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John Madden talks about the virtual gridiron, the Madden Curse and life outside of the broadcasting booth

August 20, 2009 |  6:00 am
John Madden
John Madden in 2002 on the field in Foxborough, Mass. Credit: Ida Mae Astute / Associated Press.

John Madden, the NFL legend and former broadcaster, made his call in April when he announced his retirement. But that didn't mean the 73-year-old was out of plays. Madden still relishes his role as an advisor to the video game franchise that bears his name, Madden NFL.

Although the game, published by Electronic Arts, already shipped last Friday, it is continually updated via downloads on Internet-connected game consoles such as the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3. That's a feature Madden fully plans to take advantage of as he analyzes the sport from a custom-built viewing room designed to let him tune in to every live football game.

His analysis of these games will make their way into weekly updates of the game, which can also accommodate changes in the lineup due to injuries other game changers.

Madden spoke to the Times yesterday about how he's tackling his role as the go-to coach of the virtual gridiron with renewed vigor, and whether he believes in the "Madden Curse," coined because athletes appearing on the cover of the video game have been prone to suffer injuries.
To read an edited transcript of the conversation, click continue reading.

Madden NFL 10
A screen shot of Madden NFL 10. Credit: Electronic Arts.

Q: How’s retirement treating you?
Madden: It’s going well for me. But you know, it really hasn’t started yet. I retired from broadcasting football. So far, it’s been the off-season for me. The Hall of Fame game is the first game I would have done. So I really haven’t retired from anything until football season starts.

Q: Will you spending a lot more time on the virtual gridiron now?
Madden: That’s one thing I’m really looking forward to. Each week I’m going to watch all the games. I have this thing being built right now where I have nine 63-inch monitors. And I’m going to be able to put every game on television. I can watch them all at the same time.

Then I’m going to see more. When I was broadcasting, I would just zero in on the game I was doing. Doing this, I’m going to see more. I’m going to see all the trends. I’m going to see what every team does. Those trends and the things that they’re doing in the games on Sundays, those are the things we will put in the game.

Q: Where is this going to be?
Madden: It’s in Pleasanton [Calif.]. I have an office and a sound stage here where we’ve done commercials over the years. Folks from EA will come and watch the games with me. It’s going to be a great thing.

Q: What will you be telling them?
Madden: The feedback I give is the way the game is played. It’s what I see -- any trends, changes, anything that is new and different than what it was before. That’s what I do. That’s what I enjoy.

When we started out, we wanted the video game to look like NFL Football. To do that, you have to watch a lot of NFL football and know what they’re doing because the game changes, and it changes drastically.

Q: Give us an example of something you saw last year that made it into Madden NFL 10 this year.
Madden: The one big thing is the quarterback being able to move. If you look at football, you think it’s a 3-step drop, or a 5-step drop or a 7-step drop, get back that foot and throw the ball. But the more you watch it, you see it’s not that way. It’s more like, 5-step drop and then make a move and the step up and throw the ball.

So we put that in the game where you can control the quarterback, where he can make some moves to buy time. That’s become a big thing in football. The quarterback has to have that power. All the great ones seem to be able to do that. I’m not talking about scrambling. I’m talking about being to move here and move there to buy time to get the ball in the field.

Q: What else is new in the game?
Madden: The running backs. You get these big powerful running backs fighting for yardage. A guy just doesn’t run run, run, run, get hit and go down. He can run, run, run, get hit and still fight for the yardage. These are things we can get into the video game to make it more realistic.

Q: How far has the video game evolved since the days Trip Hawkins at EA approached you in 1986 to do a title?
Madden: When Trip Hawkins and I started, there were no video games. He was going to make a game you could play on the computer. The reason I joined him was that I wanted to make something that could teach football. Then it took us years to get to that point.

Q: There's a study from the University of Oregon that suggests a high correlation between players of Madden NFL and those who are more avid about the sport. Does playing the video game create a more passionate fan? Or is it just that only die-hard football fans play the video game?
Madden: I think it’s probably a combination. If you play the video game, you become more interested and you want to know more about it. You want to read as much about it as you can, see it live and watch as many games as you can. If you’re the type who wants to be as involved as you can in the sport, you’re probably going to want to play Madden NFL.

Q: Do you play the video game?
Madden: I’m not good at it. What I do is I watch it. I study it by watching other people play it. I see the way they’re playing, and I study what they do.

Q: Do you believe in the Madden Curse, where the cover athlete on the video game ends up getting injured that season?
Madden: No, I never believed in that. For 11 years, I was on the cover. I was never injured. And talking to players, they don’t believe in it either. Players get injured. That's part of the game.

Q: Which teams are your Super Bowl picks this season?
Madden: I’m not very good at predictions. I tend to go with the teams that won it last year. New England and Pittsburgh look good. Indianapolis has Peyton Manning. And San Diego is looking pretty good. Then there are the Giants and Eagles. I don’t believe in predictions. I don’t believe in Blue Plate Specials. That’s the great thing about the game. If anyone knew what would happen, and it happens, no one would watch it.

Q: You once coached the Oakland Raiders to a Super Bowl victory in 1977. How does the team look this year?
Madden: I watched them a couple times yesterday in scrimmage with the [San Francisco] 49ers. I think they’re going to be better. But defensive consistency is going to be a problem. I’m not going to out on a limb and say they’re going have a great year.

-- Alex Pham

Follow my random thoughts on games, gear and technology on Twitter @AlexPham.