This year marks the 30th anniversary of perhaps the single most notable franchise in sports video games – Madden NFL. The franchise’s roots actually began in 1984, when Electronic Arts founder Trip Hawkins approached John Madden himself, hoping to get his expertise (as well as his endorsement of the product). But because of what Madden wanted out of the game – an as-faithful-as-possible recreation of the game – development took several years, and the inaugural game wouldn’t arrive until 1988.
Bethesda Softworks is actually generally credited with the creation of the first physics engine in gaming, which was used in their 1986 release, Gridiron!, a game for the Atari ST and Commodore 64/128. The game wasn’t much to look at graphically, but the physics were so impressive to the folks at Electronic Arts that they opted to hire Bethesda to help develop the very first John Madden Football.
The series was called John Madden Football until 1993, when it changed to Madden NFL after EA finally got the rights to use NFL teams and players. And despite the fact that Madden himself retired in 2009, the series continues to carry his name, and he also continues to advise the development process on new editions.
EA was actually sued by Bethesda in 1987 for $7.3 million. Bethesda claimed that EA had halted the release of Gridiron! on other consoles (something EA had bought the rights to do) after choosing to incorporate several major elements of the game into John Madden Football.
They believed that EA had bought the Gridiron! rights simply to get their hands on the underlying code of the physics engine. The details of how the lawsuit played out have never actually been made public. Meanwhile, the Madden series continues to see annual releases and maintains its status as one of the bestselling sports series ever, having sold more than 120 million copies worldwide and generated several billions of dollars’ worth in sales.