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How ‘Madden’ Has Produced a Generation of Smarter Football Fans

The video game franchise has come a long way since it launched in 1988. Now the concepts in the game are good enough that they help fans understand what is happening on the real field.

Ringer illustration

Thirty years ago, John Madden Football came to Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo, changing the way we play sports games at home. On Friday, the latest installment, Madden NFL 21, comes out. There’s a lot to be excited about: new rosters, new features, and the ability to play with Lamar Jackson or Patrick Mahomes. But there’s also a lot to look back on, including the way the game helped a generation better understand football and the legend of one quarterback that looms over the franchise. So read on—and know that whatever happens with real-life football this year, we can count on Madden to guide us through another season.

For many NFL fans, Madden represents the foundation of their NFL obsession. Football heads can watch only a handful of games each week, but they can play hundreds of Madden games in the interim. After more than 30 years on the market, Madden has become the quintessential football video games series. And as the animation and artificial intelligence of the game has expanded, it’s started to better reflect real football.

In the mid-2010s, Madden began to shift the way it presented football concepts. Anthony White, a Madden game designer who’s worked at EA Sports since 2005, was responsible for ushering in the “Football Concepts” portion of Madden 15’s Skill Trainer mode. In it, users are walked through how to read and attack defensive coverages (including Cover 1, Cover 2, Cover 2 Man, Cover 3, Cover 4, and Cover 6) and how to counter blitzes. It marked the first time the game provided users with in-depth tutorials on how to comprehend football tactics.

“We built a Skills Trainer where we can actually teach some of the concepts, teach players how to actually read them the way a real-life NFL or college quarterback would read them,” White says. “Because with the high-level goal being if you go into the game and you have somewhat of a basic understanding of what the player is supposed to be doing and how the concept works, it’ll make you a better gamer. In that regard, you’ll play the game and you’ll have a much more enjoyable experience.”

The game has come to play a role in nurturing NFL fandom. It educates fans on rosters, team management, playbooks, and more. In recent years, Madden has taken significant steps toward helping its players comprehend the game at a more nuanced level. Madden’s ability to teach players route concepts, how to read coverages, and how player types impact their fit in specific schemes is turning out a generation of smarter football fans.

“If you are able to understand and comprehend what it is that you’re looking at in the video game, it’s going to help you play the game better,” White says.

The Madden NFL series has come a long way in the three decades since its release. The earliest version of EA Sports’ legendary video game series was released in 1988 as John Madden Football and featured 2D sprites that look nothing like the game today. Madden 98 marked the first title to be fully 3D. Gameplay and animation evolved in the ensuing years, and Madden 04 introduced the Playmaker tool that expanded hot routes and allowed players to alter routes mid-play. Madden 05 added defensive improvements like the Hit Stick and defensive Playmaker tool. Madden 06, the first title playable on the next-gen console Xbox 360, introduced the QB Vision Cone. Madden 11 introduced GameFlow, which allowed for players to shorten games, and improved its Franchise Mode by allowing for online play. Madden 12 set the ever-popular Ultimate Team mode in motion. Madden 13’s “Infinity Engine” incorporated weight, center of mass, body type, and height to create more realistic in-game action. In the years since, Madden has touched up gameplay, AI, and animations to create an authentic playing experience.

White joined EA in 2005, after his contributions to a friend’s blog dedicated to Madden strategies in the late ’90s and early 2000s caught the eye of EA higher-ups. He was a member of Madden’s community leadership program when he wrote an article in 2004 about how to weaponize the Colts’ stretch-run game.

In White’s first years with EA Sports, he primarily contributed to NCAA Football’s playbook content. In the early 2010s, ESPNU teamed up with EA to produce a series called The Making of NCAA Football and in 2012, White and NCAA Football producer Ben Haumiller visited Stanford University for an episode to chat with Cardinal head coach David Shaw, then-offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton (now the Chargers’ quarterbacks coach), then-offensive line coach Mike Bloomgren (now Rice University’s head coach) and then-running backs coach Mike Sanford (now the University of Minnesota offensive coordinator). White and Shaw’s staff were shown breaking down Spider 2 Y Banana—one year before Jon Gruden broke it down on Monday Night Football and three years before Gruden went viral for breaking it down with Marcus Mariota on an episode of Gruden’s QB Camp.

White chopped it up with Stanford’s coaches and even took a look at examples from the Cardinal’s West Coast playbook. At some point, the discussion turned to how Shaw’s staff teaches concepts to players. Hamilton and Shaw explained that their formations and plays are designed to appear complex to keep defenses on their toes. But the coaches don’t start by teaching their offensive players the formations. They find that concepts are more digestible to players when route concepts, such as a curl-flat combo, are introduced first, and then applied to different formations. Conversations with those Stanford coaches inspired White and Madden designers to consider the same approach for Madden. Just a couple of years later, they added the option to choose offensive plays by route concepts in Madden 15.

“We were already thinking about doing skills training,” White says. “It just happened to line up because we were already in the process of organizing our passing plays into concepts, so it all kind of fit together. A lot of those concepts and those ideas that we used to build the design for a lot of our concept drills—attacking Cover 2, attacking coverages and pass concepts—we got a lot of motivation for a lot of those ideas when we were visiting with the coaches at Stanford.”

