Season Two Episode 4

Throughout his hall of fame career, John Madden’s passion wasn’t just for playing and coaching football— he was driven to bring the nuances of the game to the masses. In the late 1980s, a golden opportunity fell into his lap via an upstart company called Electronic Arts. Will Wheaton narrates the story of how Madden built a video game empire — and pushed the limits of gaming. Duration: 38mins


From ESPN Films and ESPN Audio, you’re listening to 30 for 30 podcasts, presented by the Mini Countryman.


From the moment it first debuted in 1988, John Madden Football has pushed the technical limits of what a video game could do. Now simply referred to as Madden it has become one of the most popular games in the history of video gaming and its had a big impact on the game of football itself. But despite it’s current day success the game has had it’s challenges along the way and almost didn’t make it to market. This week we look back at how John Madden went from being a football player and coach to the conscience of a billion dollar video game franchise that has stayed true to the sport itself.


Here‘s actor and video game fan Wil Wheaton, telling the story of Madden’s Game.


*    *    *    *    *


[BROADCAST ANNOUNCER: Steelers are leading 13 – 12, late stages third quarter with a third and nine at their own two. Ben is back. He fires down the field and it’s caught on a dead run. That is JuJu Smith-Schuster. Pittsburgh Steelers touchdown. 98 yards to the Rookie JuJu.


MEMBER OF PRESS CONFERENCE: We got Juju right here too. ]


WIL WHEATON: When 20 year old JuJu Smith-Schuster stepped to the mic for a post-game press conference…


[REPORTER: JuJu where did you get all that speed?]


WIL WHEATON: A different kind of game is on his mind…


[JUJU SMITH-SCHUSTER: I don’t know to be honest the reason why I kept looking back because, you know, in Madden my speed is like 82, 83 [MPH] so I was like nah I think they’re going to catch me, they’re gonna catch me and the next thing you know I pulled away.


REPORTER: What should your speed be in Madden?


JUJU SMITH-SCHUSTER: I mean after today hopefully you know it will get boosted up…]


WIL WHEATON: Today, Madden is one of the most popular video games in the world. It’s referenced in press conferences, and by TV announcers.


[ANNOUNCER #1: Those aren’t real numbers. He’s playing Madden.


ANNOUNCER #2: These are Madden numbers.]


WIL WHEATON: …And on NFL sidelines.


[PLAYER (discussing another player’s speed): That boy got a Madden controller in his cleats, don’t he? That boy got a Madden controller in his clears (laughs).]


WIL WHEATON: But Madden is more than just a name on the cover.




JOHN MADDEN: Hey you want big time football? The hits, the booms, the doinks, the waps… It’s all here. This is my game…]


WIL WHEATON:  To tell the story of this huge video game franchise… We need to tell the story of its namesake,  John Madden.


John is in his 80’s now, and it’s kind of poetic that the legacy of this hall of fame coach lives on in a game.


JOHN MADDEN: I remember my dad used to tell me — my dad was a mechanic and he worked hard, and you know, I used to say I got to get a job, I gotta get some money. He said ‘Don’t work.’ He said ‘Just play.’ He said ‘There’ll be a time when you have to go to work and when you have to go to work, you’ll work the rest of your life so don’t start it too soon.’ And my dad would be proud to know that I never started it.


WIL WHEATON: It turned out, the game of football was all John ever needed, but his playing career as an offensive lineman ended with a knee injury during training camp of his rookie year with the Philadelphia Eagles.


JOHN MADDEN: That tore everything and in those days, once they operated on that they just operated so you could walk again. I mean there no such thing as coming back. And I had to go in every morning for therapy and Norm Van Brocklin was a quarterback. And he would be sitting there by himself watching game film.


(AMBIENCE – Film projector sound)


So I’d just go sit in the back and just watch the film. He was always looking for things he would do and he would he would talk those things.


One day Norm Van Brocklin said to me–, he called me Red. He said Red come on up here and sit up here and watch it.


[NORM VAN BROCKLIN: What’s the defense Red?]


JOHN MADDEN: And that’s where I first learned football. I learned from one of the great quarterbacks of all time.


WIL WHEATON: John got into coaching and rose quickly from assistant coach to head coach of the Oakland Raiders, at just 32 years old.


[JOHN MADDEN (during game): Hey you jerk… You big jerk. Yeah you!]


