John Madden: A coach synonymous with football, thanks to a video game

John Madden, the Super Bowl champion football coach and Hall of Fame broadcaster, and namesake of EA Sports’ cornerstone video game franchise for more than 30 years, died on Tuesday. He was 85.

Madden, whose .759 winning percentage is the highest among coaches in professional football’s modern era, is widely remembered as the leader of one of the NFL’s most romanticized franchises — the Oakland Raiders of the 1970s — and as the voice of Sunday afternoons in CBS and Fox Sports’ booths. Stints as a boisterous TV pitchman for hardware, beer, and antifungal foot powder also buttressed his public image as an avuncular, warm-hearted figure.

But in a 34-year partnership with Electronic Arts, Madden reached a fame far beyond all of those accolades: His name is synonymous with the sport of American football itself. EA Sports’ Madden NFL series, begun in 1988, introduced football strategy, fundamentals, and techniques to millions of children and young adults — in both the United States and overseas.

In Madden’s video game, going back to IBM PCs and the Sega Genesis, concepts like trap blocking and zone blitzing; passing routes like the post and the drag; and defenses like the nickel and the 46, shed the telestrator jargon appended to them over the preceding two decades, and came to life in the basements and dormitories of America. And since at least 1990, when Electronic Arts first published John Madden Football for consoles, “Let’s play some Madden” has been rec-room vernacular for “let’s play football.”

“Today, we lost a hero,” EA Sports said in a statement Tuesday evening. “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.”

John Earl Madden was born April 10, 1936 in Austin, Minnesota, moving to Daly City, California, in the San Francisco Bay Area, early in his childhood. He was a two-way starter for Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo in 1957 and 1958, earning all-conference honors at offensive tackle his senior season. Drafted 244th overall by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1958, a knee injury prevented him from ever playing a down in the National Football League.

A prolific winner with an iconic team

Madden traced his methods of analyzing football film to his time spent rehabilitating in Eagles training camp, sitting with Norm Van Brocklin as the Hall of Fame quarterback studied opposing defenses. In the 1960s, he took several assistant coaching jobs at colleges in California before joining Al Davis’ Oakland Raiders, then of the upstart American Football League, as a linebackers coach in 1967. The Raiders made Super Bowl II that season, losing to Green Bay. In 1969, Davis named Madden head coach, then the youngest in professional football history.

In Madden’s 10 seasons at the helm, the Raiders became one of the National Football League’s most telegenic teams, in football’s most telegenic time, captured on the 16 millimeter reels of NFL Films and presented with glissando narration by John Facenda. Under Madden, the Raiders posted a 103-32-7 record, won Super Bowl XI in 1977, and played in numerous regular and postseason games that are venerated with almost Biblical epithets: The Holy Roller. The Ghost to the Post. The Immaculate Reception. And the greatest of them all, The Sea of Hands.

The players on these teams developed a swaggering reputation that few other franchises have ever matched, much less sustained, over the past 50 years. They are immortals on first reference: Ted Hendricks. Cliff Branch. Lester Hayes. Willie Brown. Jack Tatum. Fred Biletnikoff. Jim Otto. Ken “The Snake” Stabler. Dave Casper, the Ghost. And the Mummy, Gene Upshaw. Known for an electrifying, deep passing offense and a relentless assault on the opposing quarterback, even the Raiders’ special teams were larger than life, led by Ray Guy, the only punter elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

And Madden inspired tremendous loyalty in his men. Phil Villapiano, whose interception closed The Sea of Hands 28-26 for the Raiders in the 1974 playoffs, immediately raced to his sideline to present Madden with the ball. “He actually said, ‘That should be your ball, you made that interception,’” said Villapiano, selected 45th in 1971 by way of Bowling Green University. “I said, ‘Nope, coach, nobody wanted that more than you, and that’s your ball.’”

From left: Fred Biletnikoff (25), John Madden, Jim Otto (00), Larry Lawrence (13). Biletnikoff, Madden, and Otto are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
Photo by Ross Lewis/Getty Images

In a tie and short-sleeved shirt, sneaking a cigarette on the sidelines, Madden was so recognizably the face of the villainous Raiders that, when AFL sibling Denver finally overcame their blood enemies in the 1978 AFC championship, linebacker Tom Jackson (himself a broadcaster for ESPN later) pointed at Madden and memorably declared “It’s over, fat man!” as the Mile High Stadium crowd thundered its approval. Madden retired the next year.

Pitchman, teacher, and the voice of Sunday afternoons

Upon leaving coaching, Madden joined CBS Sports as an analyst for its Sunday NFL games. In two years, he was promoted to the network’s top announcing job, alongside Pat Summerall, their voices marking the end of a weekend, and the beginning of homework for a generation of schoolchildren. The partnership would span the next 21 years and two networks, as well as the virtual broadcast booth for the first 11 years of the Madden NFL franchise on consoles.

