Sports’ new arbiter of cool.

After an unnecessarily long wait, this month Madden finally made it to Canton. Not John Madden: The coach with the highest winning percentage in NFL history and the broadcaster who’s been the top analyst on three networks still hasn’t been enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The other Madden. The one that, like Elvis or Madonna, needs only one name to be introduced: the pro football video game, the 14th iteration of which, Madden NFL 2004 (“Madden 2004” to most), went on sale this week. With 30 million copies sold over the course of the franchise’s history, including more than 5 million of last year’s version (Madden 2003), the Hall decided that America’s best-selling sports game merited its own 300-square-foot display. Oh, and the museum’s multiyear marketing arrangement with EA Sports, the game’s publisher, might have had something to do with it.

Why would Canton need to market itself through a video-game publisher, much less pay tribute to one of its titles? Because Madden is the new Nike, sports’ official arbiter of cool. To a new generation of football players, landing on the cover of the latest version of the game is a career-defining experience, the way an enormous shoe contract, or the Wheaties box, or the cover of Sports Illustrated once determined which sports stars had hit the big time. “I mean this is a dream come true, for me to be on the cover of Madden NFL and be part of the game,” this year’s cover boy, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, gushed to the Sporting News. “It’s something you think about as a kid, but you don’t think it will ever happen.” (Vick is 23, which means he was 9 when the original John Madden Football was released for the Apple II.) Minnesota Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper, the 26-year-old who graced the cover of Madden 2002, * listed the experience among his top five athletic accomplishments.

For the lowliest players, simply appearing in the game (as all players on NFL rosters do) serves as a permanent validation of professional success, a digital upgrade to having your own trading card. Even if they cut you next year, they can never take away your appearance in Madden. On draft day, the college players expected to make the biggest splash on Sundays get separated from the chaff by their appearances in Madden TV ads. For fans, Madden ads are the replacement for Air Jordan and Bo Knows as the most spine-tingling commercial celebrations of sport. They feature real NFL players interspersed with computer-animated highlight clips, punctuated by Just Do It 2.0: “EA Sports: It’s in the game.”

Unlike PC gaming, which is still thought of as the province of solitary geeks, console gaming—meaning systems such as PlayStation 2, Xbox, and GameCube—has become a staple of dorm rooms and locker rooms alike. Last year, only 5 percent of PC game sales were for sports titles, but nearly 20 percent of console games sold were non-racing sports games. That’s $1 billion in sales, of which football games reaped the biggest share, as much as 40 percent. And Madden takes in anywhere from 65 percent to 85 percent of the football game market, depending on whom you ask. In the last two years, only the Grand Theft Auto games sold more copies than Madden. It’s not exactly a new trend, either: In 1996, Madden was the best-selling game for the original PlayStation. Over its lifetime, the Madden games have grossed more than $1 billion in revenues. Last year, the NFL made more money from licensing Madden to EA Sports than from any other licensed product, except for apparel.

That money doesn’t only come from fans. Jacksonville Jaguars running back Fred Taylor admitted that he plays up to six hours a day of Madden during the season. “In the offseason, I’ll play from 2 in the afternoon to 11 or 12 at night—every night,” he told the team’s hometown paper, the FloridaTimes-Union. When the Jags headed to Nashville last year to play the Tennessee Titans, Taylor went directly from the team bus to Titans cornerback Samari Rolle’s house, where the two men played Madden until Taylor was required to return to his hotel.

Nor are Taylor and Rolle some sort of isolated freaks. The Times-Union called Madden video games “the most unifying forces” in the NFL. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia has said that gaming “is the passion of about 90 percent of players.” The Sporting News reported that Vick, the league’s most electrifying player, nonetheless finds that his “ultimate rush comes from beating the snot out of a Madden NFL opponent.” NFL players compete in a league-wide Madden tournament that culminates in the “Madden Bowl,” an eight-man face-off held during the week preceding the Super Bowl. Superstars ranging from Tony Gonzalez to Shannon Sharpe to Terrell Owens have participated. When Jacquez Green arrived as a rookie with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the sign of his brashness was his declaration that he was going to win the team’s Madden tournament.

The game’s popularity among athletes extends beyond football players. Orlando Magic superstar Tracy McGrady is reputed to be a Madden mastermind. Sacramento Kings point guard Mike Bibby told Wired in January that he plays a Madden season every year and bragged that he won 35 of 38 games, including one 98-7 victory. Among athletes, Madden’s popularity exceeds that of all other sports games, NBA player Darrell Armstrong told Florida Today. “I don’t think too many basketball players like playing basketball games,” he said.

In hindsight, sports and video games seem destined for a peanut-butter-and-chocolate-style fusion. Both are thought of mostly as the domains of adolescent males, but over time they’ve become more and more a part of mainstream culture. Both are associated with male camaraderie and competition. (You can even throw in a third element of youthful manhood: One year in the 1990s, 5,000 soldiers in Bosnia signed up for a Madden tourney.) And both often play the role that one EA vice president conceded to Brandweek: “We’re sort of a direct competitor to girlfriends.” The fusion of sports and video games has become a critical element of male friendship, like Strat-O-Matic was for sports geeks of a different age. The development couldn’t have received more mainstream sanction than “Sports Guy” Bill Simmons’ hilarious but touching tribute last year to the role that electronic football has played in his relationship with a friend, Gus.

In that sense, the triumph of Madden is of a piece with the triumph of gaming in youth culture and the triumph of football as the new national pastime. (In fact, the only sports game to outsell Madden internationally features the other football: FIFA Soccer, which is published in 15 languages.) But why Madden and not some other football game? Some of the game’s success is due to the strength of the product: It’s an action game, a role-playing game, and a serious simulation, all in one. And for good measure, it’s been around long enough that it’s a classic, one that creates fuzzy feelings of nostalgia while you play it. Still, although this year’s version came out to rave reviews, that’s not always the case. Sometimes one of Madden’s many competitors turns out to be the critics’ darling.

But even when the game is weak, it can rely on the strength of John Madden. Not Madden the announcer—Madden the brand. Though his announcing style doesn’t seem as fresh as it did 20 years ago, John Madden is still the world’s pre-eminent football expert and evangelist. The Madden brand is so powerful that EA has virtually dropped “NFL” from the game’s packaging, except in the form of a tiny logo. “Madden” and “2004” are the dominant elements on the cover, in addition to Vick’s photo. As an announcer, John Madden is of no real value to the game, except as kitsch, but John Madden the football popularizer and one-man quality-control team is the perfect incarnation of his video namesake. The combination of entertainment and expertise that he brings to the booth has been superbly translated in the Madden video game, which relies on a combination of fantasy and realism for its appeal.

The game is an extension of what John Madden sells: the fun of football mixed with an understanding of the import of it. Even his “womanless nomadic existence” on the Maddencruiser bus, described last year in an article for the New York Times Magazine, is re-created in the throngs of men who gather in rooms, alone and in groups, to play a game for hours on end. But most of all, Madden the announcer and Madden the game rely on the same thing for their success: Everyone, even NFL football players, wants to be Michael Vick.

Correction, Aug. 15, 2003: This article originally stated that Daunte Culpepper appeared on the cover of last year’s Madden game. Marshall Faulk appeared on the cover of Madden 2003. Culpepper was on the cover of Madden 2002. (Return to the corrected sentence.)