Game development

Madden NFL coverage was just part of John Madden’s influence on EA’s video game series

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ORLANDO — Clint Oldenburg recalled his first trip to meet John Madden, the former NFL head coach and namesake of the video game mega-franchise Oldenburg works for. In 2012, Oldenburg, then just an intern, and a team of developers from Electronic Arts visited Madden’s offices in Oakland to demonstrate a new feature they planned to include in the next edition of the game, a new behavior blocking machine they called “ID The Mike”. .”

One of Oldenburg’s colleagues introduced him to introduce the former coach to the feature, and no sooner had Oldenburg jotted down the name of the feature than Madden began waving his hands. The meeting abruptly ended.

“Let’s go no further,” Madden said. “I want to know, can you or anyone in this room tell me what identifying the Mike actually means?”

Oldenburg, a former NFL offensive lineman before pivoting his career to game development, took on the challenge in stride, explaining what Madden already knew: Identifying the Mike is simply when an offense identifies the middle player among the linebackers in a defensive formation to get on the same page.

Madden looked at him, then smiled.

“And from that moment, for the next 10 years until his passing, the coach and I had a great relationship,” Oldenburg said. “We were on a first name basis. He called me to talk to me and ask me how the game was going, and it was because I passed his football quiz. I will never forget that.”

When news of Madden’s death last December started spreading through EA’s offices, the developers flooded their Slack channels with tributes and discussions. “An immediate reaction was, ‘What are we going to do for the coach in our game? said Oldenburg.

During a presentation to media, pro gamers and Madden influencers in Orlando in late May, EA revealed that the upcoming game will feature three covers, all featuring the Hall of Fame coach. One features the jubilant Madden being carried off the field by his players after winning Super Bowl XI. Another looks back on his days in the broadcast booth. The third, reserved for the premium version of the game, features Madden’s likeness from the original game’s cover, with the jubilant coach bursting through a black, white and gold background of game diagrams.

All three versions of the cover feature a handwritten note scribbled on the front: “Thank you, Coach.”

“They are awesome!” Hall of Famer Mike Madden said in an email. “They highlight the three sides of John Madden – winning the Super Bowl, which was the biggest day of his life; a collared shirt and tie making his spread, which again took him to new levels; and then the retro cover of the original game was nice. I actually played the game on an Apple II, so the rollback was awesome.

For more than a decade, the reveal of the latest Madden game cover has been a cultural phenomenon in the United States, a marketing move that results in an inordinate measure of national relevance for the selected athlete. News of the cover reveal is often accompanied by an ESPN SportsCenter segment as well as a flurry of online articles (and, as some believe, a curse).

Madden was featured on the cover of early iterations of the game, before EA began highlighting players in 2001. Recent covers have included quarterbacks Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, and Lamar Jackson.

Madden, the former Super Bowl-winning coach of the Oakland Raiders, first lent his name to the video game series in 1988 with the stipulation that the game be realistic and representative of real-life NFL football. It started with the requirement that the game have 11 players on each side of the ball, a huge computational challenge for early 1990s hardware. from their game “Gridiron!” – it launched the best-selling sports franchise in video game history, with more than 30 episodes produced since then.

However, Madden did more than just lend his name to the show. Each year, EA developers would meet with Madden multiple times to discuss new game features and ensure they were successful with the man the developers affectionately referred to as “coach” – both out of respect and to differentiate. the franchise man.

“Every year until the pandemic started, he had a Sunday work session with about 12-15 Madden developers, where they would sit down in the morning and go over the latest Madden game, discuss any questions or topics they had and then they would watch football together,” Mike Madden said. “Dad would sit down and explain to them what was happening on the field, pointing out the nuances of the plays that should be in the game, and they would strum notes and record things. I think it was really helpful for them to have this idea.

He was passionate about the fundamentals and saw video games as an opportunity to delve into the intricacies of the sport.

“He was always asking questions like, ‘We don’t have illegal tackles, do we?'” Oldenburg recalled. “Or, ‘That specific game I saw watching football that I thought was a dirty game, we don’t have that at Madden, do we? or ‘How do we teach that concept?’ He has always been very conscious of his game as a tool for teaching the sport, but teaching it the right way.

Another time, the coach interrupted a PowerPoint presentation when a marketing slide featured clip art of a soccer game diagram. “Does that play in ‘Madden’?” He asked.

“There were only six players on the pitch and some had arrows and Xs, and it just wasn’t a real game of football,” Oldenburg recalled. “And he was like, ‘This game can’t be in my game. If it’s from the playbook, take it out. It’s not a real play. We stopped our creative review of the year with Coach Madden to discuss a diagram in a PowerPoint game. That’s how much he was into the details around authenticity. And we never made that mistake again.

These conversations between EA developers and Madden continued until 2021, when he died on December 28. Oldenburg remembers the last time he spoke with the coach. With covid-19 still prohibiting in-person travel and meetings, the conversation came during a practice phone call in August to discuss how the team would incorporate NFL Next Gen stats for the upcoming game.

“I think I was watching a bowling game or something, and it showed up on the baseline. And it definitely hit me like we lost someone very important,” Oldenburg said. “Everyone has so much respect for what he’s meant to us.”