How John Madden Changed Sports Games Forever

25 years ago, America's most boisterous sportcaster demanded greater realism in games.

Article by Jeremy Parish, .

Even though I grew up in West Texas, I never quite got the appeal of football. (Distinction for our European visitors: I'm referring specifically to American football here, though you shouldn't feel left out. The appeal of your version eludes me as well.)

While everyone else was out cheering on a bunch of meatheads trying to win glory for their hometown by shuffling a hunk of dead pig back and forth across the lawn, I was busy trying to save Monsteropolis from the mad schemes of Dr. Wily. Priorities, you know?

But even though I grew up as a short, bookish, out-of-shape nerd with terrible vision problems that made any sport involving the relative motion of small objects approximately impossible for me, I could still enjoy sports through the medium of video games. Even football, which in its abstract digital renditions transformed from an exercise in concussive collisions by grunting giants and into a wild melee of moving objects and careful evasion. The microcephalic brutes in my gym class may have crushed me into a sad, pale paste every time our instructor forced us to play field football, but in Tecmo Bowl, I stood a chance to best any comer -- and I didn't even need to know the real ins and outs of the game.

Before Madden, this was the gold standard for football games. Not pictured: Super rad trackball controller. [Image source]

That changed in the summer of 1988, when Electronic Arts launched John Madden Football. Madden was a key addition to EA's licensed sports lineup, which had kicked off (or rather, tipped off) five years prior with the revolutionary basketball game Dr. J and Larry Bird Go One-on-One. After One-on-One's success, EA founder Trip Hawkins had subsequently approached legendary coach and sportscaster John Madden about a similar endorsement for the company's football game, but Madden insisted any game bearing his name go beyond the superficial depth of contemporary football games and pursue both the full scope and the underlying strategy of the sport. EA spent years fine-tuning their creation to their licensor's standards. Their effort paid off, giving them what would become perhaps the all-time best-selling video game franchise in America.

But Madden also changed the entire nature of video football games at large, bending them away from casual affairs that anyone could enjoy and into deeper simulations designed for people who immersed themselves in the real-world sport. Atari's arcade football game bore only the loosest resemblance to what actually transpires on the gridiron, but damn if it wasn't fun shuffling those Xs and Os around the field. Admittedly, that thrill really had more to do with the physicality of the arcade machine, which operated through a trackball controller that demanded considerable player exertion. It was more about simulating the excitement and adrenaline of playing as a running back than about accurately reproducing the mechanics of the sport, but that's what made it so fun.

Madden, on the other hand, was aimed at armchair quarterbacks: The guys who'd sit back on Sunday afternoon, beer in hand, and second-guess every call Tom Landry made. The guys who just knew that if it had been them out there pacing the sidelines in a suit and fedora, they'd have done it way better. Madden offered them the opportunity to prove it for themselves, giving them access to actual plays. It even included printed play books -- one offensive, one defensive -- as supplemental material for the game. John Madden Football made football games into something more than just an arcade-style rush to the end zone, emphasizing the importance of both strategy and stats.

Fancy a bit of playing god? Madden let you change the weather and determine whether or not your little football guys were immune to injury. [Image source]

As football simulations went, Madden was unparalleled in its day and helped establish the modern standard to which all sports games aspire. While EA licensed only Madden's name and likeness rather than those of players or the trademarked branding of teams, the game designers based the two available teams on contemporary NFL players, with details changed just enough to avoid a lawsuit but not so much that avid fans couldn't tell exactly who the fake players were meant to be. This minor touch of verisimilitude made immersion that much easier, as the game incorporated actual stats derived from each team member's corresponding real-world counterpart that helped determine how the player's decisions would play out.

Adding further complexity to the simulation, Madden allowed any number of other variables to affect matches. Players could select from several inclement weather types, allow tracking of different penalties, and even enable negative effects like player fatigue and injury. About the only thing missing was season play and a career mode; in its original incarnation, John Madden Football simply consisted of single match-ups. But those isolated games offered unprecedented detail and substance, with John Madden himself available to offer strategic advice as needed. And, it should be noted, the game didn't consist entirely of thumbing through play books; once the ball was hiked, players took an active role in controlling the quarterback and receivers as well. The action was a good deal more sedate than something like Atari Football, but it still went a long way toward creating greater immersion and involvement.

While the action view didn't differ too wildly from antecedents on NES and Sega Master System, Madden offered vastly more depth than competing console football games. [Image source]

An immediate hit, John Madden Football became a major franchise for EA. The 1988 original had been designed for personal computers, but with the advent of the Sega Genesis and EA's unique licensing deal with Sega, Madden soon shifted focus to consoles, where it made an even bigger splash and launched an even bigger revolution. While consoles had long been regarded as a home for superficial, arcade-like sports experiences, Madden demonstrated their potential for more engrossing takes on the hobby. On a system connected to the same television that people used for watching Monday Night Football, Madden's armchair quarterback analogy became even more compelling. Madden played a major part in the way Genesis shattered Nintendo's monopoly on the U.S. gaming market, and it set the tone for games across the entire spectrum of sports, especially once EA ponied up the cash for an official NFL license and John Madden Football became Madden NFL.