WIL WHEATON: For the next ten years


[JOHN MADDEN (during game): You don’t call…]


WIL WHEATON: John Madden made his mark as one of the most colorful coaches of the 1970’s…


[JOHN MADDEN (during game): You don’t even watch the time, you just sit back there and throw it.]


WIL WHEATON: Rampaging up and down the Raiders sideline.


[JOHN MADDEN (during game): You ever plug one on them?]


WIL WHEATON: But more than anything, what he did was “Just win, baby.”


[ANNOUNCER: Unbelievable! (Crowd erupting in excitement]


WIL WHEATON: Often in unforgettable fashion.


[ANNOUNCER: Impossible dream of a play.]


WIL WHEATON: But year after year, the Raiders lost in the playoffs.


[ANNOUNCER: He goes all the way. Touchdown! I don’t believe it.]


JOHN MADDEN: I mean that was our ‘Yeah but,’ you know, the Raiders are a good team. Yeah but they haven’t won a Super Bowl.


WIL WHEATON: In 1976 though, they finally made it to the Super Bowl.


[JOHN MADDEN: We’re going to the Super Bowl. What is that?]


WIL WHEATON: Madden’s Raiders dominated the Vikings to win Super Bowl XI.


[ANNOUNCER: There it is. There’s the gun. John Madden goes on the shoulders of his players.]


JOHN MADDEN: It was the greatest feeling in the world. I mean there was, there was nothing that could beat it.


[ANNOUNCER (during game): John Madden’s grin is from ear to ear. He looks like a smitten watermelon.]




REPORTER: How does it feel?


JOHN MADDEN: Great great. Waited a long time for it.


SECURITY: Let’s clear the field, let’s clear the field.]




JOHN MADDEN: I’ve been here 10 years as a head coach and those 10 years have been the happiest years of my life.]


WIL WHEATON: But just two years after winning the Super Bowl… John Madden retired from coaching.




JOHN MADDEN: I gave it everything I had

and I don’t have any more. I’m not resigning. I’m not quitting. I’m not doing anything. I’m retiring from football coaching and I’m never going to coach again.]


JOHN MADDEN: I was only 42 years old. And I thought you know, that I was going to spend time with my family and do all these things and you know that was kind of overrated. I mean there was, it was everyone had their own thing to do and you know, I was sitting around with the dog so I went back and you know, did the television and then that kind of took its place. I mean I went from playing, to coaching, to broadcasting and I got that same feeling.


[JOHN MADDEN (announcing): Twist there, and pivot, and BOOM– the ball’s there right again between the eight and the nine [yard line]. Oh is he happy.]


WIL WHEATON: John was forging a new career in television, giving fans an insider’s perspective on the game.


Among his viewers was a young fan named Trip Hawkins, who, as a teenager, had tried to invent a game about the sport he loved.


TRIP HAWKINS: Since I was a football player myself the kind of game that I most wanted to make was a football simulation game. Football is really frankly just a modern warfare game and it’s all about capturing all the territory when you capture all the territory you get points for it.


WIL WHEATON: He modeled his idea after tabletop games, using thing like…


TRIP HAWKINS: Paper. cards, numbers, dice, charts… You might compare to something like Dungeons and Dragons.


WIL WHEATON: But even then, he knew this paper and dice game wasn’t what he really wanted.


TRIP HAWKINS: Very quickly I could tell that I wanted to play this with other people. And yet a lot of other kids didn’t want to do it. They wanted to go watch TV. And then I heard about computers.


WIL WHEATON: Trip studied computers and game theory at Harvard University. In 1982, he left a marketing position at Apple to start a video game company called Electronic Arts.


TRIP HAWKINS: In the very beginning with Electronic Arts the technology was quite limited. We had eight bit computers that had very little drawing power, very little memory, hardly anything. And in the beginning I thought football, 22 guys running around a field… That’s going to be too hard. And I invented a game called, ‘Dr. J and Larry Bird Go One on One.’


(AMBIENCE – sound of static)


TRIP HAWKINS: And then as soon as that was a success I said OK, great on to football.


WIL WHEATON: By the early 80’s…  John Madden was establishing himself as the ultimate guide to football for millions of fans…


[JOHN MADDEN (announcing): He should square it off give the quarterback his number.]


