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

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ORLANDO — Clint Oldenburg remembered his first trip to meet John Madden, the former NFL coach and namesake of the video game mega-franchise for which Oldenburg works. In 2012, Oldenburg, then just an intern, and a team of Electronic Arts developers traveled to Madden’s Oakland, Calif., offices to present a new feature they planned to incorporate into the upcoming edition of the game, an AI blocking behavior they called “ID the Mike.”

One of Oldenburg’s colleagues introduced him to present the feature to the former coach, and no sooner had Oldenburg noted the feature’s name than Madden began waving his hands. The meeting came to a hard stop.

“Let’s not go any further,” Madden said. “I want to know, can you — or anyone in this room — tell me what it means to actually ID the Mike?”

Oldenburg, a former NFL offensive lineman before pivoting his career to game development, took 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 stared him down, then smiled.

“And from that moment on, for the next 10 years until he passed, Coach and I had a great relationship,” Oldenburg said. “We were on a first-name basis. He would call to talk to me and ask me how the game was doing, and it’s because I passed his football quiz. I will never forget that.”

When news of Madden’s death in December began to spread around the EA offices, developers flooded their Slack channels with tributes and discussion. “An immediate reaction was: ‘What are we going to do for Coach in our game?’ ” Oldenburg said.

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

All three versions of the cover feature a handwritten note scrawled on the front: “Thanks, Coach.”

“They’re great!” Mike Madden, the Hall of Famer’s eldest son, said in an email. “They highlight the three facets of John Madden — the Super Bowl victory, which was the biggest day of his life; a collared shirt and tie doing his broadcasting, which again he took that to new levels; and then the retro cover from the original game was nice. I actually played the game on an Apple II, so the throwback was great.”

For more than a decade, the cover reveal for the latest Madden game has been a cultural phenomenon in the United States, a marketing decision that carries with it an outsize measure of national relevance for the athlete selected. The news of the cover reveal is often accompanied by a “SportsCenter” segment on ESPN as well as a wave of online articles (and, as some believe, a curse).

Madden was featured on the cover of the early iterations of the game before EA began to highlight players in 2001. Recent covers have included quarterbacks Tom Brady (2018), Patrick Mahomes (2020) and Lamar Jackson (2021).

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 actual NFL football. That started with a requirement that the game feature 11 players on each side of the ball, a massive computational challenge for the hardware of the early 1990s. Once solved — thanks in part to the help of developers at Bethesda Softworks and their game “Gridiron!” — EA launched the best-selling sports franchise in video game history, with more than 30 installments produced since then.

Madden did more than merely lend his name to the series, though. Each year, developers from EA would meet multiple times with Madden to discuss new features going into the games and make sure they passed muster with the man the developers affectionately called “Coach” — both out of respect and to differentiate the man from the franchise.

“Every year, up until the start of the pandemic, he would have a Sunday work session with about 12 to 15 Madden developers where they’d sit down in the morning and go over the latest Madden game, discussing whatever questions or topics they had, and then they’d watch football together,” Mike Madden said. “Dad would sit and explain to them things that were happening on the field, pointing out nuances to plays that should be in the game, and they would [be] scratching notes and recording things. I think it was really helpful for them to have that insight.”

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

“He would always ask questions like, ‘We don’t have any illegal tackles going on, right?’ ” Oldenburg recalled. “Or, ‘This specific play I saw watching football that I thought was a dirty play — we don’t have that in Madden, right?’ Or, ‘How are we teaching this concept?’ He was always very aware of his game as a teaching tool of the sport but teaching it the right way.”

Another time the coach halted a PowerPoint presentation when a marketing slide featured clip art of a football play diagram. “Is that play in ‘Madden’?” he asked.

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

Those conversations between the EA developers and Madden continued until 2021, when he died Dec. 28. Oldenburg recalled the last time he talked with the coach. With the coronavirus still prohibiting travel and in-person meetings, the conversation took place over a matter-of-fact phone call in August to discuss how the team would integrate the NFL’s Next Gen Stats for the upcoming game.

“I think I was watching a bowl game or something, and it popped up on the bottom line. And it definitely hit me — like we had lost somebody really important,” Oldenburg said. “Everyone has so much respect for what he has meant to us.”

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