And yet, despite its revolutionary design and the gains it represented for console gaming, I can't help but feel that a little something was lost in the rush to duplicate Madden's success. Football games quickly mutated from dumb arcade fluff to slow, thoughtful simulations, with only the occasional outlier (e.g., Mutant League Football, NFL Blitz) to provide a counterpoint. As with so many other genres, sports games became focused on offering the deepest possible experience to super-fans.

What sets Madden apart from other genres that have catered to their hardcore fanbases and isolated themselves in a niche is that unlike shoot-em-ups and fighting games, football has an audience of millions of existing super-fans to tap into -- an external frame of reference. Where arcade shooters evolved from the simple, accessible Space Invaders to experts-only bullet-hell madness, turning off all but a dedicated few in the process, it's the more casual sports audience that's left out in the cold in the post-Madden era. Guys like me just wanna score a quick touchdown. We have no idea what a "tight slot formation" is -- heck, I'm not even sure if it's something I can talk about in polite company. But for the millions who own an Xbox 360 just to have access to the latest Madden each year, sports games didn't come to an end in 1988. On the contrary: For them, that's when video games in general began.

This article may contain links to online retail stores. If you click on one and buy the product we may receive a small commission. For more information, go here.

Comments 26

  • Avatar for sdhero #1 sdhero 5 years ago
    Yeah, even as a pretty big football fan who watches games every week during the season, I really have never gotten into Madden. I understand the basics of football, maybe even the intermediate stuff. But Jeremy, I have no more idea than you what a "tight slot formation" is. I understand that routes -exist-, and that players run them, but beyond that it gets pretty hazy.

    Picking from the big list of plays available in Madden always seemed incredibly intimidating. Recent entries will of course suggest a recommended play, but having no idea why something is being suggested for me only serves to make the experience more frustrating. Playing Madden with any sort of success simply depends on a deeper level of football knowledge than I am ever likely to possess.

    The sad thing is, the EA stranglehold on the NFL license means that unless EA decides to make a casual-friendly experience themselves, I'm not likely to see a football game I have an interest in for some time.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for AxiomVerge #2 AxiomVerge 5 years ago
    I was never able to get into it even when I was an animator at Tiburon, surrounded by football for 40 hours a week. There was this one animator on the team who was obsessed - this was his dream job - and the rest of us would have him explain how tight slots and tight ends were work safe. I liked working on NFL Street 3, though, since it was the only way I was ever going to get to animate wall runs and ninja flips at Electronic Arts.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for dr134 #3 dr134 5 years ago
    The absolute pinnacle of video game football was Front Page Sports Football Pro. I spent an huge number of hours playing, creating plays, and simulating games on it.

    The one thing that it had that no modern football game has done, was that you looked at one receiver at a time. You had to cycle through your receivers one at a time (more like a quarterback actually does) instead of "Press X, Y, A, B, L1, R1, or ..." to pass to any receiver at any time.

    The graphics have gotten more realistic over the years but, to me, the game play has never been bettered.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for presagiador #4 presagiador 5 years ago
    Never thought i'd see mr.parish write an article about Madden hehe that's why i love this site.
    I had always liked football since i was a toddler but could never understand what exactly was happening in the game (i'm not from the US by the way) Madden NFL 95 for the Genesis taught me the rules been a fan of the franchise since that day
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for abuele #5 abuele 5 years ago
    My first encounter with videogame football was with the Intelevision football. I never understood how to play the game, even after kicking the ball, for which it meant to switch to another game such as the Empire Strikes Back or Frogger.

    Years later with the NES I stumbled upon a copy of Tecmo Bowl, and I enjoyed its fast pacing and easy touchdowns, as you mentioned.

    Years later I bough a copy of Joe Montana Football for the Genesis. What Tecmo Bowl clicked in my brain to enjoy videogame football. JMF let me enjoy playing with and/or against someone else.

    For me a recurrent EA's franchise is FIFA, for which I will certainly get its last incarnation, for two reasons, to play friends, and because Chicharito appears in the Mexican cover for FIFA'14; I'm a sucker for Chicharito.

    For last year's NFL ads Corona hired Joe Montana, such a sight took me years back in time, to more simpler gaming experiences.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for deesmith #6 deesmith 4 years ago
    Since I grew up playing football and know all the ins and outs I have to agree Madden did change the landscape, prior to most games were not even using 11 on 11 rosters or full playbooks. But over the 2 decades + there are so many things that have been lost as far as the authenticity of the series and much of that has been due to exclusive deals with the NFL.