WIL WHEATON: But what made him successful wasn’t just his insight or even his coaching resume…  


DAVID HILL: John Madden was like an incredibly knowledgeable friend. Who was sitting next to you on your sofa sharing a beverage and discussing the game with you.


[JOHN MADDEN (announcing): Now watch right there.. BOOM– now that is a great stiff arm.]


WIL WHEATON: That relatability drew in his audience, including David Hill, who would go on to become the president of Fox Sports.


DAVID HILL: John was like that best friend sitting there and he wanted you to know that at Lambeau Field by God it was cold.


[JOHN MADDEN (announcing): I think the weather is going to be cold, but I think the field… ]


DAVID HILL: But what makes it better is the smoke that’s coming in and they’re barbecuing the brats.


[JOHN MADDEN (announcing):  I mean they know how to eat here. They got big old brats. Everyone cooks brats. I had a braut for breakfast.]


JOHN MADDEN: You’ve got to be part of it when you can’t be in an enclosed environment and do a football game. If it’s cold and snowing or raining you open the windows and let it come in. I mean, so you know what the heck it is. And not only do I have to be out in the elements. I know this probably sounds crazy but we have to be standing up. You can’t be sitting down. I never sat down at a football game in my life.


WIL WHEATON:  John was a natural teacher, whether describing fans in a parking lots or drawing plays on a screen.


[JOHN MADDEN (announcing): Now watch right here. BOOM!]


WIL WHEATON: He was always trying to better inform you as a listener.


DAVID HILL: Most people don’t really understand sports. They want to understand sports. And John loved educating the public in the game.


[JOHN MADDEN (announcing): See that move he gave on Irving?]


DAVID HILL: John would tell you why.


[JOHN MADDEN (announcing): Before you go to the post you give a corner move.]


DAVID HILL: Every time that you listen to a John Madden call you were getting a Ph.D. in football.


TRIP HAWKINS: When I started on the football project I said, you know, I need some help with football I want to have a expert mentor adviser so maybe I can go find a coach that would do this for a fee, but I thought if I’m going to be paying royalty on a football game then I want the biggest name I can get. And it wasn’t that hard to figure out that it was John Madden.


WIL WHEATON: In 1984, Trip contacted John, who agreed to a meeting. But John had developed a fear of flying, so they met in an unconventional setting. His personal assistant at the time was Sandy Montag.


(AMBIENCE – train sounds)


SANDY MONTAG: I first met him when I was 22 years old. And you know we traveled the country by train. It takes 72 hours on Amtrak to go coast to coast and imagine doing that without a cell phone. So you spent a lot of time playing cards, drinking Miller lite. It defined who he was as a traveled with Charlie sort of guy–, John Steinbeck seeing the country.


TRIP HAWKINS: So the arrangement was I’m going to fly into Denver and get on the train with them and they’re going to spend two days on the train coming out to the West Coast and we’re going to sit around all day and talk football. And we get to the train station and we meet him. And we get on board and we get into the dining car and we found out that John was such a famous customer of Amtrak at that time that even though the dining car was basically closed except for meal time they just let him use it all day long if he wanted.


(AMBIENCE – train sounds)


TRIP HAWKINS: So we sat in the dining car. I brought my lead programmer and my producer along, but I was pretty much leading the design of the game.


JOHN MADDEN: So Trip told me that he’d gone to Harvard had his own major, computer games. So I figured any guy could go to Harvard get in Harvard, talk them into letting him make up his own major and that major be games… This isn’t this isn’t just an average deal here. There had to be something special to this guy.


TRIP HAWKINS: John had this cigar there was about a foot long and about like the bottom half of a baseball bat. And he never lit it. But he played with it. And we had we had a captive audience with him and so in preparation for this meeting I had produced a huge document and a long list of questions for John.


JOHN MADDEN: The first thing that I talked about is that I wanted, I wanted it as a teaching tool.




JOHN MADDEN: Show him Different people different formations, motion, movement.]


JOHN MADDEN: Because when I got out of coaching I still thought there was a place to teach teach football and I taught some classes at the University of California Berkeley extension classes on football, football for fans.




JOHN MADDEN: …movement, because the one thing…]


JOHN MADDEN: And I mean it can be a game that you can use to coach and to teach. Teach football. And you could put in a play and then play it against a defense and then see how it works and make adjustments on it.


TRIP HAWKINS: I was aware of some of the technology limitations of the machines of the day. And so I found myself at least wanted to ask the question about what did he think about skeleton-level game where it’s just seven on seven and he just immediately said well that’s not real football.


