How the ‘Madden 23’ devs recreated ‘every pore, every geometry’ of the soccer icon
John Madden hated stealing and wasting his potential.
The player, analyst, coach, broadcaster and showman continually redefined the way football was viewed and discussed until his passing in December 2021. From coaching the Oakland Raiders to a Super Bowl championship in 1976 to providing commentary and analysis for thousands of matches over three decades, Madden has brought a new level of technical know-how to the pigskin experience. Although he retired in 2009, he has remained in tune with the times thanks in part to the video game franchise that bears his name.
Decades after the first-ever game launched on the Apple II, EA Sports senior producer Michael Maher says Madden’s example continues to be a guide for development teams.
“If you’ve ever seen him coach, or if you’ve ever heard of him, he’s one of a kind,” Maher said. Reverse. “He’s an inspiration to us of what good looks like.”
Since 1988, the Madden video game series has released 41 editions and sold more than 130 million copies. It has evolved from simple pixel art to a remarkably complex simulator that constantly redefines the cutting edge of video game visuals and physics. It’s the de facto game for football fans, attracting many gamers who would never touch a console otherwise. (EA’s partnership with the NFL, which was renewed in 2020, making it the only series capable of including real-world teams and player likenesses.)
It’s hard to imagine the gaming landscape without Madden, but the franchise wouldn’t exist at all without the legendary coach and commentator, whom EA founder Trip Hawkins approached all the way back in 1984 to throw some prestige behind their idea of a football game.
His involvement in the series was more than superficial. Madden commented on playbooks and plays on an annual basis. When Madden couldn’t make it to the EA offices, the developers made a point of coming to visit him once a year. His uncanny eye for breaking down 11v11 football into plays, calls, and logical conclusions added a sense of realism that contributed to the series’ success.
For the first time in two decades, Coach Madden is on the cover of the game, in three different variations. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, he featured prominently on the title screen and as an announcer, but he didn’t appear much in the show’s later episodes. He made an appearance in Crazy 22 as a coach released for free to players but has not been a title announcer since Crazy 09.
A brand new mode for this year also sees dueling Maddens controlling star players as they face off in a 1970s Oakland Coliseum. While EA has yet to reveal much about this mode, players can expect to see a fully realized and rendered Madden in his training prime.
“How we were going to honor him was in the works long before he passed,” Maher said. “We continue to work closely with his family to ensure that we continue to infuse our game with his passion and vision for the sport.”
“He still has occupies an important place on everything we do daily and annually.
To create as realistic an in-game model as possible to pay homage to their reigning patriarch, the developers tracked down authentic 70s clothing, including Adidas belts and shoes he wore on the pitch. They even managed to get their hands on his Super Bowl Ring. Using advanced 3D technology, which involved placing small dots on items and waving a wand-like device around them, the developers were able to recreate an impeccably accurate rendition of her former wardrobe. To recreate his physical likeness, Madden’s team merged a scan of him from a previous iteration of the game with his bust from the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
“We have a team of world-class artists here who will go into every pixel, to push and adjust every wrinkle, every pore, every geometry,” Maher said. “Then we actually talk to his family. We don’t stop until we’re all happy to have succeeded.
Advances in digital imaging have made it easier than ever to include realistic renderings of deceased celebrities in the media. Sometimes it’s effective, like Paul Walker’s posthumous cameo in Fast and Furious 7. Other times it can be shocking and offensive, such as Peter Cushing’s digital recreation of Grand Moff Tarkin in A thug.
To avoid any misunderstanding, Maher says the inclusion of Madden’s likeness in the series will have to “match what he is.”
“When you see this happening in other forms when it’s done right, people jump out of their seats.” Maher said. “When it’s not, it can go south quite quickly.”
Madden already has a precedent of including deceased players in their game, who can no longer share their likeness input. In the Madden Ultimate Team online multiplayer mode, players can use retired or deceased players, known as Legends, on their roster.
Once the developers figure out how best to honor a deceased or retired player – and what that player’s fans would actually appreciate – EA reaches out to families, foundations, or trusts and explains their plans for the likeness of the player.
“That’s why if we do this in the future – probably more when that if – it will be selective. And we’ll just make sure we get it right,” Maher says.
The passing of Coach Madden was a deeply felt loss to football. Decades after first stepping onto the court, his legacy has not been tarnished by scandal or controversy. Crazy 23 hopes to honor that legacy and the great coach the world has come to know.
“Although time flies and it almost belongs to a bygone era, it still looms large in everything we do daily and yearly on our game,” Maher said.