Investigating The Madden 'Curse'

Host Michele Norris speaks to Jamin Warren, co-founder of the video game magazine Kill Screen, about the cover of the wildly popular Madden Football game series. It's a big honor for a football player to make the cover of the game. But if you believe fans — and even some players — once you're on that cover, you might be bound for the injured list, a spate of interceptions, fumbles or a general career fog.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

People will argue until the cows come home about whether or not there really is such a thing as a curse. But anyone who's played the "Madden Football" video game will probably argue for the motion because the game has been haunted by the so-called Madden curse. It's a big honor for a football player to make the cover of the wildly popular game series, sort of like landing a spot on the Wheaties box.

But if you believe fans, and even some players, once you're on that cover, watch out. You might be bound for the injured list, a spate of interceptions, fumbles or a general career fog. In the battle for this year's cover, there's a twist. The creators of Madden, EA Sports, decided to let the fans vote for the cover. The two finalists are Cleveland Browns' running back Peyton Hillis and Philadelphia Eagles' quarterback Michael Vick.

And joining me now is Jamin Warren. He's a former arts and entertainment reporter for The Wall Street Journal. He's also the co-founder of the video game magazine killscreendaily.com.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. JAMIN WARREN (Co-founder, Kill Screen): Hello. How are you?

NORRIS: Now I'm going to begin by asking you to explain this thing called the Madden curse. Is it real?

Mr. WARREN: Apparently, it's real. In the early life of the "Madden Football" series, the cover image was John Madden, the illustrious football coach for the Oakland Raiders and the commentator. EA licensed his likeness and used his voice for the game. But around the 2000s, they decided to start putting football players on the cover.

The outcome was unexpected. From the very beginning, the players who ended up on the cover, they were either injured or something terrible would happen to them. It was to the point where EA themselves had to begin to talk about whether or not there was a curse. And all the fanfare around choosing that initial athlete kind of faded as you would sort of wait for the other shoe to drop, so to speak.

NORRIS: So, Jamin, we should talk about the two candidates for this year's cover. Peyton Hillis is a very good running back. Michael Vick is great, but, of course, comes with a big cart of well-documented baggage. Any chance that fans are voting for these guys not because they like them necessarily or because they're voting for the person that they really want to get hit with that curse?

Mr. WARREN: Well, that's certainly a case that you can make for Michael Vick, but for Hillis, not so much. I mean, he's a new player in the league. He's only been playing for the last three seasons. You know, one notable thing is he's the first white running back to rush for more than 1,000 yards since Craig James did it.

The most interesting thing, I think, about the sort of competition between the two of them is certainly the juxtaposition. With Hillis, he's - certainly, that's a position that's often been played by black people. And for Michael Vick, often quarterbacks have been white. And so there's definitely some interesting kind of racial interplay between those two characters.

You know, I think my general theory is that EA was tired of shouldering the blame every year when something would happen to the players on the cover of the games. Now they've decided to diffuse the blame across, you know, everyone. It's everyone's fault now. It's a community problem.

NORRIS: You know, Michael Vick has a lot of people around him who are helping him craft his image on the other side of the storm surrounding the dogfighting and the charges and the - and his attempt to really, you know, rebuild his image around football. Would EA, Electronic Arts, want him to be the face of their flagship product? That seems like that might come with a few complications for them.

Mr. WARREN: Yeah. Well, they opened this Pandora's box, so they, unfortunately, will have to live with the consequences. At the end of the day, there's definitely symbolic value for being on the cover of "Madden." But as far as EA is concerned, they're concerned about one thing, which is selling video games. And "Madden" is one of the most successful long-running video game franchises, not just sports franchises, but video game franchises. And they've done an excellent job over the years of cultivating a particular type of fan base that I think will generally be immune to whatever player, good or bad, ends up on the cover of the game.

I do think it's very important to note that the type of people who play "Madden" video games are very different sort of video game player, who ultimately is really interested in the sport of football. And they obviously love "Madden" as well, but they really like being able to play as people that they already idolize, which is a bit unusual.

I mean, normally, when people idolize video game characters, it's because of fantastical elements or things that they can't do in real life. And with football simulation, it's really interesting because the things they idolize in the video game are the exact same things that they idolize in real life.

NORRIS: Jamin Warren is a former arts and entertainment reporter for The Wall Street Journal. He's also the co-founder of the video game magazine killscreendaily.com.

Jamin, thanks so much.

Mr. WARREN: Thank you very much.

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