September 06, 2006

Game Dork

How Madden Became 'Madden'

John Madden was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August. But months before that happened, the sportscaster visited the Hall and found out, in a way, he was already inducted. His "Madden NFL" video game had its own exhibit.

"They took a picture of me in front of the 'Madden' game," the former Super Bowl coach tells me. "So the 'Madden' game made the Hall of Fame before I did." I tell Madden a truth. I've played more hours of "Madden" games than any other series in my life. He tells me he didn't even mean for it be a video game. It was a simulator first.

"At the time I retired [in 1979], I was teaching a class at the University of California-Berkeley, an extension class for fans," Madden, 70, says. "And computers were just coming into play, and I was thinking, 'This is going to be pretty good. I'll be able to teach it on a computer.'"

"You know what happened? We started making that game before there were video games. It was a computer game," he says. "So the first idea was it would be for coaches and players, and for people who want to learn the game through the computer."

Then, Electronic Arts snapped it up. Since 1990, rival football titles have never caught up. "Madden" is so iconic and virtually realistic, a lot of gamers think it's more appealing than real football.

"I used to always say, 'I want the video game to look like a real game on TV,'" Madden says. "Five years ago, [Fox Sports Chairman] David Hill was talking to a group, and what he said was, 'We need to get [football] to look like a video game.'"

Madden believes, now that generations of gamers are used to interacting with "Madden," TV networks need to find a way to let viewers choose at least which camera angles to watch.

"That's gonna be the future," he says. "There's gonna be a time when you can push a button and get the end zone [camera angle]. We have the shots. You can pick up end zone. Or, if you want to see an isolated man-on-man, you can watch how they cover [Carolina Panthers receiver] Steve Smith."

I ask Madden if he plays "Madden."

"Oh yeah. That's my game. I started the game," he says. "I always work on it. During the season, we have conference calls and meetings. And if something new is coming into football, then we work on getting it in the game for the next year."

Madden's input is why the game has changed over the years to reflect NFL-wide changes to focus on one running back, to make certain shifts in motion, and to increase defensive backs and receivers, he says. "I'm not a good enough player to be able to play at every level. So I watch people play it at every level."

"This year, we're concentrating on the running game," he says. "What we've added is you can control the lead blocker, too." Despite the fame he's earned from football and "Madden," he says people spot his very broad, 6-feet-4 visage in public and don't believe they're looking at him.

"They say, 'You look like John Madden' and I'll say, 'Yeah.' And they'll say, 'No you're not!' Anyone who says, 'Are you John Madden?' will follow it up with 'No you're not!'"

("Madden NFL '07" for Xbox 360, Xbox, PS 2, GCube, PSP, DS — After a disappointing "'06" version last year, "'07" is back to its reliably fun self. But the screen does freeze momentarily when plays end. Plays very fun. Looks very good. Challenging. Rated "E". Three and one-half stars out of four.)

("NCAA Football '07" for Xbox 360, Xbox, PS 2 and PSP — It uses the game engine and play-calling of "Madden," and also suffers some frame-freeze issues. But it's even more fun than "Madden," letting gamers play seasons on fields of alma maters. Plays very fun. Looks very good. Challenging. Rated "E". Three and one-half stars.)

Used Game of the Week

"NFL Head Coach" is fairly new, yet the price of the game in used stores has already dropped to below $20. This could be a bargain to those gamers who want to go through the machinations of putting a football team together behind the scenes. For those who want pure football field action and no backroom dealing, it's not recommended. The chores in "Head Coach" include answering phones, negotiating with player's agents and overseeing the team's play-calling. It's rated "E" and is available for Xbox and PS 2.

(Ratings: "E" for "Everyone;" "T" for "Teen;" "M" for "Mature 17+")

Doug Elfman is an award-winning columnist who is also the TV critic at the Chicago Sun-Times.

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