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The video game industry is set to kick off its busiest three months of the year.
On Aug. 25, Electronic Arts will release "Madden NFL 16," the 27th installment in the long-running series—and the game that, every year, marks the beginning of the rush of holiday titles. And for 2015, some fans are already able to play.
EA and Microsoft have paired two of their premium programs—Xbox Live and EA Access—meaning that Xbox One owners who subscribe to both were able to start playing a 10-hour trial of the game on Thursday. At the end of the trial, they can decide whether they're interested in purchasing the full game.
(Sony has opted not to partner with EA on Access, as the service is too similar to its own game-streaming service, PlayStation Now.)
"Madden" has seen its popularity fade a bit in recent years as the franchise ages. It's no longer the best-selling title of the year—and isn't always a lock for the year's Top 10 anymore. "Madden" was the second-best selling title of 2014, but it failed to make the cut in 2013.
But that doesn't make the game any less relevant in other ways. NFL players pay close attention to their player rankings in the game, and fans use the information the game compiles on rookies, running backs and other positions as they put together their fantasy football teams.
"Madden" has also become an eerily prescient predictor of big games. In February, a simulation game not only predicted the New England Patriots' last-minute comeback to defeat the Seattle Seahawks, it nailed the 28-24 final score.
It also knew the Patriots would score first, foretold what the score would be at the end of the third quarter and foresaw Tom Brady's fourth-quarter, game-winning pass to Julian Edelman. Oh, and it named Brady MVP long before the opening kickoff.
In the 12 years that EA has rolled out a Super Bowl prediction, the game has accurately forecast the winner nine times.
The key to the success of "Madden" this year likely won't have much to do with the game's new features. Rather, the ongoing consumer transition from previous generation systems (like the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3) to current ones will be key.
"At a point like this, where the [console] transition is going strong, it's more about the console and having something great to play on the console," said Billy Pidgeon, an independent analyst that covers the video game sector. "And Madden is a ... reason to upgrade your console."
This holiday season is going to be a packed one for the gaming industry. Among the big titles being released over the next few months are "Halo 5: Guardians," "Fallout 4," "Call of Duty: Black Ops III," "Star Wars: Battlefront" and "Rise of the Tomb Raider."
On top of that, EA's new "FIFA" game is expected to be a big seller, with the addition of the red-hot U.S. Women's National Team to the game and forward Alex Morgan's appearance on the cover (the first time a woman has appeared on the cover of "FIFA" in North America).
Pidgeon, though, said that because "Madden" is such a well-known franchise—and because o the NFL's widespread popularity—the game doesn't have to worry much about competition from those other titles. Its success will ultimately be judged against how it sold last year.
"I think it's more of an evergreen," he said. "Also, it makes a great gift, so I don't think there will be any negative impact from those games. In fact, I think it may be the opposite. For many people buying a new console, it's a gimme to get 'Madden.' "