As we reported yesterday, the Detroit Lions’ Calvin Johnson landed the much-coveted title of Madden NFL‘s cover athlete for the 2013 iteration. After millions of votes, over 650,000 of which determined the final winner between Johnson and Carolina’s Cam Newton, the event became trending topics on Twitter and Facebook and dominated the front page of ESPN. Locally in Detroit and Charlotte, the contest dominated television news and sports radio programs, reaching a fever pitch in the few days before the winner was revealed.
All of this culminated in an hour-long special on ESPN’s SportsNation program set in the middle of Times Square, amid thousands of fans and viewed by millions of people on television.
And it’s all for the box art cover of a video game.
Electronic Arts has held the tradition of hosting athletes on the cover of its video games since Dr J vs Larry Bird was released in the 80s. Athletes and celebrities have graced the covers of games for decades, and publishers usually have to drop heavy coin to grab their likenesses for promotional use. But Madden has become its own monster, thanks in no small part to the Madden Curse.
The Madden Curse, a string of unfortunate coincidences that has Madden NFL cover athletes befall sometimes dire situations that affect their play the year that they receive the honor, isn’t real. The NFL is an incredibly hard-hitting league, and staying injury free 2 years in a row is an extreme rarity. Calvin Johnson, for instance, has only played 2 full seasons in the NFL, with the other three limited to injuries or illness. But the curse feeds directly into sports heritage, which is already stooped in superstition in almost every aspect. It feeds television and media, creates watercooler conversation, and becomes the basis for excuses when a team doesn’t do well enough the following year.
The NFL has become a league of spectacles. With television specials announcing the league schedule and this weekend’s highly-anticipated draft, the Madden cover reveals have become a large part of the ever-growing environment of the sport, no small thanks to the publisher’s exclusive publishing agreement with the league.
EA knows that the fanfare that surrounds the voting has done wonders for their marketing and sales, and has extended the concept to its NCAA Football and NHL 13 covers. We don’t doubt that FIFA and the eventual return of EA’s NBA games will incorporate something of the same.
It’s a testament to EA’s prowess, sure, but also to how much video games have become more than just shooting aliens in the mouth. They’ve become integral to the growth and marketing of sports into more niche market demographics. My mom didn’t care about Calvin Johnson, but now that everyone at her office is talking about the vote she knows more about football games then she ever did.