Every gamer has heard of Madden NFL, one of the biggest franchises in video game history. But what you might not know is how a pen-and-paper game called Strat-O-Matic helped bring Madden to the masses. For that, we have to go back to the early ’80s — a time when athletic endorsements for video games were very rare and role-playing ruled the geek landscape. With the Super Bowl this Sunday, let’s stop and look back at this odd bit of football gaming history.
The Strat-O-Matic began in the early 1960s as a pen-and-paper baseball game utilizing dice, not unlike tabletop role-playing. Fans would gather around with their selection of the best current players and draft teams based on their stats. People could play solo or against others, but the intent was to make strict managerial decisions that reflected the stats on a card and the ability to improve upon them.
Over the years, new iterations of the Strat-O-Matic came out, encompassing hockey, basketball, and football. The influence of this paper strategy game created a legion of fans that included future baseball pros Curt Schilling, Keith Hernandez, and Lenny Dykstra; Magic: The Gathering designer Richard Garfield; and — most relevant to this story — Trip Hawkins, the founder of Electronic Arts.
In 1984, Hawkins met with John Madden, a former NFL coach who then worked as a color commentator for CBS Sports. Madden had helped TV audiences understand complex football mechanics by pioneering the use of the Telestrator, which allowed him to draw on the screen during replays. Hawkins hoped Madden would want to do the same for a video game audience. Madden suggested teaching football like chess, but Hawkins pushed EA into thinking of the game as an electronic version of the Strat-O-Matic.
EA and Hawkins toiled for the next three and a half years on the first Madden game, earning it the nickname “Trip’s Folly” within the games industry. Due to the increasing scope of the game — in particular Madden’s insistence that the game be as realistic as possible — the company was forced to scrap a console launch, instead releasing what was then called John Madden Football on the Apple II and PC in 1998. Luckily, the team’s effort was a modest success, and an updated version of the game launched on the Sega Genesis in 1990.
Football fans quickly embraced the series, as its Strat-O-Matic origins allowed them to closely replicate their favorite football strategies. No more having to play Tecmo Bowl and only getting to make power plays with Bo Jackson. Starting with Madden NFL 94, EA was able to use the NFL team license, and the Madden players know today fully took form.
With the recent rise of fantasy football, the Madden series made its Strat-O-Matic mechanics explicit in Madden NFL 10 with the Ultimate Team game mode. In MUT, fans earn or purchase coins and credits that can be used to buy cards and improve their rosters with elite specialty players. Fans of MUT contribute to endless threads on Reddit, Muthead, and other sites to generate the best lineups and compare stats on every possible position on the field.
Those early players of Strat-O-Matic, rolling dice and feverishly consulting notes, would be proud to hear just how popular their little pen-and-paper game has become, thanks to Madden NFL.
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