Peering down from the Good Morning America studios out into the middle of Times Square, we were struck by simply how huge the entire Madden cover reveal event has become. There were 20 million votes cast during the multi-week run from a 64-man field to 2, and ESPN’s SportsNation TV show was a couple of hours from announcing live – with both participants in tow – who America had chosen to be the face of Madden NFL 13. As we watched a parade of NFL superstars past and present filter through the studios, dozens of workers and producers scrambled to finalize the stage and the equipment in time for the 5 PM broadcast.
The two superstar finalists could not have been more different; Carolina’s Cam Newton is a brash personality who produced his own YouTube video extolling his fans to vote for him. Detroit’s Calvin Johnson – aka Megatron – is a huge man with a humble spirit and an easy smile. The votes came down to the wire – Johnson evidently made a late surge at the end – and there was a raucous celebration when the big board sitting above the intersection of 42nd Street and Broadway revealed that Johnson had indeed emerged as the winner. Chants of “MEG-A-TRON!” filled the air when Johnson lifted a huge mock-up photo of the cover over his head.
“It was tough going up against Cam,” Johnson told us when we sat down with him the following morning. “He’s been ballin’, let’s put it like that. I had some stiff competition there. I give a lot of credit to my team up in Detroit; they really pushed it up there and got the votes in.”
To a person, the people at EA Sports said they would have been delighted with either Newton or Johnson as their game’s representative. After all, Newton had arguably the best rookie QB season in history and is as close to a pure video-game creation in the real league as anyone. Johnson’s mixture of skill, speed, and size have placed him at the top of the receiver corps in the NFL, and he’s a huge key to the turnaround of the traditionally moribund Lions franchise.
There was no rest in store for Megatron after the reveal, though; as soon as the crew disassembled the SportsNation stage, EA’s team created an impromptu photo studio on the platform. All the while, Anthony Stevenson (the Director of Marketing for the Madden franchise) was holding a trivia contest for the gathered fans and giving away signed jerseys and footballs. The photo team put Johnson through an incredible amount of work to capture an image that will ultimately wind up as the true cover photo. He was jumping, catching, sprinting, and diving all over the place – and working up a significant sweat.
“It’s a good thing I was in shape,” laughed Johnson when we asked him about the ferocious process. “It was all a surprise. Good thing I’ve been working out for a little while.”
Johnson is no stranger to Madden, either. The game is a mainstay in the Lions’ facility, particularly during training camp.
“I’ve got rivals all over the team,” he told us. “Everybody wants to get at me.”
His biggest rival, though?
“My boy Gosder Cherilus,” he replied, referring to the Lions’ hulking 6’7” tackle. “He’s a Madden rival, and we play a lot of FIFA too. I play with Man City. But when Madden comes out, that’s all we’re doing.”
From its accidental beginnings to becoming a massive community-fueled event, the Madden cover process has forever changed the way sports video games will be marketed to its fans. It’s no accident that several franchises have followed suit – EA’s NHL is in the midst of a similar campaign right now – and, based on our conversations with the winner, it’s clear that it means more now to the athletes than ever before.