Madden 08 story in the L.A. Daily News

Here’s the story I wrote for the L.A. Daily News, which was picked up by a lot of the other papers in the group. It ran today, in the papers’ business sections. It was originally slated for features, so it’s not as numbers-heavy as you might expect.

I’ve also been messing with an early copy of the game this past week, which is why you haven’t seen me here :) As of this posting, I still can’t say anything opinion-wise about it, but the review is coming out Tuesday.


Are you ready for some FOOTBALL?
Fans ready for ‘Madden ’08’ game’s release Tuesday


Ah, the signs of the start of football season – the journey to the game store, the crinkling of undone shrink-wrap, the hum of a console coming to life …

Oh, were you expecting something about a stiff autumn wind? Or piles of fallen leaves? Sorry, but when Tuesday rolls around, there’s a good chance a lot of gaming football fans won’t be thinking about that.

Because Tuesday is when the new “Madden” comes out. And for some gamers, that’s going to be a holiday.

“Oh yeah, `Maddenoliday’ is for real,” said David Spohn, an avid gamer and die-hard “Madden” fan. “I’m probably going to call off work when it comes out – just for that one day, you know?”

Thanks to a steady dose of heavy marketing, a zealous fan base and a little love from the ESPY crowd, the “Madden” video game franchise has been given iconic status in pop culture. The game’s yearly release has become save-the-date material, right up there with the Super Bowl or Selection Sunday. From Los Angeles to New York, thousands of stores will be holding midnight release events for the game.

“I can tell you this – we’re going to have a lot of people outside of our door at midnight,” said Valerie Hernandez, assistant manager at EB Games at Universal CityWalk in Los Angeles. CityWalk’s store isn’t the only one having a midnight release – practically every EB Games or Gamestop in the area will be doing the same.

The Toys ‘R’ Us flagship store in Times Square is having a late-night launch gathering as well, with former All-Pro running back (and newest “Today” show personality) Tiki Barber expected to sell the first copy. Bob Friedland, P.R. director for the toy store, said the company expects “hundreds” to show up at the event.

Not all the hype is saved for the big city. Last year, the community of Madden, Miss. (population between 400 and 500, depending on who you ask), declared an official “Maddenoliday” for the release of “Madden ’07.” Jerry Rice, Warren Moon and Marshall Faulk showed up to give away copies of the game, and townsfolk lined up to play it inside air-conditioned tents. The event didn’t last all day. The tents were on a cow pasture – and, well, the cows wanted to graze.

“I guess they looked us up on Google and saw that we were the only `Madden’ around,” said Renodda Dorman, who sits on the Carthage, Miss., chamber of commerce and helped coordinate the event in nearby Madden.

“People were trying to move the hay away, and someone said, `No, leave it there! That’s a great image!’ It was great to have that kind of publicity and see all these people come in from all over the country.”

If you follow sports, it’s been pretty hard to miss the game’s presence.

In addition to the occasional reference in movies and other TV shows, there’s also “Madden Nation,” a reality show on ESPN2. Then you’ve also got the yearly “Madden Challenge,” a nationwide tournament meant to crown the best “Madden” player in the land. The commercials for “Madden ’08” have been in heavy rotation, beckoning “Maddenites” to gather Tuesday.

In terms of sales, the franchise has sold roughly 60 million copies, and in 2003, it was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Much of the exposure can be traced back to Electronic Arts, makers of the “Madden” franchise. They’ve pitched the game hundreds of different ways during the franchise’s 17-year lifespan, but they aren’t the ones who came up with the “game-release-as-holiday” vibe.

“It wasn’t us, it was the fans. We’ve got about 6,000 stores opening at midnight nationwide, and we’ve seen that people kind of take that next day off,” said Chris Erb, director of marketing for EA Sports. “We’d hear stories of that year after year … That’s the truth for our fans. And we’ve embraced that.”

Some fans have embraced the game so much that they’ve practically made a living playing it and earning money in tournaments.

“I remember I called off work in ’05, but I don’t think I’m going to do it this year (for the release),” said David “One9″ Stepney of Pomona, known as one of the best “Madden” players on the West Coast. “But I call off for the big tournaments – ’cause I can make more money that day, if I’m playing for $200 per game.”

Stepney’s been a fan of the game since 1998, and has been a tournament-caliber player since 2004. He said he loves seeing “Madden” forge a presence in mainstream culture.

“This is something I really enjoy doing, and seeing it on ESPN and everything … It gives me more pride to do it,” he said. “I can get more respect out of it.”

And the “cool” people have caught on. The “Madden” brand has received plenty of praise from big-name sports stars and celebrities, which in turn, has boosted the game’s popularity even more.

“Everyone from Snoop to Andy Roddick – they all want that early copy,” said Erb, the EA Sports marketing director. “I also think someone rated our Madden Bowl party at the Super Bowl just behind `Maxim’ and `Playboy.”‘

But it’s the football players – not the celebs – who prove to be among the most devoted to the game. This is where the yearly “Madden Bowl” comes in, where the NFL’s best “Madden” players duel for a chance to be called the champ.

“The first time I won it, I kinda had a lot of people gunning for me,” said Alex Smith, tight end for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and two-time Madden Bowl champ. “I’m gonna go for a threepeat. We got some new guys here that think they’re pretty good, so we’ll see what they’ve got.”

Smith isn’t really shocked at the ascension of “Madden,” pointing to the natural progression of game design in the past decade.

“Over time, the technology the gamers have come up with makes the game become more and more like real life,” he said. “It’s always fun to see. We started with 8-bit to watch what it is now.”

David Ortiz, the lead producer of “Madden,” said it helps the product when the people it’s about are as into the game as everyone else.

“These are guys that really want to be in it, and really want to play it,” he said. “One of the coolest guys I’ve probably run into was Chad Johnson. He’s a `Madden’ player.”

Ortiz said he met the chatty Bengals star receiver at last year’s Pro Bowl. Ortiz had the game set up, Johnson saw it, and he wanted to jump on instantly.

“So we’re still playing, and I’m like, `Man, I’ve gotta stop, I’ve gotta get these guys in here (for “scans” of the players’ heads, so they look like themselves in the game) Ortiz said. “So Chad starts running out and grabbing guys to get in and get finished, just so he could play more. He’s that into it.”

Ortiz said he and the design team over at EA are humbled by seeing what their product has become – as well the kind of following it has received. But at the same time, he can’t say they’re shocked.

“What’s crazy is that before we were doing this, wewere the guys putting the reserves down, coming into the store early, or standing in line,” he said. “For a lot of us, this has been our life anyway – it’s just that there weren’t CNN cameras on us at the time. It’s like the rest of the world has caught up.”