'Madden NFL' still the champ

/ Source: The Associated Press

They call Kansas City Chiefs kick returner Dante Hall "The Human Joystick" because of his ability to turn on a dime and change directions -- an array of movies right out of a video game.

But the all-pro football player didn't like the way he was portrayed in the Madden football game.

So last year he complained to John Madden, the popular TV announcer and former football coach whose name has graced Electronic Arts' hit PC and video game title since 1989.

"He was telling me that he's too slow in the game," Madden said in an interview with The Canadian Press. "He says that the linemen run faster than he does. He said the trainer comes out on the field and runs faster, the doctor comes out (faster). Everyone is faster, he said.

"And I said 'you're right.' So we gave him a little more juice (speed). He's a Pro Bowl kick returner."

It is that attention to detail that helps explain why Madden is the king of football games, which in North America is a most desirable and profitable niche.

"Madden NFL 2005," which shipped last Thursday, marks the game's 15th anniversary.

Total sales of the franchise exceed 37 million copies, with last year's model selling more than five million -- making it the best-selling video game in North America.

EA Tiburon, the game's Florida-based developer, has some 500 employees and has generated more than $1.5 billion US for EA since the company acquired it in 1998, according to Bryan Neider, EA's vice-president and studio CFO.

Enhancing bank account and image
Madden, who has a longterm deal with EA, has also benefited and the game has enhanced both his bank account and image.

"Obviously this is a huge business unto itself," said longtime agent Sandy Montag, a senior IMG vice-president who declined to go into specifics of Madden's EA deal.

"Last year, you're talking of a $300 million (US) business, Madden, in sales. Think about movies that come out and compare it to that."

Typically front men get royalties in the gaming world, with a percentage of sales.

Montag wouldn't compare the broadcasting side of Madden to the gaming side, other than to say the video game has become such a success that "one business certainly feeds off the other one."

That's true on TV. The EA Sports Cyberstrator is a network TV telestrator that uses video game play to break down the sport.

"As John would tell you, there was a time when video games wanted to look like television ... now television broadcasts want to look like video games," said Montag.

Madden's success is all the more impressive in that there is genuine competition in the football gaming market. Sega's "ESPN NFL 2K5" is also excellent.

But the Madden game remains the preferred choice, with John Madden himself a major reason why.

A big man known both for his winning record and frenetic heart-on-his-sleeve antics as a coach, Madden has evolved into a charismatic announcer for Monday Night Football who mixes football expertise with everyman appeal.

The 68-year-old knows his football and people like him.

In addition to guiding developer EA Tiburon, based in Maitland, Fla., on the twists and turns of modern football, Madden also appears in the game.

"Ask Madden" is a popular choice if you are not sure what play to run. The commentator's familiar voice is heard, suggesting a play.

Secret to game's success
The game play is probably the biggest reason for the title's success, however. It is silky smooth and the graphics are great, with players' real-life moves realistically captured.

Each year, the title is tweaked. This time round, the defense has been upgraded.

Ignoring defense has long been one of Madden's pet peeves.

"We do a poor job on television on it, where we just always show the game from the offensive side and we don't show it from the defence," he said. "Like I always say there's no fan that's watching the game that's just an offensive fan. ...

"It's the same thing in the game ... I don't want them just to think that the only time they could really play is when they're on offence. I want them to put as much in on defence."

Madden and game developers talk regularly.

"As things happen during the season, we have conference calls all the time and I'm saying `I'm seeing more blitzing, I'm seeing more three wide receivers as a base offence, I'm seeing more zone dogs (a defence)' or whatever," Madden said. "We talk about things and the way football is going so that we start to put those things in the game for next year."

Madden plays some video games himself but says: "I'm not very good."

Still he has a console at home, in the office and on the Madden Cruiser, the bus he uses to criss-cross the country (he dislikes flying).

Ever the coach, he likes to watch others play and see how they handle the game. It's clear Madden does not approve of some tendencies.

"One other thing to me is they go for it on fourth and long too much and that drives me nuts," he said, correctly noting a common gaming flaw.

He has always insisted the video game be true to the real game. Hence the EA saying: "It's in the game."

First version made for Apple computers
The game has expanded well beyond the console. There are Madden competitions -- the 32-city 2004 Madden Challenge consumer tournament carries a $50,000 US purse -- and the Madden Bowl, a gaming bash featuring NFL players the Thursday before the Super Bowl, has become one of the NFL championship week's toughest tickets.

Madden was first approached by EA in 1986 about lending his name to a game, which eventually appeared in 1989 for Apple computers.

"When we first started, we kind of thought it was going to be like a teaching tool," Madden recalled. "It would help high school coaches and high school players, kids learning the game and those kind of things.

"And then one thing led to another and lo and behold here we are."

The Madden 2005 title was named Best Sports Game at E3, the influential annual video and PC game trade show.

Madden says he has three kinds of fans: those who remember him as coach of the Oakland Raiders, those who know him solely as a TV commentator and those who just know him for the video game.

"You can usually tell who they are by what they call you. Anyone that just says 'Hey Madden' or says 'Hey, there's Madden,' is a video game player."

While NFL players may complain they should be faster in the game, Madden says running back Emmitt Smith, then with the Dallas Cowboys, is the only one to admit he was better in the game than in real life.