- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 9, 2006

It is the most popular video game on the planet. It has inspired long lines at retail stores, millions of players to empty their wallets and, this year, a pay-per-view special.

On Aug. 22, thousands of fans will flock to the malls to score a copy of EA Sports’ Madden NFL ‘07, the latest version of the popular football video game.

The game, named after famed broadcaster and former NFL coach John Madden, has sold 51 million units since 1989 and 6.1 million last year alone. This year, there will be seven versions of the game to accommodate the various game consoles, including one each for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and the forthcoming Sony PlayStation 3.

“It is surprising, but it’s going to be even bigger,” said Will Kinsler, founder of MaddenNation.com, an online community of Madden game players. “There’s still a lot of room to grow. It’s a testament to the game itself and how good it is.”

Madden NFL has been big business since 1989 because of its reputation for providing some of the most realistic play and complex options in video games. The game also was one of the first to use real NFL player names, uniforms and stadiums, and it quickly became a fixture in basement game rooms and college dorms.

“We try to squeeze as much into these games as we can,” said Chris Erb, director of marketing for Madden NFL.

This year’s version is receiving more hype than ever, in part because of Mr. Madden’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last weekend. But the biggest boost came from the involvement of ESPN, which is in the first year of a 15-year deal that gives EA Sports the right to use the network’s on-air personalities in their games.

ESPN capitalized on the partnership by producing several shows featuring the game, including a 65-minute pay-per-view special that aired Friday night.

The special, which sold for $19.95, was geared toward hard-core fans of the game and featured several Madden tournament winners commenting on the new aspects in the latest version.

The pay-per-view highlighted the game’s new “superstar” mode, which allows players to select one player to control during a game, as well as the increased shiftiness of running backs. Players also hyped new features allowing for lead blocks, plus the ability to use plays from a team’s real playbook.

ESPN downplayed suggestions that the special was little more than a slick advertisement.

“I can’t argue strenuously enough with the notion that it’s an infomercial,” said Geoff Reiss, senior vice president of ESPN Original Entertainment. “This show is intended for those guys that are standing in line at midnight and then taking a day off of work, if not a couple days of work, to play the game.”

One of those lining up for the game will be Justin Chow, a college student from Great Falls and a winner of a regional EA Sports Madden Challenge.

Mr. Chow was given several hours to play the game before appearing with several other top Madden players in the pay-per-view special. (He was not given a copy of the game for free, as the special would have you believe.)

“It’s a really good game,” said Mr. Chow, who also won $7,500 at a Madden tournament in Las Vegas last year. “I’m a really competitive person, and I love football. When I practice with my friends, I’m so competitive. We just hate losing. We refuse to let it happen. We just know the game so well.”

The popularity of Madden — the man, not the game — is seen as a key reason for the game’s brisk sales over the years.

The broadcaster is involved in the game’s creation, insisting on the highest-quality product but is rarely asked to promote it. He reportedly makes far more from the video game than from his current contract with NBC, which pays him $5 million annually.

But there’s also no escaping this fact: Football is king.

“You’re talking about the most popular sport in America, so it taps into that,” said Michael Goodman, video-game analyst at the Yankee Group. “The game enables us to act out and play football without the bruises. There is this illusion of being a hero on Sunday.”

Madden NFL sold briskly from the beginning, going head-to-head with the popular Tecmo Bowl game, among others. But it truly took off after 2000, when Sony introduced its Playstation 2 game console.

The system allowed for better graphics and more features, giving players a more realistic experience. New systems, including Nintendo GameCube and Microsoft Xbox, have produced even more lifelike graphics, and the advancement of online play in the past several years has allowed players to match up with opponents anywhere in the country.

“Online play has been a major tool to help broaden the game’s reach,” Mr. Erb said. “When I was a kid, I’d have to ask my buddies to come on down, or play my mom a lot of the time.”

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