How a former NFL athlete turned his failed pro career into a second life as a game designer.
Clint Oldenburg still remembers the moment his NFL career ended.
Oldenburg began the 2010 NFL season with the Washington Redskins, his sixth team in his fourth year in the league. Things were finally looking up after years spent bouncing around clubs' practice squads and never seeing any game time. He was competing for a starting job at the right tackle position. He had started the final preseason game and seen 64 plays of action. Then, the curse that had plagued his entire career struck again.
"Two minutes and 48 seconds left on the clock, I hurt my ankle, and they put me on injured reserve the next day," says Oldenburg. The 65th snap of that preseason matchup against the Arizona Cardinals on Sept. 2, 2010, would be his last in an NFL uniform. The Redskins cut him the next year.
By the end of 2011, Oldenburg was set to begin a journey back to the NFL, but he took a detour prior to resuming his pro football career. What was supposed to be a pit stop on Oldenburg's NFL comeback trail turned into a full-time job in early 2012, a job that became his new career: designing video games.
As with everything else in Madden, it has to look and feel like real football.
The business of blocking
For every highlight-reel play in football, there's one block — or more — that made it happen.
"It's the unsung hero, both in the video game world and in real life," says Seann Graddy, line producer on Electronic Arts' Madden NFL series of football simulation video games. "If you think about how every play plays out, blocking — whether it's a pass play or a run play — is critical to that play being successful."
Offensive linemen tend to be the largest players on a football team, standing upward of 6 feet tall and weighing at least 300 pounds. But they must also sport tremendous intelligence and quickness, whether they're a tackle fending off a speedy defensive end or a guard getting across the field to be the lead blocker on an outside run. It's a demanding endeavor, especially since a poor blocking technique often results in penalty calls like holding that can wipe out a big play.
"Most offensive linemen will tell you that ... no one notices when it goes well. The only time you're ever called out in a game is when it's a penalty, usually," says Roy Harvey, Madden's executive producer.
Blocking represents a significant challenge for the developers at suburban Orlando, Fla.-based EA Tiburon, the studio behind the Madden franchise. They have to build the artificial intelligence for defensive linemen pursuing the quarterback and make offensive linemen smart enough to stop them, and as with everything else in Madden, it has to look and feel like real football.
The interaction between linemen was a perennial problem area for the series, rife with frustrating and unrealistic play. That included AI deficiencies like blown assignments and animation issues like suction, whereby a defender would magically get entangled in a block — as if the offensive lineman had activated an internal magnet. Tiburon had failed to address these problems for years despite repeated complaints from critics and players.
In 2011, the football executives at Tiburon got together to rethink the direction of Madden. One of the key pillars of their new plan has been to focus on delivering gameplay that is authentic to the NFL. According to Rex Dickson, creative director for gameplay, that effort includes an initiative to eliminate what the studio refers to as "legacy issues" — areas of the game, such as blocking, that have remained stagnant for years in favor of the development of features that are more visible (and thus, more marketable).
"That often comes at the expense of fixing these legacy issues that kind of impact the overall quality of the game. So part of the new vision is all about, 'We have to take these legacy issues seriously; we have to be OK with spending a lot of time going back fixing something that maybe isn't that sexy.' And maybe marketing can't put it on the back of the box, but we all know it's detracting from the quality of the games," says Dickson.
Blocking was second only to locomotion, the way players move, on Dickson's list of the top legacy issues that needed attention. Now the team just had to find someone to handle it.
By his senior year of high school in his hometown of Gillette, Wyo., a city of about 30,000, Oldenburg had become the top athlete in the state while maintaining excellent grades. He graduated in 2002 as the salutatorian of his class, and most of the Ivy League schools recruited him for their sports programs. He instead chose to attend Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo., on an athletic scholarship.
Oldenburg started 34 games at left tackle over his last three seasons at Colorado State, but wasn't expecting to be chosen in the NFL Draft after he graduated at the end of 2006.
On April 29, 2007, the New England Patriots selected Oldenburg in the fifth round of the draft with the 171st of 255 picks that year.
"That was one of the best days of my life," says Oldenburg.
Post-college surgery left him unable to prepare properly for training camp with the Patriots.
But his time in the NFL got off to an inauspicious start — post-college surgery left him unable to prepare properly for training camp with the Patriots — and he never really hit his stride.