    There was a time when Madden would model every player, every mouth piece even going as far as to code in different throwing motions for each of the starting Qbs, where the motto was IF ITS IN THE GAME - ITS IN THE GAME.

    Since Madden stopped officially adding input to the series its those things that are lost. The raw emotion of the game has also not carried over well over the years. Mind you being the only game in town its still a must buy for many , but with a sport as rich in history and complex and NFL Football there is so much more than can do.

    I agree with the write and I almost wish they would go back to creating 2 games the Madden for Sim players who love the sport, stats and AI work and an Arcade game for people who just want to enjoy the touchdowns , hits and excitement. The current meld misses much on both sides of the coin.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #7 SatelliteOfLove 4 years ago
    Maddens have alot of "drop in, drop out" matches and features, but I'm surprised its that instead of the large amount of ever-changing fluff around and at times in front of those. Perhaps that's how that take came to be? Dunno.

    Anywho, lived in Madden for a large part of my 16-bit gaming. Warren Moon all day, errday.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for sscresult2018 #8 sscresult2018 6 months ago
    SSC Result 2018 will be published on 4th May 2018. In our review you will get SSC Result 2018 BD, SSC Result 2018 Bangladesh, Dakhil Result 2018etc.So let's check your SSC Result 2018 here.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for zubairshaikh83 #9 zubairshaikh83 23 days ago
    Your site is truly cool and this is an incredible rousing article. Much thanks to you to such an extent. requiem
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for zubairshaikh83 #10 zubairshaikh83 23 days ago
    Your site is truly cool and this is an incredible rousing article. Much thanks to you to such an extent. requiem
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Śharartį&# #11 Śharartį&# 23 days ago
    The data you have posted is extremely valuable. The locales you have alluded was great. A debt of gratitude is in order for sharing... Die casting China
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for zubairshaikh83 #12 zubairshaikh83 23 days ago
    Awesome review, I am a major devotee to remarking on web journals to advise the website essayists realize that they've added something beneficial to the internet!.. erc20 tokens buy
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Śharartį&# #13 Śharartį&# 21 days ago
    The post is written in very a good manner and it contains many useful information for me.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Śharartį&# #14 Śharartį&# 21 days ago
    A debt of gratitude is in order for imparting pleasant data to us. i like your post and all you impart to us is uptodate and very useful, i might want to bookmark the page so i can come here again to peruse you, as you have made a superb showing. wheelsshop
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for tixorip #15 tixorip 16 days ago
    This is a appropriate blog for everyone who is wishes to find out about this topic. You understand a great deal its practically challenging to argue with you (not that I just would want…HaHa). You certainly put a brand new spin on a topic thats been discussed for years. Great stuff, just fantastic! laptop reparatie
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for zubairshaikh83 #16 zubairshaikh83 16 days ago
    Thanks for this great post, i find it very interesting and very well thought out and put together. I look forward to reading your work in the future.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for zubairshaikh83 #17 zubairshaikh83 14 days ago
    A debt of gratitude is in order for sharing the data, keep doing awesome... I truly delighted in investigating your site. great asset...
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for zubairshaikh83 #18 zubairshaikh83 10 days ago
    Much obliged to you for some other enlightening site. The spot else might just I understand that sort of data written in such a flawless strategy? I have an endeavor that I am essentially now running on, and I've been at the look out for such information.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for zubairshaikh83 #19 zubairshaikh83 10 days ago
    This is such a great resource that you are providing and you give it away for free
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for zubairshaikh83 #20 zubairshaikh83 9 days ago
    Super-Duper site! I am Loving it!! Will come back again, Im taking your feed also, Thanks. 海外充值
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Śharartį&# #21 Śharartį&# 7 days ago
    Much obliged to you for some other enlightening online journal. Where else might I be able to understand that kind of data written in such a perfect means? I have a mission that I'm a few seconds ago taking a shot at, and I have been at the post for such data. A Level Computer Science Gce Guide
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Śharartį&# #22 Śharartį&# 4 days ago
    Much obliged to you for some other enlightening site. The spot else might just I understand that sort of data written in such a flawless strategy? I have an endeavor that I am essentially now running on, and I've been at the look out for such information.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Śharartį&# #23 Śharartį&# 4 days ago
    This substance is composed exceptionally well. Your utilization of organizing when mentioning your focuses makes your objective facts clear and straightforward. Much obliged to you.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Śharartį&# #24 Śharartį&# 4 days ago
    Great write-up, I am a big believer in commenting on blogs to inform the blog writers know that they’ve added something worthwhile to the world wide web!..
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for tixorip #25 tixorip 3 days ago
    I can't envision concentrating sufficiently long to research; significantly less compose this sort of article. You've beaten yourself with this material. This is extraordinary substance. Bracelets
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for tixorip #26 tixorip 3 days ago
    Many thanks for this specific info I was basically researching all Yahoo in order to uncover it! Tree service Long island Ny
    Sign in to Reply