How John Madden’s perfectionism led to one of the greatest video games of all time

December 29, 2021, 5:11 PM UTC

Hall of Fame NFL coach John Madden died yesterday. He was best known for coaching the Oakland Raiders through 10 winning seasons, including a Super Bowl victory, and for his decades of color commentary for all major sports networks, which won him 16 Sports Emmys. 

In all pursuits, Madden was known as a relentless perfectionist. “People may not know this, but John is extremely demanding of people,” Bob Stenner, who produced Madden’s telecasts at CBS and Fox, once said. “That’s not always the best trait in the world, but that’s how he did it, and the results speak for themselves—as both a coach and an announcer. He believes that the harder you are on people, the better they will perform. As a result, people rarely made the same mistake twice. Everybody worked harder because they didn’t want to disappoint him.”

Those unfamiliar with Madden’s track record as coach or broadcaster may know him from the video game series bearing his name—one of the bestselling football video game franchises of all time. 

Madden, who died at home in California at 85, had been the face of Madden NFL for over 30 years. 

Trip Hawkins, founder of Electronic Arts (EA), saw a gap in the market for a football game, and approached Madden with an idea in 1982. Hawkins had originally wanted then-quarterback for the 49ers, Joe Montana, to be the game’s face, but owing to a previous endorsement deal with Atari, he turned it down, ESPN reported.

Madden took some convincing, but eventually agreed to the pitch when Hawkins described it as a way of educating fans on the intricate details of pro football. 

EA Sports then spent years developing a prototype, only for Madden to “immediately” shut it down, angered that it was a seven-on-seven-player game, rather than the NFL’s 11-on-11, and that it didn’t integrate his own NFL playbook. Madden, insistent on the small details, demanded the programmers start over. After seven years of work and numerous revisions, EA released John Madden Football on Apple II in 1988.

From then on, the game’s main selling point was its realism; it resembled real football games down to the most minute details, and featured Madden’s voice in its game commentary. 

In 1993, EA Sports acquired the right to the NFL name and players, which resulted in a title change to Madden NFL. To this day, it’s the only licensed NFL video game series. 

Since its launch, Madden has become one of EA Sports’ most lucrative products. As of 2018, EA had sold over 130 million copies of various versions, generating as of 2013 over $4 billion in sales. 

Following the news of Madden’s death, EA tweeted the statement: “John Madden was synonymous with the sport of football for more than 50 years. His knowledge of the game was second only to his love for it, and his appreciation for everyone that ever stepped on the gridiron. A humble champion, a willing teacher, and forever a coach.”

In his memory, thousands of Twitter users shared their favorite Madden quotes last night. One wrote, “The road to Easy Street goes through the sewer.” ESPN’s NFL account followed with, “The only yardstick for success our society has is being a champion. No one remembers anything else.”

Never miss a story: Follow your favorite topics and authors to get a personalized email with the journalism that matters most to you.