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One Nation Under Madden How the Madden video game franchise became bigger than John Madden
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One Nation Under Madden How the Madden video game franchise became bigger than John Madden

By: Matt Foran, Client Service Executive, Nielsen Sports

SUMMARY: EA Sports’ video game Madden NFL Football is the number one selling sports video game of all time, with more than 70 million copies sold since its release in 1988. Video gamers and sports fans alike eagerly anticipate the game’s arrival every year in what has become something of an annual holiday. Meanwhile, the game has successfully crossed over into television programming, has moved across screens to online and mobile, and has become embedded into U.S. sports culture.

When the first version of the Madden NFL video game was released in 1988, Knots Landing was the top-rated show on broadcast television, Ronald Reagan was the President, and John Madden was the top color commentator in sports. Two decades later, on the 20th anniversary of the game’s release, John Madden is as popular as ever, and his status as a preeminent sports announcer owes a large debt of gratitude to the video game that shares his name—in fact, a Google search of “Madden” affirms this assertion—9 of the top 10 results are dedicated to the game.

Once upon a time, however, the roles were reversed. John Madden’s name and marketable persona brought creditability to Electronic Arts’ (EA) new video game, which was first released on the Apple II computer. Since then, it has become the best-selling video game franchise in North American history, and in 2008—two weeks after the game’s August 12 release date—EA reported that Madden ‘09 brought in sales of $133.5 million—6% more than the first month sales of last year’s Madden ‘08 release.

Brilliant marketing, a deep understanding of its core fan base, and leveraging the latest technology has helped the game transcend the video game genre by reaching into television, online and mobile screens—and matching its namesake in popularity to become an embedded part of American sports culture.

Madden mastered the transition from video games to television programming, to online and mobile outlets…

Screen passes

As content moves across screens, Madden mastered the transition from video games to television programming, to online and mobile outlets. Recently, at the October 2008 Tokyo Game Show, Microsoft announced that over 14 million gamers subscribe to Xbox Live, a service to connect their Xbox 360 system to the Internet. Websites like Xbox Live allow gamers to play online, connecting friends and anonymous fans across the country, making Madden a communal experience.

In this year’s version of Madden, EA capitalizes on the “Fantasy Football Phenomenon”, which has reached 11.7 million people as of last September, according to Nielsen, by creating EA Fantasy Football—a downloadable feature that allows gamers to hold their fantasy drafts on their game console, and then import their teams into Madden ‘09—adding a new dynamic to the fantasy football universe and another application for the video game.

Madden is one of the top ten mobile game downloads…

While the online platform has proved particularly important to the game’s success,Maddenites on the go need not worry. EA has the mobile consumer covered as well, with a scaled back version of the game for the cell phone. According to Nielsen’s latest Mobile Games Report, Madden is one of the top ten mobile game downloads: 142,000 mobile users downloaded the game in July 2008, paying an average of $4.34 for the game. The mobile version of Madden NFL ‘08 skews heavily male with 78% of the downloaders in Q2 2008. The game also skews more middle age than the overall mobile gaming population: 44% of Madden NFL ‘08 downloaders were between the ages of 45 and 64 (compared to 21% of the overall mobile game audience).

Keeping it real

When Madden ‘89 was released, it was the first to introduce realism and authenticity to sports video games. Each year since, the game’s features and graphics get increasingly more lifelike. The game action itself rivals an actual NFL broadcast, with replays and commentators critiquing the action, true-to-life player expressions and movements, and built-in artificial intelligence that reflect real game scenarios. And as players hold out for more money and suffer season-ending injuries, gamers too are forced to improvise by drafting new talent, making trades, and scouring the free agent waiver pool.

Gen Y ushered in a new breed of consumer…

Keeping an active pulse on its fan base, when Gen Y ushered in a new breed of consumer that wanted to be in the middle of the action, Madden ‘09, took it one step further with the mantra “the first video game that adapts to you.” Gamers undergo a series of tests that measure their Madden IQ; the game then adjusts the computer opponents’ artificial intelligence to ensure competitive play.

In an environment where the consumer is increasingly engaged and empowered, Madden accommodates the purchaser accordingly by allowing the gamer to be the team owner (setting ticket prices and building stadiums), the general manager (drafting players while trying to stay under the salary cap), the coach (calling the plays and setting the depth chart) and the athlete (making tackles and scoring the touchdowns).

Massive ratings amid an increasingly fragmented media landscape…

Lucrative teammates

Building on its huge audience following, EA Sports forged strategic marketing partnerships with the National Football League (NFL) and the ESPN cable network, who have consistently delivered massive ratings amid an increasingly fragmented media landscape. According to Nielsen, the 2008 Super Bowl was the most watched in history, and Sunday Night Football, hosted by John Madden and Al Michaels, is watched by an average 14.4 million viewers—the most watched program every Sunday.

