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Gamer God: How Madden became the biggest name in football

I was hanging with a few friends, big football fans, a few years back and I had a pretty honest question for them as we hung out at Miguel's in Corona, California:

Who is the biggest name in football?

My man Doug threw out Vince Lombardi. And then I reminded Doug he's from Chicago and should know better. A few other answers were offered up ... and shot down.

So, like always, they stopped playing my reindeer games and finally said, "Fine, Adam -- who is the biggest name in football right now?"

I said John Madden.

"What? He hasn't coached the Raiders since before Taylor Swift's parents were born." (I checked -- they were alive in 1978. But yeah, it was a long time ago. I see that point.)

"He hasn't called a game on TV since 2008! Tom Cable was the coach that season." (I checked, and yeah, he was. Nice call, Doug. You're almost off the hook for your Lombardi fiasco.)

But Madden -- who passed away on Tuesday at age 85 -- is the biggest name in football. And I would say that it's probably not even close.

Madden might have been the greatest coach in NFL history. He might have been the best broadcaster in NFL history. But his name is going to endure, his legacy is going to go on, because of the video game he bestowed on the world.

"[Madden] would always come out around training camp," former No. 1 overall pick and current NFL Media analyst David Carr once told me. "I swear, some guys were just happy to be playing in the NFL because we got the game early."

There it is.

EA Sports' Madden franchise has generated billions (with a B) in revenue since it started as "John Madden Football" in 1988. The video game has spawned its own society -- much like comic book culture, but revolving around a video game where folks compete for cash and prizes. EA and the NFL launched the first large-scale competitive gaming tour by a major sports league back in 2016. The four major championship tournaments totaled $1 million in prize money. Let that sink in for a moment. One. Million. Dollars. The championship was on NFL Network, and also streamed live on YouTube, Twitch TV and Facebook Live. In fact, NFL Network had its own show devoted to gaming, "Madden NFL Live," which I was the host of, along with Maurice Jones-Drew and Scott Cole. So yeah, pretty big.

Think of all the kids who became fans of the game of football because of Madden. The Madden '04 version of Michael Vick is considered the greatest video game character of all time. I remember my friends and fraternity brothers (does this surprise you at all?) would have huge arguments about who was going to get to use the Falcons back in the day. There are friends of mine who still won't talk because they got into a heated argument about who was going to get to use the Falcons. (Not me, though. I never liked the shortcuts. I would play with Tampa Bay. Mostly for the throwback uniforms. But I seriously loathe the folks who have to pick the best team and run with it.)

I know it seems like hyperbole, but there are dudes out there right now who speak about the Madden '04 Vick in hushed tones, similarly to the way your dad talks about Walter Payton in his prime. I would imagine anybody who has ever picked up the sticks has a story about how they smoked some fool using Madden '04 Vick. Or were on the other end. (Which was me.)

That stuff would not be happening if it wasn't for Madden. There's no way.

Now some of you contrarians might point out that there were some video games that came along before Madden. Tecmo Bowl was rather popular. Tecmo Super Bowl in 1991 was pretty cool, too. It had Bo Jackson (check out some of his TSB videos on YouTube), more plays and it seemed like it could never get better.

But then Madden really started to find its groove, and nobody ever really got close.

(I know there are some 2K lovers out there who will no doubt stump for that game in the comments. Please stop. You guys lost. Don't let your nostalgia cloud your judgement. You are romanticizing the past.)

Anyhow, the whole reason Madden became a thing -- and continues to thrive -- is because of Madden himself.

"The one thing I really loved about Madden and [why I] started playing it was because it was real football," my former "Madden NFL Live" co-host (and professional Madden gamer) Scott Cole said. "It had real playbooks. Other games tried to capture the feel of football. Nobody could do it. Madden delivered on that. He paid a lot of attention to detail. He might have even been a pain in the ass for EA, but he wanted it to be the most realistic display of football ever."

That was the thing. I talked to a producer who was involved in the initial development of the game who told me Madden needed his game to be real. The original producers wanted the game to be 7-on-7. Madden wouldn't put up with that nonsense. The game had to be 11-on-11. Or else you could put Rich Kotite on the cover. (I know Madden never made that reference to Kotite, but what a baller move that would have been.) Most of all, the game couldn't be all cartoony. Like "NBA Jam." Or the arcade version of "NFL Blitz." None of that stuff was real.

Madden also made sure the screen went up and down. Not right to left, like a lot of football games -- it was the up-and-down end-zone view that we know and love today. And if you think about it, every team has its own specific playbook. I mean, it was a pretty cool thing when Super Tecmo Bowl went from four to eight plays. Madden has gone to another level.

Kids today -- here comes the old-man rant -- can learn real football terminology and practice real football in ways not imagined 30 years ago. And it's not just for us nerds in sweatpants who want to avoid real exertion or actual exercise. The players can benefit from it, too.

Carr was in his third season in Houston when he used the PC version of Madden to input the entire Texans offensive playbook into the game and throw virtual routes to his guys.

"I probably took about 1,000 reps with our offense before we even got to training camp," Carr said.

That season, Carr threw for a career-high 3,531 passing yards and 16 touchdowns. Probably his best season as a pro.

"I'm not saying it was exactly Madden. Obviously."

Obviously. But ...

"But I had so many reps at this thing sitting at my desk, instead of just sitting there doing nothing. It had me well-prepared."

It not only helped prepare David for a season for the NFL. The Madden franchise actually landed the Raiders their franchise quarterback.


"I don't know if Derek would have been so drawn towards [football] if it hadn't been for Madden," David revealed. "He is a good enough athlete that he could have played something else. But because of Madden, it became our connection. We bonded, he got into football because of Madden."

It makes sense. David and Derek were born 12 years apart, so it's not like the two of them would go out in the backyard and throw the pigskin around. There isn't video of the boys running around playing football in their awkward years, like the Manning brothers. (Though, in fairness, the Mannings' entire lives are their awkward years.) David was at Fresno State by the time Derek was old enough to know what football was all about. (Look how young Derek looks on the day David was selected in the 2002 NFL Draft.)

But the two brothers could compete in Madden. And these were serious bouts. There was no way a preteen kid could compete with his brother who played professional football. Not unless you leveled the playing field on a television screen.

"I started playing as early as I can even remember on Super Nintendo with my brothers," Derek said. "We used to really get after it."

Great story, Derek. But how important was the game in your development as a football player?

"It helped a lot, to be honest," Derek said. "I wasn't on there just mashing buttons or looking for the open guy. I was literally trying to use motion to figure out coverages and things like that. Always trying to go 30-for-30 with my quarterback making good decisions. It helped me compete while putting my feet up."

So there it is. Madden coached his last game with the Raiders in 1978 -- and yet, he had a direct hand in prepping the team's current franchise quarterback.

So, yeah, that would make him the biggest name. In. The. Game.

"The name Madden is now synonymous with football and the video game that bears his name," Cole said. "It's his lasting legacy. Like Coke is to cola. The name Madden means the NFL video game. I'm not even sure players coming into the league today even remember that he was an announcer, much less a coach. This is his enduring legacy. Like the way Jordan is now viewed as a shoe mogul and not the greatest basketball player of all time."

Or maybe even a crying meme. But Scott's point is the truth. The name Madden is not only the biggest name in football today -- his legacy is going to live on. It's going to survive with the next generation of kids who want to be closer to the game.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter.

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