JOHN MADDEN: I wanted 11 guys on each team.


SANDY MONTAG: John said I’m not putting my name on that game until you figure out a way to make it realistic.


JOHN MADDEN: Because every game before that they kind of had like three guys on a team, five guys… And I said if we’re going to do it we have to have 11 and we have to have linemen because if you know real then you also know when it’s not real. And I didn’t want anyone to ever think it wasn’t real.


MIKE MIKA: John Madden kept insisting that there had to be 11 on 11 or it’s not a football game. But the reality was the technology just wasn’t quite there yet.


WIL WHEATON:  Mike Mika has been developing and writing about video games for nearly three decades.


MIKE MIKA: It’s just completely impossible. There is no way.


WIL WHEATON: He says that in 1984, at the time of this meeting, you just couldn’t make what Trip and John wanted.


MIKE MIKA: So early computers had very simple processors. They were basically text machines that were never really meant to display a lot of graphics. It was almost like if you were drawing things by hand. And so it was really easy to make a game like ‘Donkey Kong’ because there’s very little going on. But when you look at something like football where the entire screen is moving and changing and animating it was almost impossible.


TRIP HAWKINS: Admittedly those machines were always going to get replaced by better machines so this is not going to be a long term constraint. But the reality is we then proceeded to bite off a really challenging technology development problem.


WIL WHEATON: Trusting they would be able to solve the technical problems, Trip and John focused for the moment on football.


JOHN MADDEN: And we’d stay up all night drawing plays and we’d draw plays on big paper and then put the paper on the windows.




JOHN MADDEN: Blocking the two inside linebackers.]


JOHN MADDEN: We’ve been going through Utah, Nebraska, and Wyoming, and Illinois and all that stuff making making up plays for a game.


TRIP HAWKINS: The meeting on the train was really just the start of a process. So we were together for a couple of days. I got all the questions answered that I had at that time. And John was living in Oakland. So occasionally we’d go over to Oakland or he would come to the office. So there were regular opportunities to can revisit and clarify things. And it was in the contract that John was going to provide a playbook and I wanted about 130 plays. And I figured he was going to you know basically draw 130 plays and hand me what I wanted and he said he gave me a 1980 Oakland Raiders playbook in a great big fat three ring binder and said you can use this to create whatever plays you want.


SANDY MONTAG: And they came back and basically said well we want to put your football values and football plays and the way you design your game plan into the game. The problem was from a computer memory standpoint they could not put 22 players on a screen.


TRIP HAWKINS: John was pretty upset because he you know he felt like, ‘Wait a minute this is supposed to be to market already.’ And I’m just trying to get the thing done no matter what it takes because this development problem that was supposed to take a year took four years. Towards the end of the four year period the auditors for the outside accounting firm came to me. They say that the John Madden football project had become known in the last few years as “Trip’s folly.” And that hey you know if you’ve paid out a $100,000 in advances against royalties to John Madden. I go, ‘Yeah that’s right.’ They said ‘Well we just wanted to let you know that we discussed it with the finance department here and everybody agrees that this game is never going to get finished and that there’s no chance that those royalties will ever be recouped. We’re telling the company to write the whole thing off.’ Like you’re never going to recover a penny of it…


(AMBIENCE – Madden Game beeps and sounds)


WIL WHEATON: That is the sound of John Madden football, finally published in 1988. But you could only play it on your computer.


MIKE MIKA: And it was on the Apple Two. I remember it was one of the ugliest looking football games I’d probably ever seen but it was displaying 11 players on each team which was phenomenal. And these players were I think there were like 8 pixels tall. So imagine that like only eight dots that your screen is capable of drawing that’s how tall each player was.


TRIP HAWKINS: When you are dealing with these early machines that had very little graphics power the game had to be more cerebral. Within the next year came out with a version for the IBM PC. But the big breakthrough was the next year because I had kind of pivoted the company to start making games for video game consoles and I decided to target the Sega Genesis.



(AMBIENCE – game sounds and music)


TRIP HAWKINS: And I bet the farm on it.


MIKE MIKA: That was the beginning of the franchise for most people because that’s the version that everybody thinks of when they think of Madden football.


TRIP HAWKINS: The Sega Genesis cost $179 so everybody could afford it. It came with two joysticks and it had a graphics chip and a sound chip, so you had way better graphics and they were able to basically build an even better game.


