race, Sega refused to give up. The company’s NFL 2K series would live on, releasing against Madden on PlayStation 2, Microsoft’s Xbox, and Nintendo’s Gamecube. The ESPN license allowed Visual Concepts to create a TV-style presentation that was beloved by gamers.

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Sega was aggressive with its pricing, at one point offering its yearly release for half the price of Madden. Unfortunately for Sega, Madden’s developers continued to push the envelope. The game’s innovative hit stick, introduced in Madden NFL 2005, helped keep EA on top of the sales charts, although the 2K series developed a passionate following.

Sega’s aggressive marketing tactics may have given EA a scare, and the company set out to make sure it wouldn’t happen again. EA signed an exclusive deal with the NFL that essentially made Madden the only legitimate game in town. With no other companies allowed to use the official NFL logos or uniforms, the NFL 2K series shut down.

Some sporadic competition has popped up in ensuing years, with Visual Concepts even making a return with a game called All-Pro Football 2K8 that featured imaginary teams and uniforms, but the battle was essentially over. Madden had secured its place as the best and only football game on the market.

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The exclusive contract rubbed some gamers the wrong way. Gamers appreciated the constant innovation that they viewed as a direct result of EA battling it out with other companies and were a bit skeptical as to whether EA would continue to push for new features in future editions of the game. It’s hard to say if things would be different without EA’s exclusive contract, but a quick look at review scores shows that reception to Madden games since EA’s exclusive contract was signed has remained largely positive.

Status Symbol As Madden became more realistic with each passing year. First in the 16-bit era and then beyond, the game became a staple in NFL locker rooms. Players began to openly campaign for a better player ranking from Madden and EA. Today, EA even has a director of athlete relations, Sandy Sandoval, whose primary responsibility is to field requests like this from the players.

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Sandoval told ESPN that quarterback Byron Leftwich pushed him the hardest for a better ranking when the two met up at a quarterback challenge event. “Dude, how can Carson Palmer be faster than me?” Leftwich asked several times. The general rule, according to the ratings gurus at EA, is that if the players are happy with their rating, it means they’re overrated.

The NFL is filled with alpha males, and Madden has become just one more measuring stick they can use to compete with each other. Players can become the toast of the locker room if they can manage to snag a copy of the current Madden before its public release. Palmer and Chad (Ocho Cinco) Johnson are among the players who have hit up Sandoval for an advance copy.

Players regularly play each other at Madden before and after practice, but the one gaming session every player wants to be part of is the Madden Bowl. The Madden Bowl takes place over Super Bowl weekend in the host city. It is a single elimination tournament where the best Madden players in the NFL are invited by EA to come and do battle against each other. The tournament is supposed to be fun, but many players take the games seriously, as the winner gets not only a trophy but also in-game recognition in the next installment of the franchise. Since 2011, the Madden Bowl has used the game’s Online Team Play feature to do battle in groups of three for the trophy. 

A Blessing and a Curse

While NFL players strive for personal glory in the Madden Bowl, the public at large has taken notice of another event that takes place during Super Bowl week: The EA Super Bowl simulation. Every year since 2004, EA has run a simulation of the Super Bowl using the two teams that will be playing in the actual game, using the most current version of the Madden franchise. The game’s result has been correct in all but four years and even some of the scores have been eerily similar. EA also releases a full summary of the game like it’s a news report from the Super Bowl.

The results:

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  • 2004: Patriots 23, Panthers 20 (Actual score: Patriots 32, Panthers 29)
  • 2005: Patriots 47, Eagles 31 (Actual score: Patriots 24, Eagles 21)
  • 2006: Steelers 24, Seahawks 19 (Actual score: Steelers 21, Seahawks 10)
  • 2007: Colts 38, Bears 27 (Actual score: Colts 29, Bears 17)
  • 2008: Patriots 38, Giants 30 (Actual score: Giants 17, Patriots 14)
  • 2009: Steelers 28, Cardinals 24 (Actual score: Steelers 27, Cardinals 23)
  • 2010: Saints 35, Colts 31 (Actual score: Saints 31, Colts 17)
  • 2011: Steelers 24, Packers 20 (Actual score: Packers 31, Steelers 25)
  • 2012: Giants 27, Patriots 24  (Actual score: Giants 21, Patriots 17)
  • 2013: Ravens 27, 49ers 24 (Actual score: Ravens 34, 49ers 31)
  • 2014: Broncos 31, Seahawks 28 (Actual score: Seahawks 43, Broncos 8)
  • 2015: Patriots 28, Seahawks 24 (Actual score: Patriots 28, Seahawks 24)
  • 2016: Panthers 24, Broncos 20 (Actual score: Broncos 24, Panthers 10)
  • 2017: Patriots 27, Falcons 24 (Actual score: Patriots 34, Falcons 28)
  • 2018: Patriots 24, Eagles 20 (Actual score: Eagles 41, Patriots 33)

The fans of the team that comes out on top in the simulation tend to claim that their team is going to win now that they’ve been blessed by the Madden gods. 

Superstition surrounding Madden doesn’t stop here. Another superstition surrounding the game that has quite a negative history is that of the Madden cover curse.

Since the first release of the game as John Madden Football through 1999, the game’s cover featured the former coach and broadcaster on the cover. But for the 1999 PAL version of the game, EA used an image of NFL player Garrison Hearst. After making the cover, Hearst broke his ankle and missed the next two seasons.

In 2000, EA expanded the concept and put running back Barry Sanders on the North American version of the game. Sanders then abruptly retired, ending his career without taking a shot at breaking the all-time career rushing yards record, a feat he could have easily accomplished if he had played. Dorsey Levens was on the PAL version that same year, his team missed the playoffs and Levens was released the following year.

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The idea of the Madden cover being a curse began to really take hold in the 2001 season when Tennessee Titan Eddie George was on the cover. The Titans lost in the playoffs after George bobbled a pass and had it picked off and returned for a touchdown by the Baltimore Ravens Ray Lewis, costing the Titans the game.

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This history has continued with something negative happening to the cover athlete just about every year, either through an injury or a significant decrease in performance.

In 2007, San Diego Chargers fans openly campaigned for EA to not put LaDainian Tomlinson on the cover that year, which had been rumored at the time. Tomlinson eventually declined the offer, though supposedly just for contract reasons.

In 2009, EA placed two athletes on the cover for the first time, with a picture of Steelers safety Troy Polamalu covering Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. When Polamalu suffered a bad sprain in the first half of the season opener, Fitzgerald is said to have been upset and worried about the curse.

Officially, EA has said they do not believe in the curse, pointing out that when an athlete makes the cover, it is usually after a career year and so some regression the following year might be expected.

It should be noted that EA’s exclusive contract with the NFL was renewed for a “couple more years” back in 2014, so it doesn’t seem likely that any other football game will swoop in to take Madden‘s crown any time soon. If history is any indication, Electronic Arts and Madden will find a way to remain king of the gridiron for many years to come.

Jason Gallagher is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here

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