"I don't know how I'm going to watch them all," he said. "But I'm going to try."
I caught up with Madden this week to discuss his plans for the upcoming season, his thoughts on the popularity of his video game series and if he might pull a Brett Favre and make a return to the broadcast booth in the near future.
SI.com: It's been 20 years since the first Madden game came out for the Apple II computer. What do you remember about your initial conversations about the game and your expectations for what it could be?
Madden: Trip Hawkins [the founder of Electronic Arts] came to me and wanted to start a company and was going to do it with computer games. There were no video games in those days. We actually started four to five years before it eventually came out in 1989. He was going to have a baseball game with Earl Weaver, a basketball game with Red Auerbach and a football game with me. The others dropped by the side and I stayed with it.
My idea was that I wanted it to be a teaching tool. He believed that computers were going to be a big thing, and you have to remember we first talked damn near 30 years ago, so I didn't know. He had gone to Harvard and made up his own major -- computer games -- so I figured this guy has to be a computer genius so I'll hook up with him. I was teaching an extension class at the University of California at the time, just a Football for Fans course. I had made up a book and film and I was thinking this computer will be another teaching tool for me. That's it. That was my idea. I thought high schools could use it to teach football and then if we got advanced enough maybe in college and in the pros. His idea was a computer game and my idea was a teaching tool, so we married the two and came up with the game that came out.
SI.com: Do you remember the moment you realized your game had become a pop culture phenomenon and that your last name was synonymous with gaming?
Madden: No, because it was gradual. If you look back on it now, it came from nowhere. But if you lived through it, it took a long time from getting it up and getting it on the computer. Everything was very slow in those days and the players didn't have uniforms or numbers or any real movement. The development of the game was gradual. We didn't even have real NFL teams or players until 1994. It was like it hit me one day in 1992 that this game was big; it was a gradual process. It grew from a computer game, to a video game on one format, to a video game on a couple of formats, to being available everywhere.
SI.com: Do you still play the game?
Madden: I do play the game. I'm not very good. I'm not good enough to test it the way that I want it to be tested. So what I'll do is have someone play the game while I watch it, or I'll have two guys play each other and I'll watch them play. I want to watch and see how the game plays and I'm just looking for things that are wrong or things that are in the NFL game that aren't in the video game. Anything that's in the video game that's not real, I want out. That's what I do. I do the football part and checking to make sure that it's real and has credibility.
One of my grandsons is 5 years old and he's playing the Wii, so I love watching him play and get into it. The game is still playable for a 5-year-old to get started in football. I also have a 45-year-old son who I watch play against him, so it still works for all ages.
SI.com: You talk about realism, one of my favorite aspects of the early Madden game was the ambulance that would drive onto the field and run over a bunch of players just to pick up one injured guy. Who was driving that thing and will we ever see it make a comeback?
Madden: [Laughs] I don't know. No, that was a part of the game that was more video game than reality. In my mind I was trying to get the game more toward reality and the NFL football that I knew. That was a gimmick. Like, "Hey, where did that truck come from?" Next thing you know the whole team is getting hauled off in an ambulance or a hearse or whatever. I didn't want to go in that direction, to be honest. I always wanted it to look like you were watching a game on television, which is where it's at now. The graphics got better and we were able to get the different body types. I remember it was a big deal when we were able to get the linemen's bodies right and able to make the wide receivers and running backs look like wide receivers and running backs. That didn't come overnight. It took time.
SI.com: Is it still surreal to see how big the game has gotten? People go to stores at midnight to pick up the game, throw parties the day the game is released, etc.
Madden: I love that. I love that it creates a celebration when it comes out. I'm that type of guy. I love celebrations and parties. I think we should celebrate the start of the season more than we do. We should celebrate the championship games more. We do well with the Super Bowl, but I love that the launch of the game is celebrated. It makes me proud.