WIL WHEATON: Not only did they make a better game, but they knew how to sell it.


MIKE MIKA: Trip’s interesting because he’s that triple threat. Maybe we should call him Triple Threat Hawkins or something because he understood marketing. He understood the technology. He understood the consumer. He knew exactly what all three needed to have. And that’s where I think Electronic Arts they knew that John Madden was a secret weapon not only for the consultation but also as a name that they could attribute to the game that makes it legitimate. That was their secret sauce.



(AMBIENCE – game music and sounds)


TRIP HAWKINS: John was all over it. He was in every part of it. You get the product and the cover has him breaking through a chalkboard.




JOHN MADDEN: Hi Everyone! Welcome to John Madden football.]


TRIP HAWKINS: And you turn on the game and his face comes up and then he was basically the announcer.




JOHN MADDEN:  He’ll remember that number.]


TRIP HAWKINS: And when you’re calling your plays if you weren’t sure what to do you could ask him for his advice. And later on, every generation of technology allowed the graphics and sound to be steadily towards a more immersive experience.


(AMBIENCE – game music and sounds)


WIL WHEATON: Madden was improving every year, but trip found himself pulled in a different direction. And in 1994, he left Electronic Arts to try and create a new gaming platform. That same year, David Hill was hired to be president of Fox Sports, which had just acquired the rights to broadcast NFL games.


DAVID HILL: The combination of Pat Summerall and John Madden for us at Fox was a must get.


JOHN MADDEN: And when we first went there I remember they had a sign they made a deal that said ‘Fox Sports’ and I looked and I said take the ‘S’ off it. This should be ‘Fox Sport’ because the only sport the sport we had at Fox was football, NFL football.


DAVID HILL: He was very kind to me because you know for God’s sake an Australian out of London producing American football I don’t think so. And I said look we are providing a cure for boredom.


WIL WHEATON: …And to better cure viewer’s boredom, David Hill proposed to turn John’s vision for Madden on its head.


JOHN MADDEN: One of my goals was to make the video game look like television and then David Hill said we want to make the game on television look like the video game. And I thought man we did it we came full circle.


DAVID HILL: I’ve always loved video games. Most of my concepts about the way sport should be produced, I’ve stolen from video games. That uh, I’ll never forget my son was in 12 [grade] and I would just like as a dad just play with him and watch and and I started realizing that I was more engrossed I was more emotionally involved to a video game that someone had created than to what I was doing six days a week, which was producing live sport with with top athletes. So I started looking critically at the game to determine what had the game maker put into the elements that made it so compulsive and so I merely copied that and used it on on television.


WIL WHEATON: You can actually see and hear the changes soon after Hill got to Fox. For instance, listen to this 1993 version of the Madden video game…


(AMBIENCE – game music and sounds)


WIL WHEATON: Even though the audio is really primitive, you still hear the quarterback and sounds from the field. And now listen to a CBS broadcast from that same year, 1993..


(AMBIENCE – CBS game sounds)


WIL WHEATON: The teams are lined up at the line of scrimmage here… But you wouldn’t know it just listening.


(AMBIENCE – CBS game sounds)


WIL WHEATON: The quarterback and line that you heard in Madden are nowhere to found in this CBS broadcast.


(AMBIENCE – CBS game sounds)


DAVID HILL: Close up audio is far more effective and impactful than close up video. So I surrounded the field with guys with Sennheiser gun mics to get the sound of the line and all that stuff.


WIL WHEATON: Just a year later, the Fox broadcast under the guidance of David Hill sounds a lot more like Madden.


(AMBIENCE – Fox game sounds)


WIL WHEATON: As David Hill was implementing video game tricks on tv. At the same time, madden was sounding more and more like a tv broadcast itself.


(AMBIENCE – Fox game sounds)


WIL WHEATON: And as a game that was published every year, Mike Mika says Madden always had to innovate.


MIKE MIKA: Madden would adopt any of the newest technologies that were coming around. Because you have to have a lot on the table every year for somebody to buy the game again and again. And so they just started adding all kinds of things. 3-D, all the camera control stuff you had and all the audio. You start to hear games being announced like you’re watching television.




JOHN MADDEN:  You take too many of those you’re going to shorten your day.]  


MIKE MIKA:  It was amazing.