And video gamers like to watch football. In fact, Nielsen research shows, NFL games have 44% higher ratings amongst video game households compared to non-video game households in 2008. Not coincidentally, Electronic Arts recently extended exclusive rights to the NFL and its players’ union until 2012, prohibiting any competitor from selling a football game using NFL players, teams and stadiums.

The video game turns gamers into savvy NFL fans…

And the NFL benefits from Madden’s realism. By educating its fan base on everything from each team’s 53-man roster to the often complex salary cap, the video game turns gamers into savvy NFL fans. In addition, Madden offers official NFL sponsors a unique advertising opportunity to reach the often elusive young male demographic. Sprint, Snickers, and Under Armour—all league sponsors—have a significant presence in the video game. Sprint, the leagues’ official wireless partner, also sponsors the NFL’s Sunday Night Football gamecast, on NFL.com. Offering live audio, game casts, and text alerts, Sprint is banking on its NFL Live program to increase its revenue in the wireless battle.

Taking the leap into the popular reality show craze, EA partnered with ESPN on programming, brand integration, and web content to launch Madden Nation—a survivor-esque reality show airing on ESPN2. In the show, which Nielsen estimates is watched by an average 300,000 viewers each week, the country’s top MaddenNFL gamers tour the country, play against each other, and stop in NFL cities to tour stadiums and take on NFL players. With gamers donning official NFL jerseys and Reebok apparel, it is the picture of cross promotion success.

And other ESPN NFL studio programs—such as Sunday Countdown (2.6 million viewers) and Monday Night Countdown (2.3 million viewers)—feature EA Sports Virtual Playbook, a segment where ESPN analysts diagram the action using the Madden video game with super imposed graphics. ESPN will often “simulate” games using the Madden computer to forecast an outcome and Madden has predicted four of the past five Super Bowl winners. NFL players are terrific spokesmen for the game, and gather at the Super Bowl for an annual tournament which crowns the NFL’s best Madden Gamer.

Savvy signing

The unveiling of the new Madden cover announcement always provides huge media buzz mostly due to a “cover jinx” as season-ending injuries and sub-par seasons have haunted the cover football player for the past decade. However, this year marked the first time a “retired” player appeared on the cover of the video game—Brett Favre.

A catastrophe was masterfully turned into more traffic…

However, when Brett Favre unretired and was traded to the New York Jets six days before game launch, the “gunslinger” was in the wrong uniform and did not appear on the game’s roster as a player. Rather than issue an expensive recall, EA Sports used the Favre trade buzz to their advantage and posted a replacement cover, with Brett in a Jets uniform, along with a downloadable roster patch that put Favre on the Jets roster. What could have been a catastrophe was masterfully turned into more traffic to the EA Sports website and enthusiasm for the video product.

Rated E for Everyone

As generations of consumers move across the age continuum from child, to teen, to young adult and adult, the game has successfully moved with them, appealing to a wide range of consumers. Gamers, who purchased the first Madden video and are now in their 30s and 40s, still remain loyal, avid users and now play video games with their kids. According to Nielsen, the majority of console owners (71%) are married, and two-thirds have at least one child in the household.

An impressive number of young women are playing as well…

Madden’s popularity also transcends racial lines. African Americans had the highest level of pre-orders of the latest Madden, indicating a high level of anticipation. EA Sports also releases a Spanish-speaking version of the game, with a Hispanic NFL player on the cover. This year’s cover shot is Chicago Bear Roberto Garza. While it remains true that the most avid gamers are young males (76.37% of adolescent males 12–17 years and 63.33% of males ages 2–11 used a video game console in Q3 2008), an impressive number of young women are playing as well. According to Nielsen, more than half of girls ages 2–11 (51.09%) and ages 12–17 (54.14%) used a video game console at least once, for one minute or more in Q3 2008.

The new frontier

Capitalizing on the need to reach an often elusive, multi-channel and fragmented audience, EA Sports’ most recent brand campaign puts a focus on real gamers of all types—young and old, male and female, celebrity and athlete. According to EA Sports, the new campaign includes nearly two dozen television spots and more than 50 web vignettes. According to Nielsen, Electronic Arts spent over $10 million the past year and a half advertising across network, cable, and Spanish-language television, along with web banner ads, many of which were placed on ESPN.com —visited by 22.8 million people last month alone.

The Madden brand is a classic example of Marketing in the 21 st Century. It has successfully become an omnipresent part of sports culture because it continues to thrill gamers and sports fans of all ages with cutting-edge technology and jaw-dropping realism. A quote from Peter Moore, President of EA Sports, exemplifies how big the game has become; “We don’t so much as launch Madden any more, we celebrate its arrival.”