The Scientifically Proven Best Video Games of All Time #91: Madden NFL Football (Series)

“The Scientifically Proven Best Video Games of All Time” is a statistical meta-analysis of 44 “Best Video Games of All Time” lists that were published between 1995 and 2016. Catch up on how we decided to sort the games and the rest of the Top 100 in the Introduction.

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A gambler will tell you that they believe Lady Luck will reward them for respecting a streak, and a professional football player will tell you that he doesn’t believe in the Madden Curse. The former is a wishful thinker, and the latter is a liar.

The sports world is filled with superstitions. As a Little Leaguer growing up, I could show you what a “rally cap” was and explain the importance of never touching the baselines. I understood completely why retired Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland refused to change his underwear during a 12-game winning streak in 2011. I’ve even got strong opinions on what you say to a pitcher in the middle of a perfect game. The answer is you don’t say anything, because talking to him at all is bad luck.

For decades, the Sports Illustrated Cover Jinx served as a well-known precursor to the Madden Curse. Those who believe in the Jinx are convinced that any player who appears on the cover of Sports Illustrated will experience some form of terrible luck, even though a handful of high-profile hits have obscured the long list of players who avoided the Jinx over the years. If the sheer number of cover subjects doesn’t dissuade you (more than 3,000 issues have been produced since the magazine’s launch in 1954), the illustrious career of Michael Jordan should. The basketball great has appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated a record 50 times, and he’s had the kind of career that other athletes dream about… not counting his detour through Minor League Baseball and Space Jam.

But what of the Madden Curse? Although you’ll find a few executives at Electronic Arts who enjoy hyping up the current year’s game with talk of the Curse, most of them like to downplay it. In 2008, the then-President of EA Sports, Peter Moore, said, “I guess when you look back there’s a grain of truth to the Madden Curse.” At the time, he wasn’t wrong. Five of the last six offensive players on the cover succumbed to some horrible calamity. The publishing giant even considered producing a movie based on the Madden Curse in 2010, though that project seems to have fallen off the radar in the years since.

And that’s probably because the Madden Curse is as mythical as a wild turducken.

From the very beginning, the John Madden Football/Madden NFL series was well known as the best digital representation of football available (it even inspired EA’s ubiquitous “If It’s In the Game… It’s In the Game!” slogan). This simulation even extended to the cover, as Madden himself appeared on the cover of the first dozen entries, usually with clipboard in hand. The hulking former player and coach had a reputation among fans for his enthusiastic color commentary and a personality that was just as big as he was. Whether it was through his booming vocal style or giving a tour of his “Madden Cruiser” bus during the pre-game show, everyone recognized John Madden. But executives at EA knew that his television career wouldn’t last forever, so they eventually looked to the players themselves to promote the yearly game.

In 1999, John Madden shared the cover of Madden NFL 2000 with a background photo of a blurry Barry Sanders. However, the Detroit Lions running back wouldn’t play a single down that year, opting to retire before the season even began. Years later, Sanders admitted that the “the culture of losing in the Lions organization […] robbed him of his competitive spirit.” Some people have said that Sanders’s retirement was the impetus for the Curse, robbing every other player to grace the cover of their competitive spirit, but that seems unlikely.

Earning a spot on the Madden NFL box doesn’t just require a few good games, but an outstanding season that stands head and shoulders above the rest of the league. A statistician would say that players capable of such a season are “outliers.” Expecting these outliers to repeat their success for two seasons in a row is an almost impossible request. Madden cover athletes are not doomed by a Curse, but doomed to fail to live up to the impossibly high standards they set for themselves a year ago because football is an incredibly tough game. Our statistician friend would add that this is a perfect example of “regressing to the mean,” a principle that states an extreme performance will tend to be closer to the average during a second measurement.

But rather than just assume this is the reason the Madden Curse isn’t real, we can crunch the numbers and prove it. And thankfully, football fans have devised the perfect system to capture the essence of a player’s overall value from year to year… Fantasy Football.

The first real “Cover Athlete” to grace a Madden NFL box appeared in 2000 when Eddie George was picked to promote Madden NFL 2001. Not only did George defy the Curse, but he is one of the only players to score more Fantasy Points after he appeared on the cover than the season preceding it (284 points in 2000 versus 246.2 points in 1999).