SI.com: In recent years there's been talk of a "Madden Curse," in which the player on the cover of your game goes on to either get injured or have a bad season. What do you think of when you hear your name attached to a curse?
Madden: I laugh about it because for about 12 years or more, the picture on the cover was me. So if I believed there was a curse, I sure as hell wouldn't have been on there. When I talk to players now, they laugh about it too. No one takes that seriously. If you talk to Larry Fitzgerald or Troy Polamalu, they don't believe they're cursed. When Brett Favre was on the cover a year ago, I don't think he was cursed.
SI.com: Maybe not cursed, but Favre has had a hard time making up his mind. What's your take on him coming out of retirement again and playing for the Vikings?
Madden: I've always said whatever he wants to do, he should do. I think that there are too many people who have too many opinions who don't know what he's doing or what he's going through or what he feels like. It's his decision and I think that it should be honored.
SI.com: Do you envision a point when you'll want to pull a Favre and come out of retirement?
Madden: No. I never had that in coaching and I don't think I'll have that now. When I was going up to Raiders camp the other day, I was thinking I should take something because I always had a briefcase or notepad or rule book or something. But I didn't have to take anything with me. I just went there naked. That was the only time I thought I should be taking something or doing something.
SI.com: Now that you've retired from broadcasting, is there any chance you'll go back to calling the games in Madden?
Madden: No, I didn't like the commentary. I didn't like doing that. I got bored, to be honest with you. The script was literally as thick as a telephone book and you had to go through every team and every player and every down and every distance and every situation. "OK, now it's fourth and 42!" Well, [shoot], punt the damn ball. I just got bored with it. It became drudgery. I just didn't want to do it anymore, so we got Cris Collinsworth to do it.
SI.com: What's your plan this upcoming season? Are you still planning to go to a bunch of games or will you be relaxing at home?
Madden: Oh, no, I'm going to go out. I already have. I went to the Hall of Fame game in Canton, then I went to the Raiders-Cowboys game, then I went to Raiders camp, then I went to the Raiders-49ers practice and I'm going to the Raiders-49ers game Saturday night. I plan on going to as many games as I can and going to as many locally as I can.
SI.com: There was a big circus at Raiders practice when you were there. It's alleged that Tom Cable punched an assistant coach. Be honest, John, did you ever get into it with one of your assistants back in the day?
Madden: [Laughs] Not that was publicized. [Laughs] I probably did, but not that I can remember.
SI.com: Was it hard to watch the tribute that Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth did for you during the Hall of Fame game? Did it hit you during the tribute that you wouldn't be working this season?
Madden: No, no, no, because I respect Cris and Al so much. I'm going to miss it because I loved it and I loved everything that I did. I loved the travel and the camaraderie and the coaches and the players and the film. I'm going to miss it all, but I did the right thing at the right time. I don't regret my decision, but having said that, I'm always going to miss it.
SI.com: Where's the Madden Cruiser? Have you retired that too?
Madden: Oh, no. The cruiser's at home. That's the way I travel. That's not going to change. I took a 10-day trip to Canton for the Hall of Fame ceremonies and Jerry Jones invited me to the [regular-season] opening of the new Cowboys Stadium next month, so I'll be there for that. That one's also a Sunday-night game so I'll also be able to see Al and Cris and all the NBC guys.
SI.com: Jon Gruden, another former Raiders coach and Super Bowl winner, is stepping into the Monday Night Football booth this season. How do think he's done so far and what's that transition like, going from an active coach to a color commentator?
Madden: I think he's doing a good job. Having a three-man booth is easier at the start. It's hard to start on national TV when it's just you and someone else. If you just remember that you're a coach doing television and not a television guy, it's easy. I mean, who's going to know more about the game today than Jon Gruden? Hell, he was just coaching a couple of months ago, so his knowledge of the game and the players is so great that he'll have some interesting things to say. His knowledge of television may not be so great, but that's the least important thing. As an analyst, his knowledge of the game is a hell of a lot more important than his knowledge of television.