Time was, EA Sports' Madden franchise released on the weekend, not a Tuesday. "Madden Football Friday" predated the "Madden Holiday" of the past dozen or so years, and it returned again this week. But is it back for good?
No, said Nathan Stewart, the EA Sports Director of Marketing. What took place this year was an unusual confluence of circumstances that Electronic Arts can't really count on in years to come, Stewart said. In March and April, as EA was deciding on its cover athletes - Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu and Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald, sharing a Madden cover for the first time - the NFL was also hammering out its schedule. Both sides have a close marketing relationship, and when the NFL pointed out it had scheduled EA's cover athletes to play each other in a pre-season game the second week of August, traditionally the time Madden releases, EA Sports jumped to ressurect Madden Football Friday.
"When I first changed the date, this year, for Madden's release, a V.P. who's been here about 12 or 13 years said, ‘Oh, we're going old school, like Madden Football Friday again,'" said Stewart, whose career at EA Sports was preceded by six years with Microsoft's Xbox division, and so he was initially unaware of the Madden release history.
Console Madden, from its Genesis and Super Nintendo days up through the PlayStation, went out on a Friday - before the entertainment industry, through a decision sort of made by acclamation, proclaimed Tuesday the day of the week for video game and DVD releases. EA followed the shift with its major titles, Madden included, so the game's release day then became known as the "Madden Holiday."
In the gaming community, a number of titles each year will be worth skipping work or ditching school to buy and play. But none provides an annual incentive - covered and celebrated in the mainstream media - like Madden. The fact that for the past decade this "holiday" fell on a Tuesday - where it can't be made into a three-day weekend, makes its cultural effect all the more remarkable. Truly, if there was ever a national permission slip to play hooky, eat junk food, and play a video game all day, EA Sports and Madden wrote it first.
"We coined the phrase a few years ago, ‘Madden Holiday,' and we even got it declared an official holiday in Pennsylvania one year," Stewart recalled. "It's been widely recognized that the day Madden comes out is the day you call in sick and taunt your friends because you're home playing Madden."
Yet just because this year it was moved to a Thursday night/Friday - days more ideal for taking time off - don't expect to see that going forward. Madden Football Friday in 2009 was more the luck of the draw than marketer engineering, Stewart said.
"A lot of the things about this year are a one-off," he said. "But we're not necessarily going out to create a new tradition. If [this year's launch] is successful, I think [a Friday release] will be in the consideration set, but by no means have we locked it in for a trend moving forward."
EA pounced on the coincidence with an advertising blitz throughout the Steelers-Cardinals game, plus sponsoring a "Pigskin Pro-Am" flag football contest among NFL greats that ESPN2 broadcast from 11 pm EDT - right after the end of the game - up to midnight. Even though a down of pro football won't be snapped for another month, EA Sports wanted the day to feel special.
But much of the festivity of the Madden Holiday, or Madden Football Friday, is felt and generated at the local level. Thousands of retail partners, GameStop and Walmart most notably, stayed open late to sell the game at 12:01 a.m., and gave gamers reason to show up and wait for it, with free food, tournaments, and sales promotions
The Game Crazy in Springfield, Ore., where I live, put up a tent in its parking lot and ran a PS3 Madden tournament on two screens. Gamers decked out in their favorite players' NFL jerseys played one another, noshed on tailgate food, and socialized, happy to be a part of another gaming Midnight Mass right up to 12:01, when Madden 10 would be street legal.
"I like getting it right when everyone else gets it," said Grant Willis, 20, of Springfield, Ore. Willis works for a bank and was going to use his flex scheduling to come in late Friday, so he could attend the midnight launch.
As for Friday releases, as opposed to Tuesdays, "I like the feeling," Willis said, "Thursday nights are just fine."
Harley Smith, also 20 and from Springfield, said a Madden Football Friday made the release "a little more significant, because we have more free time on the weekends."
Was he going to buy Madden NFL 10 once the ball dropped at midnight?
"Nah, I didn't get paid tonight," Smith said. "I play it just for the online, mostly, and I haven't hooked up Xbox Live since I moved back in with my family,"
He said he'd pick up Madden later.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 10 a.m. U.S. Mountain time.