Any of the video games that you might play on a console are sitting on a mountain of annually released, highly popular, reliably profitable sports games. The internet, too, and Twitter and newspapers and radio and broadcast and cable television all sit on a mountain of sports chatter and sports programming. (The internet, in turn, sits on a mountain of porn.)
This makes it surprising you don’t see more examples of thoughtful, detailed sports + culture + tech + gaming long-form writing like Patrick Hruby’s article “The Franchise,” on the history of the Madden NFL series for ESPN’s Outside the Lines..
You can measure the impact of “Madden” through its sales: as many as 2 million copies in a single week, 85 million copies since the game’s inception and more than $3 billion in total revenue. You can chart the game’s ascent, shoulder to shoulder, alongside the $20 billion-a-year video game industry.
The Madden games had to overcome technological breakthroughs — remember how the original Tecmo Bowl only gave you nine players on each side, so the screen wouldn’t slow down with too many moving objects? And both offense and defense chose from the same four plays, turning the whole thing into a slightly expanded simulation of Prisoner’s Dilemma? Yeah. Madden didn’t do any of that. And that’s because Madden himself insisted on it, the console processing improved (especially moving to 16-bit), and the programming guys figured out a way to do it.
The essay also argues that Madden was a cultural breakthrough in the way games were perceived. At the same time that games were moving from a freewheeling arcade style to a more rigidly statistical, differentiated, and realistic simulation approach — in other words, when they way games were made became less artsy and more nerdly — they moved from a hardcore audience that was perceived to be composed of loser nerds and became the casual gaming of jocks, teenagers, college kids, even professional athletes.
In 1990, EA had a market cap of about $60 million; three years later, that number swelled to $2 billion.
More crucially, video games were suddenly cool, the province of older teens and college kids, young men who loved competition and talking smack. Escaping the geek world, gaming set course for the center of the pop culture sun.
“Before ‘Madden,’ jocks did not play video games,” Hilleman said. “Somebody playing games was more likely to get made fun of on ESPN than get featured on there.”
I don’t know whether the perceived demographic shift is true. Let’s just say that this generation of sports games helped jocks embrace their inner, statistical/strategic nerds and helped nerds and losers posture with one another and channel their inner jocks.
You know how I was just hating on linear, narrative storytelling? This is the opposite, the color negative of that position, that shows a different kind of value. Here, Hruby tracks how the innovative Madden franchise became slower under the weight of its own legend. Seasoned players didn’t like new interfaces. The NFL used its licensing agreement to dictate and prohibit content. The attention to detail on the minutiae of player apparel grew and grew, as fans and NFL players paid attention and complained about omissions.
If you want to know how gaming, tech, sports, and geek culture, particularly for men — there’s no discussion at all of female gamers, or even a single woman who appears in the narrative in any way — came to be the way it is today, a field guide to Madden history is a worthy beginning.