Released in 1988 for the Apple II family of computers, this was the game that started it all. But the road to get there was hewn by amazingly daring risks, chutzpah, and a lifelong love of football.
ESPN’s Patrick Hruby jumped into the history behind the franchise with his article simply called “The Frachise” filled with commentary and insight from the people most closely related to taking those first steps in what would become EA’s annual sports juggernaut. It’s an incredible story covering Trip Hawkin’s lifelong love of the sport he had also played while at Harvard t0 Madden’s thoughts on that it could also be a tool that helping introduce and break the sport down to everyone — a part of his classic persona for which he would be renowned for in the sportscaster’s booth.
The box for the game had his “Ten Commandments” that cleverly listed everything that the programmers squeezed into the Apple II which was later over to the C64 and DOS in ’89 (which also included updated roster from the NFLPA). I’m not sure why it was chosen as the platform of choice for developing the game at the time, but part of me wants to guess that it might have also had something to do with Hawkins’ past history as a part of Apple before moving on and founding EA.
The commandment that tops the list is “Play 11-man football” which turned into something of a technical nightmare for the team who initially wanted it to be 7 on 7 instead. But they did it. Other things on the list included designing your own plays, calling audibles, making your own league, and using real players (with the exception of Joe Montana who Atari had in a contract of their own).
It was a technical achievement that took around three years to happen making it a huge project for a young development company since this was still in a time when “AAA” PC games could still have been turned around in only a few months. Joe Ybarra was tasked with making it happen and CRPG fans of the Bard’s Tale series may grin at the mention of his name.
Like any PC game back then, it was definitely a lot more about tactical stats than the kind of bone crunching tackles that are seen every time EA cuts a promo for their newest installment, though some of those limitations can be blamed on the strength of the hardware at the time. But the game was also built on a few of the same kind of ideas that CRPGs were also trying to answer by leaving it to the hardware to do what it did best — crunching stats and spitting out the results without having to rely on reams of paper to do it with. Anyone with a PC could be football heroes, especially if they opted to use a joystick to maneuver through the woefully weak AI on defense, something that would also follow it through to the consoles for a number of iterations.
Interestingly, EA was also involved in publishing Joe Montana Football for the Genesis which had been “scaled back” to avoid competing directly with Madden. In Hruby’s article, Hawkins freely admits this is exactly what happened as they “removed the 3-D field, slashed the pro-style playbook from 113 plays to 13 and added cartoony, big-headed player graphics”. It was still a hit and Sega heavily promoted it, but Madden’s deeper (and intact) systems would be the game more players would eventually cast their wallet votes for. It was a sneaky play by EA, but it worked.
Though the game was a modest hit on PCs, it would be its run on the Genesis that would make EA’s sports game a household name and a multi-billion dollar empire as it blended the tactical tenacity of its numbers with the arcade feel of the controller. Hawkins and EA juggled Sega in one room and a reverse engineering project taking apart their console in another focused on figuring out how to make games on it, particularly Madden. A deal was eventually struck and the rest is history making the Genesis the go-to console for many players when it came to EA Sports. For me, however, I’m still waiting on a sequel to Mutant League Football.