WIL WHEATON: E.A. was recording thousands of lines with John every year in these long recording sessions.




JOHN MADDEN: This is what football is all about.


PRODUCER: Perfect.]


WIL WHEATON: Donny Moore has been part of Madden’s production staff for the better part of two decades. He says John’s demand for authenticity constantly challenged the game’s writers.


DONNY MOORE: The audio guys would write the scripts and then they would sort of be in the recording studio with John as he recorded it, righT?




JOHN MADDEN:  Are you ready? So we’re ready John.]  


DONNY MOORE: So he was not a fan of some of the lines that we had for him.




JOHN MADDEN: Then the other team might have oh no that you’d never do that. That’s a–never, never. Whoever wrote that tell him [cutting sound]. That thought never enters a mind ever, ever, ever, ever. These are really some really stupid things.


PRODUCER: I’ll let the writers know.]




WIL WHEATON: Anthony White, another longtime member of Madden’s production staff, recalls that John accepted nothing less than a professional’s understanding of the game.


ANTHONY WHITE: There was an incident where one of the recording sessions one of our producers mentioned well when I was a linebacker we did it this way and Coach Madden said ‘Well, you must have been a pretty shitty linebacker.’


DONNY MOORE: We got to a point where you know we had to get some really football savvy you know people that have played the game and maybe even coached a little bit or whatever to help sort of help us with our writing…




JOHN MADDEN: You have a few timeouts to use–this few time outs… You only have three timeouts so they either have one, two or three. So if I didn’t want to say how many I would just say they have timeouts rather than a few.


PRODUCER: That works for me.


JOHN MADDEN: It’s few like they got eight or something.


PRODUCER: That’ll fit just fine that was great.]


WIL WHEATON: John’s attention to detail extended to his game as well.


EMMITT SMITH: Madden took it to the next level because of the realness of it.


WIL WHEATON: Even players were impressed. Emmitt Smith is the NFL’s all-time leading rusher.


EMMITT SMITH: Without a doubt. I thought it was cool that I was in a video game and when it came down to Madden, it was real cool.


WIL WHEATON: By 2001, a whole generation of young players was hooked on the game…


JACQUEZ GREEN: I spent my whole college time playing video games.


WIL WHEATON: Like Buccaneers receiver Jacquez Green…


[REPORTER: When do you play off days at night?


JACQUEZ GREEN: Every day. Every day I play. Whenever I go home I play. Play all weekend. I play before I go to the stadium on game days. That’s my whole dream. I want to make it to the NFL just to play in this this right here. More than I want to play in the NFL…]


WIL WHEATON: That year, Jacquez won a celebrity Madden Bowl tournament…




MADDEN BOWL MC: Come up baby, put the game on pause. ]


WIL WHEATON: And collected a giant trophy from John Madden…




JOHN MADDEN: Jacquez, congratulations.]


WIL WHEATON: It’s telling to see John handing that trophy to a player in 2001, because the game was becoming more player-centric. That year, for the first time, John Madden was not on the game’s cover. Instead, it was a player: Eddie George. And for the first time in years, other games, like 2K and Gameday, were challenging Madden’s dominance.


MIKE MIKA: I remember hearing stories about certain players would not license their likenesses for Madden, but they were going to license for 2K.


WIL WHEATON: As a game developer, Mike Mika was on the front lines as the battle between Madden and its competitors heated up.


MIKE MIKA: It became this fractured thing. I remember it being a huge fight for attention because you have all these people licensing the NFL and then trying to get their attention and time to help promote their games. And so it became like a bloodthirsty war at that point.


In 2004, 2K is trending really well. It looks and plays at this point basically better than Madden. I remember working on a proposal to bring the latest version of 2K to Gameboy Advance I think it was. And then news broke that Electronic Arts with all this pressure from every company around them locked in the NFL as an exclusive license. It was like a nuclear bomb going off in the game industry.


I knew things were bad because our call it was supposed to have got canceled immediately. It was weeks until we heard from them again.


All these people who assumed they be able to renew their license with the NFL had to basically drop everything that they were doing. You had development houses cancel their games. And in some places go out of business. Overnight Madden reclaimed the throne without having to lift a finger on the development side.


WIL WHEATON: E.A.’s exclusive partnership with the league, meant no other game could use NFL player names, team names, or logos. There couldn’t be another video game about the NFL. With the stroke of a pen, Electronic Arts had vanquished Madden’s competition.


