Sports video games are like time capsules — or portals to the past. With their rosters, playbooks and features, they capture and preserve a season in ones and zeroes, and at a press of a button, they bring that past to life.
Since Nintendo’s release of 1989’s Tecmo Bowl, games have come to change how fans understand and interact with America’s favorite sport.
The first great football game didn’t even have the NFL license when it was released. Tecmo Bowl’s teams were named by city, not team, but featured the colors of the corresponding NFL team. What they did have, though, was the NFL Players Association license, and that was enough. Fans could play as Joe Montana and throw to Jerry Rice.
The first breakout star in NFL video games was the then-Los Angeles Raiders’ Bo Jackson. The running back was an unstoppable force in the game, and the way experts used him to outrun tacklers made him look otherworldly. Although his football career was cut short because of injuries, Jackson’s greatness lives on for a whole generation of fans who know him more for his “Tecmo Bowl” feats than his football ones.
Enter John Madden
Of course, one of the issues with those early-generation games was that the visuals, cutting-edge tech at the time, were still rudimentary. The pixels onscreen were a step above stick figures, and the genre was still finding itself. Developers tried different perspectives and experimented by adding play-by-play announcers in “Joe Montana II: Sports Talk Football.”
FILE – Fox broadcasters Pat Summerall, left, and John Madden stand in the broadcast booth at the Superdome before Super Bowl 36 on Feb. 3, 2002, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Ric Feld, File)
But it didn’t all click until EA’s “John Madden Football” really got going in the 1990s. The popularity of the title echoed his enormous presence in the broadcasting booth he shared with Pat Summerall. It created a memorable synergy. Fans would watch the the two call the games in real life — and later, fire up the console and hear them talk about the plays unfolding in the video game. The legendary duo have since passed on, but their voices live on: Pick up a vintage copy of an early “Madden NFL” game, and you can still hear them calling plays.
Madden vs NFL 2K
With the introduction of 3D polygon graphics, football video games took a leap in realism, so much so that at a certain point, if you glanced from a distance, you couldn’t tell if a fan on the couch was watching the gridiron or playing on it. “Madden NFL” wasn’t always the only game in town. It had a rival in Visual Concepts’ “NFL 2K” series, as the two companies constantly tried to one-up each other.
Starting with “NFL 2K3,” the game added an ESPN-style presentation complete with logos and halftime reports. It even had Dan Patrick in the intro. If you ever wanted to see what the sports network looked like in its golden age, this is the series to check out.
The last version of the franchise is beloved among fans because it was an honest-to-goodness better game and gave “Madden” a run for its money, at least until the following year, when EA bought the exclusive rights to use the NFL teams and players. But the competition of those five years propelled the genre forward, pushing innovations that made the games more realistic and reflecting trends unfolding on the real gridiron.
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When Michael Vick came to the NFL, he essentially broke “Madden NFL 2004” with his astounding speed and throwing power. If younger fans ever wondered how good he was on the field, this game — along with the then-new Playmaker Controls — lets them absolutely dominate teams. (Check out his fantasy football performance against Washington’s football team in 2010 too.)
Although he was a transcendent talent, Vick’s legal trouble with a dogfighting ring saw him removed from “Madden NFL 08.” One of the first times that had ever happened, it was a reminder of the growing reality of modern video game football: With online updates and living rosters, athletes could be removed and their stats updated over the season.
On the flip side, as much as scandal could remove a player, athletes have been added for positive reasons. In 2021, EA announced that former 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick would return to the series as a top free agent in “Madden NFL 21.” His silent protest over police brutality and racism had erased him from the series since 2016. His reintroduction followed a year when athletes spotlighted law enforcement officers’ use of force after the death of George Floyd.
Madden 10 video games sit on a desk at Electronic Arts in Redwood City, Calif., on Wednesday, Aug 12, 2009. (John Green/Staff File)
Sports don’t happen in a vacuum. They reflect the messiness and vibrancy of real life. As video games push the envelope on realism, reality seeps into those ones and zeroes. They reflect trends that range from the popularity of the Wildcat offense in “Madden NFL 10” to the 100-rated speed of Devin Hester at the height of his powers.
Over the years, football video games have become not just a pastime but a teaching tool for those who want to learn more about the sport. The games allow fans to further appreciate what they’re watching on the field. It lets them enjoy football as it’s played in 2023 — and how it was played in 2009, too. Find an old copy of “Madden,” and you’ll find yourself back in a time when Brett Favre was on the Vikings and Chris Johnson was setting records for the Titans. It’s a time capsule that feels more alive with a controller in hand.