Thirty years ago today, on the shelves of your local computer store, catalog showroom or the Babbage’s in the mall, John Madden Football made its debut. Madden NFL is more than just the longest-tenured sports video game series today. It remade expectations of the genre on the whole, and gave fans a new way to relate to the players and sports they enjoy. And it made a coach’s name synonymous with his sport, which is a hell of a legacy.
The first Madden didn’t suggest it would amount to such a cultural or even marketplace impact. It sold all right, but the fact it had 11 players on both sides — a first for a football video game, as Tecmo Bowl on the NES only had nine — overwhelmed most computers of the day. And the game, though working with real plays and pro football strategies, was still so complex that many fans found it inaccessible.
It’s important to remember what being a football fan was like then. Most people in that time had exposure to the sport, its strategies and concepts, only through actually playing it and being coached in it in high school. Otherwise, you probably read a highly technical book that the library had to call in from another branch.
Madden ultimately changed all that. I learned about a trap block from Madden — the game, not the man — though I never put three fingers in the dirt as a lineman. I concentrated on gap assignments; I’ve never been a linebacker. I understood why a quarterback sends someone in motion before the snap (to get the defense to show if they’re in man or zone coverage); I’ve never put my hands under a center’s butt.
I have a friend who coached semi-professional football in Denmark, and a few years ago he told me that receivers came to his tryouts already versed in receiving patterns by name. That was thanks to Madden, he told me.
Years ago I spoke to Madden in a conference call promoting the upcoming game. I remember the pride in his voice when he said Raheem Morris, then the 34-year-old Tampa Bay coach coming off a 10-victory season in 2010, said he learned the sport through the Madden video game. The year before that, in the season’s most electrifying play, Brandon Stokley of the Denver Broncos, escaping on an 87-yard touchdown catch, ran parallel to the goal line to bleed time off the clock. That tactic was born in video games, and it was an unmistakable demonstration of Madden’s influence on the real sport.
I remember going down to EA Tiburon in 2012 and standing off to the side, watching Mark Schlereth, the notorious ESPN talker (now with Fox Sports 1) draw plays on a whiteboard for Anthony White, the series’ longtime gameplay designer. Schlereth and White were discussing the Denver Broncos’ blocking scheme, which Schlereth played under, and how it opened holes that turned average runners into thousand-yard backs. Jesus, I remember thinking, this game can even make Mark Schlereth sound coherent.
These are the things I think about when I consider Madden — not necessarily its sales, longevity or prestige. The series has had some bumps, sure. Madden on the last console generation seemed to struggle with its ambition more than apply it. And some are unwilling to forgive Electronic Arts for negotiating an exclusive license with the NFL, although that conveniently forgets Sega’s choices and the league’s role in creating the deal.
But I buy Madden every year, too. I really do; I don’t just get a free copy for the review. I send the game to a buddy in Texas, as much as a reminder of our friendship as of the shared vocabulary that we — and millions of others — have through Madden. And that’s also a hell of a legacy for the man, and for all who made his game.
Roster File is Polygon’s news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games.