George may have denied the Madden Curse (if it had existed at the time), but the next five cover athletes all performed well below expectations during their cover year. The Fantasy value of Daunte Culpepper (Madden 2002) and Marshall Faulk (Madden 2003) dropped off by 40%. Donovan McNabb (Madden 06) did even worse, suffering a nearly 50% drop from 2004 to 2005. This was only outdone by Shaun Alexander (Madden 07) in 2006 and Michael Vick (Madden 2004) in 2003. Alexander’s Fantasy value dropped by 65% while Vick had a catastrophic cover season, losing 80% of his Fantasy value.

But something magical happened in 2007,something that actually lends a bit of credence to the entire Curse mentality. Barry Sanders came back to video games and appeared on the cover of All-Pro Football 2K8, a football sim published by 2K Games that used retired players to fill out the rosters of its unlicensed teams. After the release of All-Pro Football 2K8, the fortunes of Madden Cover Athletes seemed to receive a boost.

Beginning with Madden NFL 11, fans were given the chance to award players a spot on the cover. That year, Drew Brees was selected by online voters and he turned in the best cover year performance since Eddie George, losing only 4% of his Fantasy value. For Madden NFL 16, fans picked wide receiver Odell Beckham, partly due to a ridiculous one-handed catch he made the year before. A similar pose to the catch was immortalized on the game’s cover, and Beckham actually managed to increase his Fantasy value during his cover season by 8%.

Meanwhile, Peyton Hillis, the Cover Athlete of Madden NFL 12, wasn’t so lucky. Hillis famously laughed when asked about the Madden Curse. While most players don’t pay much heed to the Curse, Hillis, a flash-in-the-pan running back for the Cleveland Browns, decided to mock the very idea of the Curse. Even if you don’t believe in it, that just seems like a bad idea. Like Shaun Alexander, Hillis was smacked by a 65% drop in Fantasy value and retirement from the NFL in 2014.

Maybe the Curse isn’t so mythical after all…

John Madden Football was one of the first sports games to receive an annualized release schedule, with new versions often appearing in stores just before the start of the season. Used copies of older Madden games can be obtained for a pittance from your local game store, and the first game in the long-running is available to play online thanks to the Internet Archve’s preservation efforts.

The most recent game in the series, Madden NFL 17, was released on August 23, 2016 for the PS4, Xbox One, PS3, and Xbox 360.

Publisher: EA Sports
Developer: EA Tiburon
Release Date: June 1, 1988 (John Madden Football)

Average Ranking: 72.82
Selection Percentage: 29.55%
Scientifically Proven Score: 143.27

Publication Rankings For Madden NFL Football (Series)
Hyper (1995) 1*

Next Gen (1996)


Next Gen (1999)


Edge (2000)

GI (2001) 27

GameSpy (2001)


Edge (2003)


EW/G4TV (2003)

GameSpot (2003) NR

IGN (2003)


1UP (2004)


The Age (2005)

IGN (2005) 38

Yahoo! Games UK (2005)


Edge (2007)


IGN (2007)

IGN HoF (2007) NR

Stuff UK (2008)


Edge (2009)


Empire (2009)

GI (2009) 137

FHM (2010)


GamesTM (2010)


The Phoenix (2010)

Gamereactor (2011) NR

GamesRadar (2011)


Stuff UK (2011)


1UP (2012)

G4TV (2012) 24

GamesRadar (2012)


Time (2012)


EPN (2013)

GamesRadar (2013) NR

Gaming Bolt (2013)


PC & Tech Authority (2013)


GamesRadar (2014)

Popular Mechanics (2014) NR

Slant Magazine (2014)


Stuff UK (2014)


Edge (2015)

GamesRadar (2015) NR

IGN (2015)


GamesMaster (2016)


Time (2016)


Fantasy Football Today – Player Index

Gibbons, Kyle – Bleacher Report – The Barry Sanders Effect: Why Detroit Lions WR Calvin Johnson Walks in 2012 – 2011

Iott, Chris – Michigan Live – Tigers manager Jim Leyland: ‘I will wear these underwear until we lose’ – 2011

Robinson, Jon – ESPN – Peyton Hillis laughs at ‘Madden’ curse – 2011

This entry was posted in 3DS, DS, Features, Mobile, PC, PS2, PS3, PS4, PSP, Retro, SPBVGOAT, Top Story, Vita, Wii, Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

John Scalzo is Warp Zoned’s Editor-In-Chief and resident retro gaming expert. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at john AT warpzoned DOT com.

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