For younger fans, John Madden is more about video games than football

League of legends.
League of legends.
Image: Reuters/Fred Prouser
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John Madden was a Hall of Fame coach who brought the Oakland Raiders to a Super Bowl victory before transitioning to broadcast television, where he won 16 Emmy awards for his sports analysis across multiple networks.

But the US football legend, who died at the age of 85 yesterday (Dec. 28), is perhaps best known for Madden NFL, the video game that’s licensed his name for over three decades. With Madden, Electronic Arts (EA) built a billion-dollar franchise that influenced a younger generation of fans and even National Football League (NFL) players.

A slow start turns into a billion-dollar legacy

When EA approached Madden about licensing his name for a video game in 1984, he had been working for five years at CBS, where he called football games with Pat Summerall. While Madden knew little about computers, he regularly used a video markup device called a Telestrator to illustrate plays over games. Having taught a class on football at UC-Berkeley, he envisioned the video game as an educational tool.

Former Oakland Raiders head coach John Madden waves to the crowd before the AFC-NFC Hall of Fame pre-season game in Canton, Ohio.
John Madden attends a Hall of Fame pre-season game in 2006.
Image: Reuters/Matt Sullivan/

Madden signed a $100,000 contract with EA, but it took four years for the game to get off the ground because he was so particular about its design. EA founder Trip Hawkins proposed a game with seven players on each team, but Madden insisted it had to be 11 to mirror an actual football match. “I didn’t want anyone to ever think it wasn’t real,” the announcer said.

The first video game, titled John Madden Football, was released in 1988 for the Apple II computer. While it wasn’t an instant success, the franchise became incredibly lucrative over the years as EA developed new versions for other video game consoles, including the Sega Genesis. Today the franchise—rebranded as Madden NFL—has a reported $1.5 billion deal with the NFL and is estimated to bring in more than $600 million annually for EA.

The latest version of the game, Madden NFL 22, is the third highest-selling video game on the US market this year.

Madden later described passing up on EA stock at its IPO price as the “dumbest thing I ever did in my life.” From 1989 to 1999, its share price grew 10-fold.

Madden NFL inspired a new generation of fans

With Madden NFL, a generation of fans who weren’t alive when John Madden was coaching came to recognize his name.

His influence isn’t limited to amateur video game players—a new generation of professional athletes learned from Madden NFL, as well. It’s not uncommon to hear players reference the franchise when discussing their performance during news conferences, or pull out tricks on the field that seem to draw direct inspiration from the video game.

“We have these young players in the NFL who grew up playing Madden,” the video game developer Mike Mika told ESPN in 2017. “They learned about football through Madden as much as they learn by playing it.”