John Madden, Legendary Coach and Video Game Pioneer, Dead at 85

John Madden, the namesake of EA Sports’ massively successful Madden NFL franchise, has died at the age of 85. The news comes from an NFL press release this afternoon stating his passing this morning was “unexpected.” Before providing his name to the longest running sports game series in the world, Madden was a successful broadcaster and, before that, a Super Bowl-winning head coach for the Oakland (now Las Vegas) Raiders franchise.

A Minnesota native, Madden grew up in Northern California where he played football at the high school and collegiate level. Injuries kept Madden from competing at the professional level, but he joined the Raiders franchise as an assistant coach in 1967, eventually becoming a head coach in 1969. He never had a losing record as a head coach and took the Raiders to five conference championship games in seven years. In 1977, the Raiders won Super Bowl XI. Madden retired from coaching just two years later to spend more time with his family, citing burnout as the primary reason for the change. Madden was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006.

Madden was a color commentator for NFL football games from 1979 until his retirement in 2008, working for CBS, Fox Sports, ABC, and NBC. He is well remembered for his on-field insight mixed with demonstrative exclamations like “BOOM” when a big hit occurred. Madden is also credited for the first use of the telestrator on an American sports broadcast, a technology he would popularize which remains a prominent fixture of sports broadcasts today.

In the mid 1980s, Madden was approached by Electronic Arts founder Trip Hawkins to endorse a digital football game he was creating to emulate older pen and paper sports simulations. Madden was expected to only lend his name and likeness to the production, but ended up being deeply involved with early design feedback of the game. Famously, the original game was going to move away from traditional 11-on-11 football in lieu of smaller teams in order to make the game run smoother on home computers, but Madden refused to participate unless the game was an accurate football simulation. Following years of delays and false starts, including hiring Bethesda Softworks to help finish the game (which ended in several lawsuits — that’s another story), John Madden Football was released in 1988 for the Apple II. The game contained realistic playbooks, provided to EA by Madden himself.

John Madden Football would continue with yearly installments starting in 1990, but would change its name to Madden NFL in 1993 when EA secured the license to use the NFL in the series for the first time. The only time this naming tradition would change would be in 1997 with Madden Football 64, the franchise’s debut on Nintendo 64. This was due to Acclaim having an exclusive NFL license on Nintendo 64 through the 1997 season.

Madden, a part-time teacher before becoming a broadcaster, always felt the game could be a learning tool for casual viewers and future players alike. He was instrumental in getting EA to add realistic features to the game, including Franchise Mode in 1998, which added the ability to manage an NFL team top to bottom for many consecutive seasons. The Madden franchise has sold over 150 million copies since its inception, earning billions of dollars in revenue for EA in the process. John Madden is survived by his wife of 62 years, Virginia, and their two sons Joseph and Michael.