T.J. Won was not born into football. He did not grow up the son of a coach. He did not play the game in high school. In fact, the sum of his playing experience consists of throwing the ball with friends in his home town of Milpitas, Calif., after watching San Francisco 49ers games on television.
But in front of his television now, he notices the kinds of details coaches pick up.
"I used to see people lining up and blocking people," said Won, a junior accounting major at Georgetown University. "Now I see players blocking in the flats, helping protection. You know where the quarterbacks want to throw."
He arrived at this knowledge not by hanging around coaches' offices or studying game tapes. He learned it all from a video game — Madden NFL.
This is a phenomenon the National Football League never could have anticipated. In a world in which 53 million copies of the game have been sold in the last 17 years — the latest version sold an unprecedented two million copies in its first weekend of release last summer — Madden has provided the league a perfect conduit to its next generation of fans. And all because of attention to arcane details that has demystified the complexities of football to a population that never before understood them.
"How else would I ever know what Cover-2 was?" Won said, referring to the widely used pass-defense alignment.
Professional sports leagues — concerned that young people were turning to pro wrestling or action sports such as skateboarding or motocross — have spent millions trying to find the soul of the 15-to-25 year-old fan. They have invested in youth programs, TV shows and even cartoons, figuring one would be the magic elixir that will make their game the next hot thing. Who knew that for the NFL it would be something the league had little to do with creating?
There are no statistics that conclusively link Madden to the NFL's next generation of fans. But a poll taken last year for the NFL said 22 percent of 12-to-17 year olds in the United States consider the NFL their favorite sport. The next closest, baseball, was at 13 percent. And given that NFL video games sold 6.2 million copies last year — almost double that of the next most popular sport — the NFL is sure there is a solid connection.
Kids' "use of technology is different than a generation ago," said Lisa Baird, the NFL's senior vice president for marketing. "They are programmed differently than we are. They are wired differently than we are. We are getting increasingly smarter about the way kids act."
But the popularity of the Madden game, named after Hall of Fame coach and NBC Sports analyst John Madden, has done more than broaden the game's reach to younger people. It has achieved something that for years was considered impossible. Because it has managed to replicate the actual offenses and defenses used in the NFL today, it has in essence demystified the game.
"There's no question it's the video game that's bringing in teenagers," said Marc Ganis, the president of Sportscorp Ltd., a sports consulting firm based in Chicago. "It's educating young fans on the NFL terminologies and making them more sophisticated about the plays on the field.
"But it's also bringing more fans into this very arcane, jargon-driven environment. If you watch the game on TV nowadays, the announcers — especially the color men — are using these very technical football terms. They expect the fans to understand it."
It was probably only a matter of time before the Madden game got to this point. The technology has improved to the point that the players look almost real, as do the stadiums in the background. The NFL, in an attempt at control and also in response to demands from Electronic Arts, the game's maker, for more authenticity, has provided most of the teams' offenses and defenses that are then programmed into the game.
Every year the league sends its officials to Orlando, where EA Sports produces the Madden game. The officials go over every play to see if it would be allowed in a real game, pointing out flaws sure to be penalized on the field, such as excessive celebrations or illegal formations. If a defensive player is particularly fast when chasing down a wide receiver, that will be reflected in the game.
"I think the game has made a better-informed fan, a more sophisticated fan," said Leo Kane, the NFL's senior director for consumer products.
By giving its players entry to the playbooks and the details of defenses, the Madden game has narrowed what once was a daunting divide between those fans who had played football and those who never did. While baseball and basketball have always been easy games to understand, the barrier football had to regular fans is they often had no idea what really was going on.
"It allows you to understand the game of football rather than just throwing the football around the backyard," said Alex Boyce, a junior at Georgetown Day School.
While Boyce said he is a casual player of Madden, playing once or twice a week, he can still turn on a Washington Redskins game, glance at the players lined up and immediately tell if the defensive team has its "nickel" defense, in which five players line up in pass coverage, or "dime" defense, which uses six players against the pass, on the field.
Rick Conner, the football coach at Linganore High School in Frederick, says his sixth grade son gets up at 8 in the morning to squeeze in a game of Madden before he leaves for school, only to play for several more hours once he gets home. "The fact he is more attuned to schemes and plays is amazing," he said.
The sophistication of the kids trying out for high school football has improved so much that the Linganore coaches will often ask a player who is struggling to grasp some concept of offense or defense, "Do you play Madden?"
"These kids know what a split formation is. They know how to float a zone because of this game," Conner said, using coach-speak for an offensive formation and a method for beating a zone pass defense.
Back in 1986 no one could have imagined this. That's when Electronic Arts approached Madden about putting his name on a new football video game it was developing. The graphics were simplistic, the players, who lined up seven-on-seven, were indistinguishable blobs. At the time it was cutting edge. Madden loved the idea but balked at the watered-down concept. In a meeting that has now become legend around the NFL offices, the old coach and broadcaster said the game had to be 11-on-11 or else it wouldn't be real football.
And if it wasn't real football, kids would not want to buy it. He turned out to be right.
Originally titled John Madden Football, the game sold quickly in its first year of release in 1989, grew steadily through the 1990s as the graphics improved, then exploded in the last few years. Madden, whose voice narrates the action, still consults with EA Sports on the game.
"I can tell you sitting in meetings 13 years ago no one knew it was going to sell 2 million copies," Kane said.
No one could have expected that it would come to educate a generation of fans on football the way it has.
"I don't want to say it was a surprise," said Chris Erb, director of marketing for EA Sports. "When you have something that authentic you expect it will have success. But it was never an intended effect."