"I started out on the wrong foot just injury-wise, and that seemed to be kind of the theme of my career: Every time I would get really close to getting over the bubble, I would get hurt again," says Oldenburg. "And it wasn't necessarily career-ending injuries; it was just little nagging injuries that just kept me from being at my best."
The Patriots cut him in the second week of his rookie season, 2007. "I'll probably forever live with the disappointment that I let [the Patriots] down, because they drafted me in the fifth round," he says. "If I could change anything about my life, it would be to go back and prove to them that they made the right pick."
Oldenburg immediately signed with the New York Jets and played in two games in 2007, seeing the only regular-season action of his career in the last two contests of the year. The rest of Oldenburg's football journey was marked primarily by cycles of injury and recovery, interspersed with lengthy stretches on practice squads, whose players don't get paid anything close to the league-minimum salary. He spent time with the St. Louis Rams, Denver Broncos and Redskins, and played in the now-defunct United Football League.
In late 2011, around the same time Oldenburg signed a two-year contract with the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League, his brother alerted him to an opportunity that could put his football knowledge to good use.
EA Tiburon was offering a game design fellowship to former college football players for its NCAA Football franchise. The studio has employed numerous ex-college athletes, and former pros often work with the company as consultants. Oldenburg had no experience with game development, but he had always been a fan of EA Sports games, and he saw the fellowship as an opportunity to expand his horizons. Tiburon accepted his application for the paid internship, which began in January 2012.
While Oldenburg took the fellowship because he was legitimately interested in learning about the video game industry, he was still targeting an eventual return to the NFL. He planned to complete the 16-week program at Tiburon and go right into training camp with the Roughriders.
But Tiburon cut the internship short halfway through and offered Oldenburg a full-time position, giving him a huge decision to make: Turn down EA in the hopes that he'd be able to make his way back to the NFL in a couple of years, or give up on his lifelong dream forever to become a game designer.
"We needed somebody that was a subject-matter expert and understood the real-world rules of blocking."
Turning pro as a designer
"I kind of fought with it internally for two weeks, talked to my family, talked to everyone, and just kind of weighed the pros and cons and tried to figure out what my best opportunity was," says Oldenburg. "What were the chances of getting back to the NFL at the age of 30? You know, having been around the NFL a while and having a bunch of injuries, [I knew] the chances weren't great."
The closer came when Oldenburg found out he would need ankle surgery in order to play football again. That's when he hung up the cleats for good and accepted the gig at Tiburon, becoming the first former NFL player to join the studio as a full-time developer. Officials at the company had recently implemented their plan to revamp Madden gameplay, including blocking, and Oldenburg was just the guy for the job.
"I didn't feel like we had the right designer on staff, until Clint was hired, to have the correct vision that we would need to achieve," says Dickson. "We needed somebody that was a subject-matter expert and understood the real-world rules of blocking. And that's why, one of the reasons why, Clint sort of unlocked our ability to go after this feature."
To be sure, handing such a monumental responsibility to a first-year designer was a risk. According to Dickson, Oldenburg exhibited an encouraging level of initiative. But more importantly, his lack of experience as a game developer was actually something Dickson was looking for.
"I didn't want a game designer ... to design the blocking rules. I wanted someone who knew, real world, like, what the rules are, how they're coached, how they're taught," Dickson explains. "When we set out to design this, he came to me and he said, 'I've never designed a game before. I've never designed a video game system before.' And I said, 'I don't want you to.'"
Oldenburg's task was to condense 25 or 30 different NFL pass-blocking schemes into one for Madden that could still seem faithful to the NFL. Then he had to communicate his ideas to the team of engineers and animators working for him, in a way that would allow them to implement his design in the game.
He believes his unique background, both within and outside of football, played a major role in his ability to move into his new career and contribute to Madden.
Communication is a vital skill for a game designer — especially one in Oldenburg's position, which doesn't entail any knowledge of programming. His degree in technical journalism from Colorado State gave him the ability to write about dense topics in a technical manner, as a developer would do in a design document, and to distill those subjects down into terms that a layperson can understand. And Oldenburg says his football experience — specifically, being able to work with a team and compromise to get things done — helped him collaborate with the people who put his designs in the game.
