Thirty years after exiting pro football's coaching ranks, John Madden still knows how to execute a winning game plan.
About to start his 29th year of network NFL broadcasts, Madden has developed a bigger-than-life personality — boisterously punctuating plays with "Bam!" and "Boom!" — and has earned 16 Sports Emmys. He bashed through walls in a string of Miller Lite TV ads in the '80s, and his career in commercials continues for Ace Hardware, Outback Steakhouse, Sirius Radio and "fast-actin' " Tinactin.
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Then there's the product he's most known for: the Madden NFL video game. With more than 70 million copies sold, the franchise celebrates its 20th anniversary this year in high style. There'll be a "Maddenpalooza" at L.A.'s Rose Bowl with rock acts and video kiosks. And as usual, lines are expected (and workdays will be missed) when Madden NFL 09 hits retailers at midnight Tuesday.
"We don't so much as launch Madden any more, we celebrate its arrival," says EA Sports president Peter Moore.
Even today, Madden remains incredulous about the game's success and was skeptical from the beginning. "It's easy to say, 'Aw, yeah, hell I saw it coming,' " he says. "But I never did."
In 1986, Trip Hawkins, founder of software firm Electronic Arts, asked Madden to help create a football game. Madden, then with CBS, taught a Football for Fans college course on the side. "I thought maybe I could use this tool, and high schools could use it," he says.
For authenticity, Madden demanded each team have 11 players. It took nearly four years to achieve that technological breakthrough. "In those days, any kind of game was always three on three or four on four," Madden recalls. "I said, 'If it's not 11 on 11, it's not a real game.' It had to look like NFL football."
The first edition of John Madden Football, with blocky, slow, Lego-esque characters, was designed for the Apple II computer. This year's versions, with high-def action and digital facial scans, arrives Tuesday for Xbox 360, Wii and DS handhelds and Sony's PlayStations ($30 to $60; collector's anniversary edition, $90).
Madden helped build EA. "That whole idea of having Madden help design the game, that whole point of authenticity, gave birth to the brand identity for EA Sports," Hawkins says.
The game has generated $2.4 billion in sales since 1995, when research firm NPD Group began tracking sales. "The property has been among the top 10 franchises each and every year, and most of those, it was among the top five," says NPD analyst Anita Frazier. "There are only a handful of elite properties that can claim that sort of success."
Alternative rockers and hip-hop artists vie to be on the soundtrack, just as NFL players jockey to compete in the annual Madden Bowl tournament during Super Bowl week. The game even has a reality show, ESPN's Madden Nation (its fourth season begins next month), with top players competing for $100,000.
The franchise also made John Madden a household icon, right beside Mario and Pokémon. With young teen males, the Maddengame ranks with the GameBoy handheld, the Grand Theft Autofranchise and Microsoft's Xbox Live online network in terms of consumer likability, says Henry Schafer of Marketing Evaluations, which produces the so-called Q ratings measuring public affection.
Madden the man rates even higher. His familiarity rating of 60% with the general public and above-average likability rating put him "in the company of Brett Favre and Joe Montana and not that far behind Tiger Woods," Schafer says. "The unusual thing is how pervasive he has become in and out of the sport. He's transcending his profession."
Madden waves off any discussion of his finances. But Madden's Maddenearnings, estimated by Wedbush Morgan Securities analyst Michael Pachter at $2 million to $3 million a year, make up the largest portion of his income.
His longtime agent, Sandy Montag of IMG, would say that Madden has sustained his client's marketability.
"Arguably, John is known among certain circles more for his video game today than he is for anything else," he says. "He's almost had three separate lives: a coach, a commentator and video game guy."
Madden executes his daily activities from his studio east of Oakland, built in 1995. Notoriously opposed to flying — he's claustrophobic — Madden re-cords game video and commercials there as well as his Daily Madden10-minute report on Bay Area radio station KCBS. Not on the premises: his tricked-out motor coach, the Maddencruiser, in which he travels the country. Madden comfortably moves into the role of storyteller, a tactic he uses in the broadcast booth, too.
He says he has gotten used to NFL players' obsession with their portrayal in the game. "I go to practices, and some guy, you don't even know where it came from," he says, before bellowing in his familiar gravelly baritone, " 'Hey, Madden, I need more juice.' They all need more juice."
Over the years, only one player has told him different: former Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith.
"I was at a Cowboys facility. They had been playing Madden in the locker room, and he was watching someone play as the Cowboys, and he was saying, 'I was watching me in the game,' and he goes, 'I'm not that good. You have me too good,' " Madden says. "But he was the only one."
NFL players eagerly await the game because it's a popular pastime at preseason football camps — and to see how they rate. "You want to see how the guys who make the game view you," says NFL Network analyst Marshall Faulk, a former All-Pro running back and cover athlete on Madden NFL 2003.
Madden knew he and the developers had achieved their goal of making the video game seem as if players were controlling an NFL broadcast when he heard Fox Sports chairman David Hill say, "One of the goals (Fox has) is to make their game on television look like a video game," says Madden, who analyzed games on Fox for eight years. "I thought, 'We've gone the whole circle. We wanted to look like them, and then they wanted to look like us.' I'm proud of that."
Each year, Madden adds new features, some for realism and others to feed fantasies. "At one time, it was just playing the game. Then there was ways you can change your roster, and then you can be the general manager and then owner and coach and player," Madden says.
"That's what people want today. They want to be. There was a generation where 'I want to sit and watch.' Now there's a generation where 'I want to sit and do. Or I want to be.' "
In one new feature, Madden appears, in a holographic effect, to administer a skill test when you start the game. You perform several drills (running and passing the ball, tackling and rushing the quarterback) in a virtual training camp. The game uses the resulting rating to adjust to your skills.
"Now they get a grade, so they can see they have a number," says Madden, who also appears for pregame, halftime and postgame analysis. (In the past, he has also handled commentary, but this year Cris Collinsworth and Tom Hammond make their debut on the newer platforms.)
The L-shaped wing that makes up his office has a replica of the Super Bowl trophy from the Raiders' 1977 win, Emmy statues, a bronzed shoe from his days as a Raiders coach and a Pro Football Hall of Fame bust.
In a weird twist, the video game became part of the Hall five years ago — in its own interactive exhibit — three years before Madden himself was inducted. "It makes me feel the game has been accepted as a historical part of the history of pro football," he says.