Football was not the sport that I was drawn to as a child. But John Madden definitely stated that it should be so.
Madden, the coach and broadcaster who died Tuesday at the age of 85, is the reason I understand the game at all. Well, to be perfectly accurate, the credit should go to the video games that introduced his incredible personality and his outgoing take on the sport. But I always associated the accessibility of the Madden NFL series, especially in the early 1980s and mid-90s, with the coach.
Today, the yearly iterations of “Madden”, depending on how you prefer to play, can be challenging simulations that highlight a modern star-driven game. The new releases focus on tweaks that make the video game more realistic, such as improvements to gripping methods that even take into account the weight of individual players. But they will also contain revolutionary power-ups that will treat NFL players like superheroes.
These are not contradictions. They always felt like a continuation of the franchise to me, with a personality that can’t be ignored, in a tone conveyed from someone who loved the game in all its splendor, strategy and silliness.
Today, video games often feature celebrities and realistic recreations of athletes. Madden was then one of the first to lend his name, voice, and likeness to the medium, a marketing genius that turned the football legend into a vital piece of video game intellectual property. It all worked so well because the first games, in which players could literally float a few extra yards above the field, felt like a love letter to football, emblazoned on the name of someone who adored it, probably more than anyone else.
The goal has always been natural fidelity, the latter a moving target based on technological limitations. And for decades, video games have influenced NFL broadcasts and their digital overlays. As our world has become increasingly digital, changes in video games are visible almost everywhere, and the lines, circles, sleds of Madden games today dominate almost every sports television presentation. Around 2022, the NFL looks more like a video game, and a video game inspired by it feels more believable than ever.
But while today’s “Madden” games may not have the instant “pick and play” approach of the early years, they still represent a digitization of the sport that makes it much more welcoming and supportive than virtually anything we see. or hear on Sundays. Look out for a feature added this year called Gameplay Momentum, an arcade counter that aims to capture all the intangibles when real people are in the game.
It’s kind of “luck”. But it’s also something NFL broadcasters are talking about and normalizing, and the realization that as we interact with the game, we’re also watching our decisions unfold. This is an important distinction because while Michael Jordan and Larry Bird were also giving their names to video games around the time the Madden NFL series was gaining popularity, we never considered ourselves superstar athletes. We are coaches and broadcasters – those who direct and comment on the action, not make it possible.
Madden wasn’t a gamer, but he knew it.
“I’m not very good,” he once told The Times. “I’m not good enough to really test a game for a gamer. But I’m out of games. I have games at home, games here at the office, games on my bus. I get more from watching other people play and then from where I can watch the game like I do on TV.”
Although the games no longer use Madden’s commentary, they still have a rabid enthusiasm that can be attributed to his broadcasting style. As an adult, I appreciate that kind of liveliness in today’s games. The young me, however, discovered that this tone was something of a mentor. Again, by design.
“That’s one thing that professional footballers have to watch out for – they don’t have small children,” Madden told The Times in 2002.
“If you have a child, say 8 to 15 years old, he will be more of a video game fan than a football fan,” Madden said. “Before, children learned about football by playing it in the park or in the backyard. Now kids learn about it by playing video games.”
It only worked because the game aimed to make NFL textbooks understandable. Madden’s involvement with the game can be traced back to a train ride in the mid-80s, when then-Electronic Arts president Trip Hawkins, one of the game’s key architects, met the football legend on a train ride from Denver to Oakland.
To agree to take part, Madden had requests. A 1989 USA Today article outlines some of the key philosophies the coach wanted to bring to the game: “the paramount importance of matches and field conditions, the warning to avoid tricks, and the wisdom of trusting percentages.”
In the late 80s, I watched my father and my cousins play a relatively primitive football game – NFL Challenge – at Christmas Eve meetings, its tic-tac-toe, a world I didn’t understand. But it was an adult universe that looked appealing, full of sarcastic jokes and camaraderie, dialogue that, if I remembered anything, would probably make me or my mom cringe today.
The Madden NFL games served as a bridge to that world, allowing us to draw our own playbooks – certainly never as good as those approved by Madden – to see how the football game would develop. In other words, to understand how these tic-tac-toe turned into people. But the games also understood that football needed to soften its edges if its appeal was ever to expand.
As Hawkins told USA Today of that first train ride, “Madden spent the entire day munching on a huge cigar that must have been about a foot long. He never allowed it, and by the end of the day it was pretty disgusting,” recalled Hawkins. “Madden is a serious guy, consistent and trustworthy. In TV commercials, he is almost like a cartoon character; he plays the character John Madden. In fact, he doesn’t like it at all.”
The Madden I know is a cartoon character to football, like Mario and Luigi are to the New York plumbers.
But that doesn’t make any of them any less real. Each game or narrative is more connected to an accessible person at its core, and with one of the loudest and most hilarious at its center, the Madden NFL franchise is now as tangible as the NFL itself.