Now, Madden faced a different kind of challenge.


MIKE MIKA: Now like the biggest threat to Madden is Madden itself. How do you develop a game that every year can improve upon the last year?


WIL WHEATON: As technology has advanced, the video game industry as a whole has pursued greater, and greater realism. And Madden has consistently set the standard.


MIKE MIKA: The suspension of disbelief gets that much better every year. And they’ve really created this amazing system. When you see a player in the game you recognize that player. They have a face down to the sweat, down to the helmet the scrapes on the helmet, the mouth pieces… Even down to the shoelaces. It’s something that like feels like you’re watching a real game of football.


WIL WHEATON:  The result has been a video game that keeps fans coming back every year for its annual release.


MIKE MIKA: They’ve sold at least over 125 million copies of the game since 89. And to put that in perspective I mean I think that is over probably $4.5 billion of sales. That makes the franchise probably equal to if not more than the value of Lucasfilm and Star Wars.


WIL WHEATON: Some of the game’s biggest fans are NFL players themselves.


[NFL PLAYER (about the Madden game): Oh yeah. I’m all over that baby.]


WIL WHEATON: Madden is a staple in player lounges and hotel rooms.


[NFL PLAYER (about the Madden game): They got that good ole new Madden. I heard they had going Santonio [Holmes] out there going…


NFL PLAYER #2: Oh man, they got water when you tired and everything man. It’s perfect.]


WIL WHEATON: Though players do have one consistent complaint: Their own ratings.


JOHN MADDEN: I’ve only had one player in the history of Madden not complain. That was Emmitt Smith years ago when he played for the Dallas Cowboys and he was in a locker room, in the Cowboy locker room, and some guys were playing. He was watching them play and someone was him and he was watching it and he said ‘Holy moly I’m doing stuff in the video game I’ve never done in a game.’ But he’s the only guy that ever said you know I’m too good in the game.


DONNY MOORE: The core thing that stretches through all this with players is that they all want to be better. It’s just that simple.


WIL WHEATON: The guy responsible for player ratings for most of the last decade was Donny Moore.


DONNY MOORE: Yeah I’m probably better known as the ‘Ratings Czar’ for Madden. And that is on my business card.


WIL WHEATON: He has since stepped back from that role, but for years, as ‘Ratings Czar’…


[DONNY MOORE (showing his workspace): So this is it. This is where the magic happens…]


WIL WHEATON: His cubicle was stacked with books and magazines…  


[DONNY MOORE (showing his workspace): Lots of scouting information…]


WIL WHEATON: He had enormous three ring binders…


[DONNY MOORE (showing his workspace): Just pages…]


WIL WHEATON: Filled with heavily-highlighted… Double-sided printouts…    


[DONNY MOORE (showing his workspace): Basically comments that we kind of incorporate and turn into numbers right.]


WIL WHEATON: Though research tools have evolved over the last decade, the objective has remained constant.


DONNY MOORE: There was great pride and great responsibility with trying to portray everything as authentically and accurately as possible. If you go back to look at the early Madden’s there’s like five, eight, ten ratings. Then we expanded that to about 20 to 25, and now we’re pushing like 70, 75, 80 ratings that make up a player.


WIL WHEATON: Even individual team playbooks get translated from the field to the game. Anthony White has worked on them for over a decade.


ANTHONY WHITE: We pay attention to such my minute details as what hash mark will they run this play from you know. What defensive coverage are they running this play for? How are they blocking this particular blitz scheme when they’re running this play?


WIL WHEATON: He watches hundreds of hours of game film, and to make sure Madden stays true to what’s happening in the NFL…


E.A. also brings in analysts and coaches…





ANTHONY WHITE (to Coach): Did you pull the guard during play action?


COACH: We will pull the guard. We’ve wanted to make it look exactly.]


WIL WHEATON: As well as players… Like Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk… Who joined John Madden and the game’s producers at E.A.’s office in Florida to review the game when he was on the cover.




MARSHALL FAULK: For the most part we run out of…]


WIL WHEATON: They spend hours discussing everything from new game features, to offensive formations…




JOHN MADDEN:  In their eye the fullback’s not always there…


MARSHALL FAULK: Yeah he’s not always there. You know that should always be an option too that your fullback can motion either way.]


