Correction to This Article
A Dec. 5 article about young people becoming more football-savvy because of the video game Madden NFL misquoted Rick Conner, the football coach at Linganore High School in Frederick. The quote should have read: "They know how to flood a zone because of this game."

A Virtual Chalkboard For Budding NFL Fans

Since its release in 1989, Madden NFL has sold 53 million copies and helped lure a more knowledgeable generation of young fans to the NFL itself.
Since its release in 1989, Madden NFL has sold 53 million copies and helped lure a more knowledgeable generation of young fans to the NFL itself. (Ea Sports)
By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 5, 2006

T.J. Won was not born into football. He did not grow up the son of a coach. He did not play the game in high school. In fact, the sum of his playing experience consists of throwing the ball with friends in his home town of Milpitas, Calif., after watching San Francisco 49ers games on television.

But in front of his television now, he notices the kinds of details coaches pick up.

"I used to see people lining up and blocking people," said Won, a junior accounting major at Georgetown University. "Now I see players blocking in the flats, helping protection. You know where the quarterbacks want to throw."

He arrived at this knowledge not by hanging around coaches' offices or studying game tapes. He learned it all from a video game -- Madden NFL.

This is a phenomenon the National Football League never could have anticipated. In a world in which 53 million copies of the game have been sold in the last 17 years -- the latest version sold an unprecedented two million copies in its first weekend of release last summer -- Madden has provided the league a perfect conduit to its next generation of fans. And all because of attention to arcane details that has demystified the complexities of football to a population that never before understood them.

"How else would I ever know what Cover-2 was?" Won said, referring to the widely used pass-defense alignment.

Professional sports leagues -- concerned that young people were turning to pro wrestling or action sports such as skateboarding or motocross -- have spent millions trying to find the soul of the 15-to-25 year-old fan. They have invested in youth programs, TV shows and even cartoons, figuring one would be the magic elixir that will make their game the next hot thing. Who knew that for the NFL it would be something the league had little to do with creating?

There are no statistics that conclusively link Madden to the NFL's next generation of fans. But a poll taken last year for the NFL said 22 percent of 12-to-17 year olds in the United States consider the NFL their favorite sport. The next closest, baseball, was at 13 percent. And given that NFL video games sold 6.2 million copies last year -- almost double that of the next most popular sport -- the NFL is sure there is a solid connection.

Kids' "use of technology is different than a generation ago," said Lisa Baird, the NFL's senior vice president for marketing. "They are programmed differently than we are. They are wired differently than we are. We are getting increasingly smarter about the way kids act."

But the popularity of the Madden game, named after Hall of Fame coach and NBC Sports analyst John Madden, has done more than broaden the game's reach to younger people. It has achieved something that for years was considered impossible. Because it has managed to replicate the actual offenses and defenses used in the NFL today, it has in essence demystified the game.

"There's no question it's the video game that's bringing in teenagers," said Marc Ganis, the president of Sportscorp Ltd., a sports consulting firm based in Chicago. "It's educating young fans on the NFL terminologies and making them more sophisticated about the plays on the field.

"But it's also bringing more fans into this very arcane, jargon-driven environment. If you watch the game on TV nowadays, the announcers -- especially the color men -- are using these very technical football terms. They expect the fans to understand it."

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