Madden’s unique persona, an everyman with a rambunctious voice and a deeply knowledgeable football mind, led Electronic Arts founder Trip Hawkins to approach him in 1984 about a football computer simulation his two-year-old studio was developing. In a story that, like most things Madden, has a mythological aura about it, Hawkins pleaded his case over a three-day train ride from Denver to San Francisco. (Madden, who was claustrophobic, hated flying, and usually traveled by RV to his broadcast assignments).

Madden insisted that the video game present two teams of 11 players — 22 sprites on a single screen, a brutal workload for personal computers of the day. Hawkins and the EA developers with him were more comfortable delivering a 7-on-7 game.

“That’s not real football,” Madden said. Hawkins said it would take years to develop a game that rendered all 22 players. “Then it will take years,” Madden said.

“It was important to me that if it was going to be football, it was going to be real football, it was going to be NFL football,” Madden told ESPN video games journalist Jon Robinson in 2011. “And to Trip, while this was a computer game, to me, this was a teaching tool. I wanted it so when computers came out, a coach could use his computer to show his players the plays and then you could analyze the chance of success of the play.

“If that worked,” he added, “I thought might be a good high school tool or even a good college tool.”

john madden football hall of fame packaging

The cover of John Madden Football (1990) for Sega Genesis, the first Madden video game to launch on consoles.
Photo: The Strong National Museum of Play and World Video Game Hall of Fame

John Madden Football launched June 1, 1988 for the Apple II, and in 1989 for the Commodore 64 and 128 and MS-DOS PCs. Although favorably reviewed at the time, it was not a mainstream success, as video game players then had very little familiarity with the technical workings of American football, unless they played it themselves at an organized level. Madden was paid $100,000 and 5% of sales.

John Madden Football ’92, the series’ second appearance on Sega Genesis, was a landmark work that sold 400,000 copies — five times the internal projection of 75,000 units. EA infamously reverse-engineered the Genesis in order to publish the game without paying a $10-per-unit licensing fee to Sega. Over the next five years, the series acquired full licensing from both the NFL and the NFL Players Association, sold more than 8 million copies, and became the keystone of EA Sports’ “It’s in the game” promise.

“I was with my 8-year-old grandson the other night while he was playing, and it’s amazing how much they know now at such a young age,” Madden told ESPN in 2011. “You don’t have to wait until high school to get to know the plays and the rules now. Kids can call out rules quicker than someone inside the game can, and it’s just amazing to me the knowledge of young players. And then for the high school kids, this is how they’re learning how to play.”

Madden NFL’s reach and popularity surged even more at the advent of CD-based console gaming and motion-captured animations. An appearance on the cover of the current game became an annual honor — or curse — for NFL players beginning with Tennessee’s Eddie George in 2000.

The influence of Madden’s video game further manifest in real-life NFL games as its earliest fans became players and head coaches themselves. Raheem Morris, promoted to head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2009, told reporters he “majored in Madden,” at Hofstra in the late 1990s, a fact that delighted Madden himself. The same season, Denver’s Brandon Stokely caught a game-winning touchdown pass and ran parallel to the goal line to drain the clock, a tactic conceived on basement couches more than a decade earlier.

Millions of copies sold, billions of dollars made

Throughout it all, Madden NFL has been a sales behemoth for Electronic Arts, regardless of the review scores for what has become a relentlessly criticized video game under an exclusive NFL license going back to 2005. EA Sports boasted 180 million units sold in the Madden franchise’s 30th anniversary year, and claimed record-setting first week sales for the game in 2020. That does not include the explosive growth of the game’s Ultimate Team mode over the past 10 years, contributing to billion-dollar totals on EA’s bottom line each year.

John Madden’s original contract with EA paid him $100,000 in 1984, and 5% of the game’s sales. In 2005, retiring from broadcasting after calling the NFL for all four networks, rumors suggested Electronic Arts might drop him from their video game. Instead, it was reported that EA paid Madden $150 million for the rights to his name, in perpetuity, for their video games. In 2013, CNN Money reported Madden was being paid another $2 million per year for the use of his name.


John Madden, seated at center, watching the San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals in a 2009 game from his studio and home in Pleasanton, California
Photo by Jose Carlos Fajardo/MediaNews Group/Bay Area News via Getty Images

He was, by all accounts, an active participant in the game’s development even in his retirement from public life. Developers from EA Tiburon, the Maitland, Florida studio behind the game since 1995, have often spoke of annual visits to Madden’s home in Pleasanton, California, usually in the winter, to show him the game. Madden was known for passing blunt judgment — consistent with his original dismissal of Hawkins in 1984 — if something was not up to standard.

“I don’t think about having a great time playing the game,” Madden told Kotaku in 2011. “You know, they say if it’s in the game, it’s in the game, well, what I do is watch the game. I try to watch every [NFL] game and just watch the trends, see what they’re doing now, and whether that is in the video game, so we’re playing the same game that they’re playing in the NFL.”

Asked how he would play his video game, with his old Raiders, had he been raised on the game the way coaches today have, Madden unhesitatingly invoked his favorite player: Ted Hendricks, the Mad Stork.

“Now that I really see how much havoc [Hendricks] could cause, and how I can move him around out there, I think he would have been great for the game,” Madden said.

“I’d just blitz them, every play,” he said.