One of Oldenburg’s colleagues introduced him to present the feature to the former coach, and no sooner had Oldenburg noted the feature’s name than Madden began waving his hands. The meeting came to a hard stop.
“Let’s not go any further,” Madden said. “I want to know, can you, or anyone in this room, tell me what it means to actually ID the Mike?”
Oldenburg, a former NFL offensive lineman before pivoting his career to game development, took the challenge in stride, explaining what Madden already knew: IDing the Mike is simply when an offense identifies the middle player among the linebackers in a defensive formation to get on the same page.
Madden stared him down, then smiled.
“And from that moment on, for the next 10 years until he passed, coach and I had a great relationship,” Oldenburg said. “We were on a first-name basis. He would call to talk to me and ask me how the game was doing, and it’s because I passed his football quiz. I will never forget that.”
When news of Madden’s death last December began to spread across the EA offices, developers flooded their Slack channels with tributes and discussion. “An immediate reaction was, ‘What are we going to do for coach in our game?’ ” Oldenburg said.
During a presentation to media, Madden pro players and influencers in Orlando in late May, EA revealed the upcoming game would feature three covers, all of them depicting the Hall of Fame coach. One features the jubilant Madden being carried off the field by his players after winning Super Bowl XI. Another harks back to his days in the broadcast booth. The third, reserved for the game’s premium version, features Madden’s likeness from the original game’s cover, with the jubilant coach bursting through a black, white and gold background of play diagrams.
All three versions of the cover feature a handwritten note scrawled on the front: “Thanks, Coach.”
For more than a decade, the cover reveal for the latest Madden game has been a cultural phenomenon in the United States, a marketing decision that carries with it an outsize measure of national relevance for the athlete selected. The news of the cover reveal is often accompanied by an ESPN SportsCenter segment as well as a wave of online articles (and, as some believe, a curse).
Madden was featured on the cover of the early iterations of the game, before EA began to highlight players in 2001. Recent covers have included quarterbacks Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson.
Madden, the former Super Bowl-winning coach of the Oakland Raiders, first leant his name to the video game series in 1988 with the stipulation that the game be realistic and representative of actual NFL football. That started with a requirement that the game feature 11 players on each side of the ball, a massive computational challenge for the hardware of the early 1990s. Once solved — thanks in part to the help of developers at Bethesda Softworks and their game “Gridiron!” — it launched the best-selling sports franchise in video game history, with more than 30 installments produced since then.
Madden did more than merely lend his name to the series, however. Each year, developers from EA would meet multiple times with Madden to discuss new features going into the games and make sure they passed muster with the man the developers affectionately called “coach” — both out of respect and to differentiate the man from the franchise.
“What he was always most passionate about was the fundamentals of the game,” Oldenburg said of Madden during an interview at EA’s new Orlando office building, a structure those at EA call “The house that Madden built.” “He would always ask questions like, ‘We don’t have any illegal tackles going on, right?’ Or, ‘This specific play I saw watching football that I thought was a dirty play, we don’t have that in Madden, right?’ or ‘How are we teaching this concept?’ He was always very aware of his game as a teaching tool of the sport, but teaching it the right way.”
Another time the coach halted a PowerPoint presentation when a marketing slide featured clip art of a football play diagram. “Is that play in ‘Madden’?” he asked.
“There were only six players on the field and some had arrows and X’s, and it just wasn’t a real football play,” Oldenburg recalled. “And he was like, ‘That play can’t be in my game. If that’s from the playbook, take it out. That’s not a real play.’ We stopped our creative review for the year with Coach Madden to discuss a diagram in a PowerPoint deck. That’s how much into the details he was around authenticity. And we never made that mistake again.”
Those conversations between the EA developers and Madden continued until 2021, when he passed away on Dec. 28. Oldenburg recalled the last time he talked with the coach. With covid-19 still prohibiting travel and in-person meetings, the conversation took place over a matter-of-fact phone call in August to discuss how the team would integrate the NFL’s Next Gen Stats for the upcoming game.
“I think I was watching a bowl game or something, and it popped up on the bottom line. And it definitely hit me like we had lost somebody really important,” Oldenburg said. “Everyone has so much respect for what he has meant to us.”