WIL WHEATON: These meetings have been a staple of John’s relationship with E.A. through the years.




PRODUCER: I’ll take a look at that. That’s pretty easy for us to fix.]


JOHN MADDEN: I watch and make sure that anything that happens in the NFL, that we get [that] into the Madden Game.


DONNY MOORE: John, he was always fantastic about spotting these high level trends and almost enforcing to us like hey you guys kind of have that in the game. That’s like a new thing in football this year and if they’re playing my game that we need to have it.


WIL WHEATON: Even as he’s gotten older, John continues to regularly host the game’s developers at his studio in California.




JOHN MADDEN: Welcome. I just want you to know that I appreciate the work, the time, the effort, the knowledge, the passion and everything that you put into the Madden video game. So thank…]


WIL WHEATON: It’s a chance to review the state of Madden’s game, while watching a full slate of NFL games…




JOHN MADDEN: I think that one of the things that we’re always trying to do is make the game look like it does here on TV. So… We got this set up here and nine monitors so thank you very much and let’s watch football.]


WIL WHEATON: And sometimes, like during one of their meetings in week one of 2009, the NFL itself plays out like a moment from Madden…


[NFL BROADCAST ANNOUNCER (yelling): Oh god Stokeley down the sidelines. Wow. Touchdown Denver unbelievable. Oh my goodness.]


WIL WHEATON:  For Madden’s developers who were at the meeting that day, the replay of Brandon Stokley’s touchdown revealed something striking…


DONNY MOORE: Time was running out but it wasn’t like 0:00 on the clock.


[NFL BROADCAST ANNOUNCER (yelling): 11 seconds left.]


DONNY MOORE: So what Stokeley did is he runs parallel to the end zone he’s and he’s not doing it to like taunt. He’s actually doing it strategically.


[NFL BROADCAST ANNOUNCER (yelling): He’s burning time off the clock by not going into the end zone until he absolutely has to.]


DONNY MOORE: And for us we were all in the room and that’s something that a Madden video game player is very well aware of. Like they that’s how you play the game is like oh you know I’m not going to leave him any time on the clock. I’m going to be you know a jerk and I’m going to run parallel to the goal line for as long as I can and then I’ll go in the end zone. It was like a surreal moment to see Brandon Stokely had to have gotten that piece of strategy from video game playing and to be there with John the moment it’s happening is almost like a full circle like ‘Oh my god’ we’re now the video game is now influencing how the actual players are playing on the field.


MIKE MIKA: We have these young players in the NFL who grew up playing Madden. They learned about football through Madden as much as they learn by playing it.


TRIP HAWKINS: You look at it today you know that’s a really remarkable and fast transformation.


WIL WHEATON: For Trip Hawkins, this development is part of a big change from when he first set out to make the game.


TRIP HAWKINS: But when I started making videogames they were a shameful occupation and a shameful hobby. They’ve become mainstream. And people like John Madden were very instrumental in enabling video games to become a central part of modern culture.


MIKE MIKA: I have a 10 year old son who is learning about football through Madden. I think kids growing up today, John Madden is somehow football and there’s just no separating em.


JOHN MADDEN: You can tell how people know you by what they call you. I mean there are people who call me Coach and them people call me Madden. ‘Hey Madden,’ you know it’s the video game. I’ll see you over my house. We’ll play Madden. Then they see me and they say ‘Hey there’s Madden. Hey Madden!’


WIL WHEATON: John was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006…  


[JOHN MADDEN (about his Hall of Fame induction): I said they can’t take this away. They can’t say we’re kidding? We want it back.]


WIL WHEATON: Not as a broadcaster, not as a contributor… He was inducted as a coach.


MIKE MIKA: He is kind of every man’s coach.


JOHN MADDEN: I’m a coach you know and that’s what I am and everything goes around that.


MIKE MIKA: I think if history looks back 100 years from now at the evolution of football, I think many people will confuse, John Madden as the inventor of the sport.


DAVID HILL: I did say to him once, I said ‘Do you realize that you are immortal?’ And he said, ‘What do you mean?’ In another hundred years, the Madden game will still go on. Hence, John Madden is an immortal.’ John loves that. He like when I told him, he’s going [laughing].




Madden’s Game

This Episode was created in partnership with NFL Films.

Jody Avirgan, Host and Senior Producer

Erin Leyden, ESPN Films Senior Producer and  series editor.

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