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Writing last August about the release of Madden NFL 2006 in his column, "The Daily Quickie," former ESPN.com contributor Dan Shanoff made a stirring declaration: "Virtual is the new reality." A postmodern statement if ever there was one, Shanoff explained this remark by explaining that in today's football environment, the action in Madden's reality meant as much to some fans as the plays that transpired around the country between Sunday and Tuesday.
As tended to be his modus operandi, Shanoff was challenging "the purists who think the only thing that matters is the one on the TV screen on Sundays." Fandom, he quipped, was a full-time job, the burden of which fell to football-centric activities throughout the NFL's week-long droughts: Videogames and fantasy leagues carried fan interest from week to week, and in the case of games, over the seemingly interminable off season.
Videogames have altered the football landscape in ways that could not have been predicted when 10-Yard Fight hit arcades in 1983. Over the past five years, Electronic Arts, the NFL and ESPN have leveraged Madden, football's flagship game series, to solidify a sports entertainment empire that encompasses what is one of the premier examples of media convergence. And in so doing, they created a new breed of NFL fan, one that seeks to know and consume football entertainment beyond his own market; a fan that devours up-to-the-minute stats and injury reports, competes in six fantasy leagues and dies a little inside when his team loses the Super Bowl.
Shanoff is a writer who likes to paint with a broad brush and speak in absolutes. In this case, however, his seemingly pithy comment contained depth beyond what most game critics have collectively said about the best-selling series in gaming history - he just might not have realized it. Accepting his axiom as truth, the question we might ask is why? Was the stirring loyalty and emotion that fans felt for their videogame teams merely the result of a few overzealous gamers, or were their reactions, and indeed interactions, rooted in something much deeper?
Madden 07 as Convergence
In December 2004, EA signed what may go down as one of the most profitable development deals in history when it came to terms on a five-year contract with the NFL and NFL Players' Association (NFLPA). By signing this agreement, EA secured exclusive rights to include the NFL's teams, stadiums and players in its games. This strategic move meant that EA no longer needed to worry about competitors, and left them to focus on building out their NFL-related offerings. Likewise, the deal gave the NFL a measure of security, as they knew their brand would be attached to a popular, established franchise.
A month later, EA followed up the NFL deal with an even larger one: a 15-year exclusivity deal with the ESPN media brand. Since its first telecast on September 7, 1979, ESPN has permeated virtually every possible media platform from print to the web and most recently, mobile phones. Just as Madden NFL has come to be synonymous with football gaming, ESPN defines sports journalism and entertainment for an entire generation of fans.
By bringing together all three parties, Madden 07 provides a penetrating look at media convergence at work. In his recent book Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins, director of MIT's Program in Comparative Media Studies, defined media convergence as "the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries and the migratory behavior of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want."
Convergence can work in many directions and can be spurred by many different parties, but in the case of Madden, the NFL, ESPN and EA had constructed a holy grail, an irresistible package that would draw droves of football fans into the franchise. As Jenkins states, "convergence represents a cultural shift as consumers are encouraged to seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content." Madden provides the blueprint to that search.