The NFL has evolved in the years since White’s visit to Stanford. Madden has tried to keep up. NCAA Football 14 marked the final installment of EA Sports’ college football series, so White’s role with Madden has only increased since. He’s aided developing playbooks by keeping in contact with coaches across the NFL, studying the game on a regular basis, and utilizing the data and resources provided to Madden developers by the NFL. White, who has a background in computer tech, has built a network of coaches. During typical summers, he regularly attends clinics and talks with coaches, gauging if they’d be interested in working with Madden to help create a more authentic game. When coaches visit the Madden facility in Orlando, White says the conversations resemble that of clinics.

“We have to make sure that everything that they’re giving us, we recreate it as accurately as we possibly can from an AI standpoint, from an animation standpoint, from a look-and-feel technique standpoint,” White says. “There’s a lot of facets that go into bringing the concept from film, to paper, to playbooks and into our design documents. We’re building out the AI, designing the AI, going to motion capture, getting the actors to actually carry out those actions that we talked about [with the coaches], and finally getting it into the game up and working. Then we’re testing it and tuning it and making sure that it’s all balanced.”

During the season, White’s workflow consists of morning film breakdowns, watching games, and analyzing specific formations and personnel groupings. In a single season, NFL teams can run anywhere from 1,000 to 1,200 total plays, so in order to add new plays during the season, White looks closely at the most widely used concepts. Sometimes though, teams may show only a handful of plays out of a particular formation, and that creates an issue for Madden.

“Obviously, we just can’t put a formation and give it only four plays,” White says. “Well, we can. But if you think about when you’re playing the game competitively, or you play against your friends or someone like that, when they see that formation, they might go, ‘OK, well I know you have only four plays out of that.’ So what we do, we’ve tried to add in some additional plays. Even though the team may not have shown it on film. You have to start thinking about, ‘OK, if I were a coach, they may have another play off this play that they’ve shown.’ So you go from that process to trying to balance out and fill out the formation.”

Keeping up with trends around the league is key to building out playbooks. For example, in 2018, White noticed a trap play in which the Browns used pre-snap motion to set up a Jarvis Landry rushing touchdown against the Panthers. Then last season, it started popping up on more offenses; the 49ers executed it for a touchdown with Deebo Samuel.

“What people don’t realize is a lot of the plays that teams run are pretty similar,” White says. “That’s why we want to separate our plays and concepts. When you see a team start to have success with something, immediately you start seeing it show up on other people’s film.”

When run-pass options swept college football and then the NFL, Madden had to find a way to include it. White says that he had actually considered inputting RPOs into the NCAA Football series, which included various jet sweeps, touch passes, and reverses. “We were really, really close to getting (RPOs) in for NCAA 14,” White says. “There were still a few question marks and we had to answer at that time. But last year, we were able to get it in [Madden 20]. We were actually working on some new technology around the way we do our handoffs in the game, getting multiple characters inside of the handoff animation.”

The introduction of RPOs in Madden 20 was a hit. Madden’s development team created a thorough and comprehensive breakdown of how to execute the different types of RPOs available within the game’s playbooks. It’s fitting that the play was included the same year that Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, the cover star for Madden 21, captured his first MVP award after rushing for 1,206 yards, the most by a quarterback in a single season. Jackson was so hyped to be on the cover of this year’s game that he announced the news before it was supposed to be shared, calling it “a dream come true.”

White says that most of his feedback comes from coaches, but adds that Madden does receive direct feedback from NFL players. “They actually will have a little bit more of a deeper insight, big picture-wise, into why a certain thing is done a certain way,” White says. In past years, Madden had to adjust to account for the evolution of player positions. For example, Wes Welker was the Patriots’ no. 1 receiver in the early 2010s, but lined up primarily in the slot. Older versions of Madden would put Welker as an outside receiver, but the designation of slot receivers on a team’s depth chart enabled Madden developers to properly position those players within formations. The same can be said for the introduction of specialized player types and positions such as nickel cornerbacks and third-down running backs. “It’s not perfect and we still have some things we have to improve upon,” White says, “but it helps us get players in the right positions without the need to create all these new hybrid-type formations and it also plays nicely with franchise mode.”

White has seen the impact of Madden on younger generations of players firsthand. He coaches a local youth flag football team and watched his players’ eyes light up when he explained he worked on the video game. But he was blown away when he heard the kids calling out coverages with impressive detail for their age.

“When I was that age, I had no clue at what any of that stuff meant,” White says. “That’s such a good thing because playing the game is going to enhance your experience because you have an idea how these things work, and you can at least call them with some expectation of how they should play out. Then as you start to get more experience with the game, you can tweak and adjust them to you know, as you see fit to your game style. Then when you’re watching the real NFL, when you see a formation, you know what they’re in.”

White says that it’s especially rewarding when he sees Madden players mention on social media how the game helps them identify plays and coverages. “When you see comments on Twitter where someone says, ‘Oh, wow! That team just ran RPO zone peak!’ that lets me know that that person has seen something in Madden. They recognized the concept and it also made them smarter viewing the game.

“Overall, smarter football fans is a win for us, it’s a win for the NFL and, obviously, the fans themselves, it’s a big win for them.”