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HIT STICK, TRUCK STICK
The most effective instrument of mayhem in football is not the helmet, not the shoulder pad, not the forearm. It is the handheld controller that connects EA Sports's Madden NFL video game to its various platforms--PlayStation, Xbox and Wii. Since its debut in 1989, Madden has sold more than 60 million copies, generating sales volume in excess of $2 billion. In 2006 Madden NFL 07 was the top-selling video game in North America, selling more than six million units. The name Madden is arguably more closely associated with the video game than with John Madden's work as a television analyst or his Hall of Fame coaching career.
From its primitive beginning Madden has evolved to the point at which an NFL video game being played on a plasma screen is at a glance barely distinguishable from an actual NFL game being broadcast on the same screen. Yet in practice the game is fantasy, its action exaggerated most of all in the intensity of its hits.
"The interesting thing about big hits in our game is that it parallels the real NFL game," says David Ortiz, 33, EA's lead producer for the Madden franchise. "You don't necessarily show up at an NFL game looking for a big hit, but when you see one, it takes your experience to a new level. We've tried to make an NFL simulation, but we also want you to have fun."
In 2004, with the launch of Madden NFL 05, EA added a feature called the Hit Stick for defensive players, which allows gamers to attempt spectacular, crushing hits by using a particular movement on the controller. The following year the Truck Stick, for offensive players, was added. The templates for the most spectacular blows are formed in a two-tiered process: first, with motion-capture football played by athletes on artificial turf in a warehouse in Vancouver; and second, by melding the real-life hits with software called endorphin to enhance and synthesize the hits. The latter process takes place in EA's Orlando office, where Ortiz supervises a staff of about 140 on Madden. "The system takes hits to a new level," says Ortiz. "On the turf, with motion capture, you can only go so far with real players before you put people in jeopardy. But the software allows us to create even more exaggerated hits. This year we have some ridiculous hits, like helicopter spins."
The NFL is a business partner with EA on the Madden franchise and retains creative control over the final product. According to an EA source, the NFL is wary of Madden's accentuating violence but in the end has signed off on all editions of the game in circulation. "If it looks silly," says Ortiz, "we don't use it."
For those hits, EA sells NFL Street, a wild hybrid of Madden set in a stylized urban street. It bears little resemblance to pro football, and the big hits are off the charts. While it is no Madden, NFL Street has sold a healthy three million units in three years of production.
Big Hit 7
There are times when neither player feels like a winner after a collision. The San Francisco 49ers were driving at the Saints' 14-yard line, when tailback Frank Gore ran a swing route to the right side. Saints corner Jason Craft, who lined up close to the line of scrimmage, immediately read the play and ran at Gore. "My first thought was, I'm going to go ahead and pick it off," says Craft. "That's a risk, and you've got to be sure. I decided to go ahead and just make the hit."
Quarterback Alex Smith's pass was deflected by defensive end Charles Grant. Gore, reacting to the tip, reached back and opened his torso to Craft, who drilled Gore in the chest with his left shoulder. Gore's head snapped against Craft's left biceps, and then he flipped over the side of Craft's body. "He got me in the air," says Gore. "I'm not going to lie to you, man--it hurt. I did a little flip, and it knocked the wind out of me."