Madden NFL 16 Primer: Why 'Draft Champions' Matters

How Ray Lewis Changed Madden Forever And Why He Should Cover Madden 14

There's only one man that should be covering Madden 14 this year.
There's only one man that should be covering Madden 14 this year.

There are few players in NFL history that can be said to have defined their position, and even fewer that have redirected the passion of its fans entirely. For Ray Lewis, it’s just a footnote on a historic career, and it helped changed Madden NFL forever.

Ray Lewis was never a game developer, he never wrote his own lines of code for the Madden NFL franchise, and he had nothing to do with putting the background audio together that helped make his intro in Madden 13 this past season one of the best the game has ever seen. And yet, never was there a star in Madden’s history that facilitated so much change in the NFL’s biggest gaming franchise.

An Unexpected Future

For seventeen years, Lewis has been a cornerstone of the Baltimore Ravens defense at the Middle Linebacker position. When Lewis first entered the NFL, the league didn’t even record tackles for defenders (that wouldn’t come until 2001, although teams kept their own count before then), so if someone told me that one day a MLB would influence the direction of one of the world’s biggest sports games, I would have thought you were crazy. When Lewis’ most important job wasn’t even recognized until his sixth year in the league, it’s hard to imagine then the kind of impact he would have just a few years later.

For decades, Madden NFL had always been a game of offense. In many ways, this was rooted deeply to other games like Tecmo Bowl, where studs like Bo Jackson were so good that tackling wasn’t so much of a defensive maneuver, as it was a measure for offensive highlights. Gamers and fans alike loved the idea of scoring, and they couldn’t resist the opportunity to pitch right at all costs for the chance at a big play. Madden was not a simulation game in those days, it was just an offensive coordinator’s virtual playbook.

The Game That Changed It All

In 2004, Madden changed forever with the release of Madden NFL 2005. Introduced to the game was an entirely new philosophy in the gaming world: Defense is sexy. All of a sudden, Madden now had the famed “Hit Stick,” which added a risk-reward layer of strategy to the tackling system that fundamentally alters the way the game is played. Defensive hot routes were also injected into the hands and minds of players, which let gamers customize just where and how they wanted their play to look before the snap that went well beyond the capabilities of the playbook selection screen.

While casual (and popular) game websites may not have realized it at the time, Madden 2005 was a changing of the guard in the franchise. For the first time, players had options on defense that rivaled the complete control that had been given to offenses over the years. Madden has never playee the same since, and it’s hard to believe fans would have taken to the changes so well if it wasn’t for its cover man: Ray Lewis. Every change that could be deemed significant over its predecessor was on the defensive side of the ball, and it was a risk that couldn’t be made without help.

Developing video games is all about managing resources and prioritizing features. In the real world, not everything we want in a game can fit into a development budget, and all-too-often truly superior features are sacrificed for those that will likely receive much more fanfare. It’s a tricky balancing act that is often teetering between making a good game, and making a game that will sell well. For Madden 2005 to invest so much of its stock on the defensive side of the ball, they had have a pitch man that conveyed the changes in a way that fans would buy into it. For Lewis, convincing others to buy into what’s happening was never a problem on the field, and it wasn’t any different in Madden. And the timing could not have been better.

Right Man at The Right Time

Madden 2005 was the franchise’s first foray into Xbox Live, and what it did for both Microsoft’s online platform and the NFL’s biggest gaming franchise can not be overstated enough. Madden was no longer about beating your neighbor next door, but about testing your skills and football intelligence against those around the country. Players that embraced the defensive changes to the game and took time to truly understand them garnered a massive advantage in the online arena, and almost as if by natural selection, everyone soon followed. Gamers, for the first time, had the tools, the motivation and the idol to allow them to fall in love with defense. For years after that, the most popular teams online were not simply those with the best offenses, but those with the best defenses.

Ray Lewis, quite simply, was the perfect marketing tool for a franchise that broke left and decided it wanted to innovate the football gaming genre. If the sales of Madden 2005 had flopped due to the investment in defensive features instead of offense, then things would have quickly returned back to where they were before, no matter how critically acclaimed the changes were.

Money talks. There is a reason why Ray Lewis was the first, and remains the only defensive player to ever be on the cover of Madden NFL.

It wasn’t just the pressures of selling the gaming audience on the defensive side of the ball that EA Sports was dealing with at the time, there was also a marquee competitor in the market: ESPN NFL 2k5, and it was released for only $19.99. As one Madden dev noted about its price, “It scared the hell out of us.” At the moment of its fiercest competition in the market, Madden quite literally went on the defensive, and they were the better game because of it. Despite all the romanticizing that exists around ESPN NFL 2k5, it’s undisputed that Madden NFL 2005 was a superior game. Maybe it didn’t have the superior presentation, but its innovations were hidden within its gameplay, not shallowly showcased in post-game video talk shows or pretty catch animations. The same reason why the people who still contest 2k5 was a better game today are the same reason why EA’s decision to focus on its defensive gameplay and market it with Lewis were so risky then: Often times people only look skin deep, and marketing teams know that.

It’s also the same reason why most truly good gameplay changes are not the points marketed year-to-year, although they often exist in each new edition of the game, despite criticisms otherwise. Casual fans had to not only buy into the nuances of what Madden 05 was offering, but find them compelling enough to justify Madden over its alternatives.

For such a bold development move in the heat of the NFL football game wars, EA Sports badly needed someone to embody its changes or risk losing its share of gamers, and Ray Lewis did just that for them. With the help of Lewis on the cover, Madden 05’s release exploded: Over 1.35 million copies sold in its first week, the best first week ever for the franchise at the time. All that development, all the risks in marketing a defensive football game paid off for Madden in a big way, and we are still reaping the benefits of it as players.

Earlier in this article I mentioned that Ray Lewis was in his 17th year in the league. It’s a remarkable feat to hold any job and do it so well for so long, especially in the NFL, but Lewis did it without flinching and now, on the eve of his second and final shot at a Super Bowl, he’s calling it quits after this year. If there was ever a player who deserved to be on the cover of Madden for a second time, it’s Ray Lewis. Not just because he was a great player, and not just because he is an inspiring figure, but because he helped change Madden NFL forever.

This year, Madden NFL 14 will likely put its cover up to a fan vote as it has the previous years. Now is the time to get the Ray Lewis for Madden 14 cover movement started. After spending his entire career rallying others, it’s time for everyone to rally for Ray and give him the so-long he deserves. Join us on @GoMadden and help Ray get this year’s cover.

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