That working relationship is "an iterative process," says Oldenburg. "My job as a designer is to give the engineers the problem space, and then let them figure out how to solve it." The engineers build prototypes of Oldenburg's designs, and like a football coach watching game film, he assesses the fruits of their labors in game footage.
"When I watch the 'film,' if I find something that I don't like — whether it be techniques, scheme, whatever it is — I tell them, 'Hey, this is the problem we need to fix.' They come up with the best way to solve the problem without breaking other stuff in the game, they do their work, they give it back to me, and then I go back and 'look at film' and see if we've fixed the problem or if it still has other issues," Oldenburg explains. "It's just give-and-take, back-and-forth, until we get the product that we want."
But Oldenburg's efforts, and the directive from Madden officials to focus on fixing long-standing problems, ran into a roadblock. Phrases like "improved blocking" don't pull in a lot of eyeballs on the back of a game box, and the marketing department and others weren't convinced that it was worth spending significant resources on blocking. The naysayers pointed out that it's an under-the-radar feature governed primarily by AI routines, and one that players have no control over. So in addition to designing the blocking in Madden, Oldenburg was called upon to justify the value of his work and the development approach of his team leaders.
"Clint had to actually get up there and sell this feature," says Dickson. "And that was a tough sell initially, until people started seeing the results in the game."
Grinding it out in the trenches
Tiburon decided to deliver retooled run blocking in Madden NFL 25 on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 last August, and reserve the overhauled pass blocking for the upgraded PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions in November. Dickson says that in addition to the extra time that schedule afforded to the developers, the pass-blocking changes they had in mind required the power of the new consoles — in particular, vast increases in memory for animations and in processing power for calculations of AI.
The strategy produced mixed results. Dickson acknowledges that run blocking wasn't quite polished enough by August on the older consoles, and a number of reviews called out the lackluster run-blocking AI. Oldenburg and his team had addressed that problem by the time Madden 25 launched on PS4 and Xbox One, and while those versions received lower review scores overall, many critics identified the redesigned pass blocking as a highlight of the gameplay improvements on offer. The Madden team couldn't have been more thrilled.
Many critics identified the redesigned pass blocking as a highlight of the gameplay improvements on offer.
"The amount of work that he took on," says Dickson of Oldenburg, "[to] not only achieve it in one year, but also do a better job than we had ever done at pass blocking in the past 25 years of building this game, it was huge."
Oldenburg says it was gratifying to see the positive reception to the blocking, though he points out that he was but one member of a team.
"I definitely can't take all the credit; I can't even take most of the credit," Oldenburg insists. "I had some all-star engineers and some all-star animators that really made that stuff come to life. I mean, all I did was design it. They did the hard work — they made it, and those guys really deserve all the credit.
"So did I think I was the guy for the job? I thought I was a piece of the puzzle."
A football life
Oldenburg's new line of work means he's in a curious position: His current triumphs were made possible by his failure to succeed in the NFL. Yet he always reminds himself that he was tremendously fortunate to have the opportunity to play in the NFL at all.
"It was a dream come true, just to step on the field, just everything — you know, get off the bus, go into the locker room, put your jersey on with your name stitched on the back, have that NFL logo on your jersey — you know, all that stuff. It was just something that I had only dreamed of, and it was great," he recalls.
The transition out of pro sports into civilian life is one that many athletes neglect to consider, but Oldenburg had always planned for it. He chose to major in technical journalism at Colorado State because he figured that if his NFL prospects didn't pan out, he could go into broadcasting or sports writing.
"I think the NFL does a [good] enough job of making guys aware that it's a short career," says Oldenburg. "And I think after that, it's up to the players. Now, players have a tendency to be stubborn. ... I did the same thing; we all think we're going to play forever and never get hurt."
Injuries may have torpedoed Oldenburg's athletic career, but he says that he's as happy designing football games as he was playing football.
"The game of football has basically provided for me my entire life," says Oldenburg. "I definitely would not have a job on Madden NFL had I not been a football player and played in the NFL. So it definitely has sculpted my life basically for the entirety of it."
While Oldenburg was unable to achieve his goals in his previous life, he hopes to make up for it during his time at EA. Along with his personal aspirations, he has ambitious plans for future contributions to blocking and other areas of Madden. Two years ago, Oldenburg tentatively entered the game industry. Now he proudly considers himself a professional game designer.
"We all think we're going to play forever and never get hurt."