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Madden video game frenzy begins

Say Madden this time of year and most everyone knows the reference is not about the Hall of Fame coach and sportscaster himself. It's about his video game.

In an industry seemingly fixated on aliens, dragons and crime sagas, John Madden's football series rushes its way annually to the top of the sales charts, selling some 60 million copies in the past 17 years.

[internal-link-placeholder-0]**Photos: Madden release party**
Get a glimpse of the new game, and check out snapshots from the Madden 08 release party in New York City.

The newest version, "Madden NFL 08," debuts today for 10 different gaming systems with the sort of spectacle usually reserved for blockbuster movie premiers and "Harry Potter" books.

The hype for this year included" Maddenoliday" festivities in New York's Times Square on Monday evening, where former players such as Eric Dickerson, Warren Moon and Marshall Faulk met with fans. Former New York Giants running back Tiki Barber handed off the first copies of the game to rabid fans Monday night at midnight at Toys "R" Us.

For hardcore devotees like Steve Williams, a 35-year-old from the Houston suburb of Sugar Land, "Madden" is more than a game -- it's a way of life. "You're playing as opposed to just watching; it's like chess," said Williams, who goes by the handle "Coach" when he plays the game with others. "You are the coach, the general manager, you're everything that you've always wanted to be."

Williams is such a big fan he runs his own Web site, where he posts a podcast with insider Madden game tips. And recently he was among a handful of professional Maddenheads to participate in the taping of season three of ESPN's "Madden Nation" reality TV show, which airs in October.

The game has spawned a competitive tour, as well. Called Madden Challenge, the world's best ballers vie for cash prizes and a trip to Hawaii.

"Madden" has been a guaranteed profit maker for publisher Electronic Arts Inc. EA sold 7.4 million copies in North America last year, including 2 million in the first week, making it the top-selling title in 2006, according to market research firm NPD Group. Each copy retails for $30 to $60, depending on the game system.

There are other football games on the market but EA hasn't had much competition in terms of realism on the virtual gridiron because of deals it struck in 2005. That's when EA reached an exclusive agreement with the NFL and Players Inc. prevents other publishers from making games that include actual NFL teams and players. Only "Madden" can use current NFL rosters.

From its first release 18 years ago, "Madden" has transformed into something that closely mirrors America's obsession with real football, said Bryan Intihar, 30, news editor of the video-game magazine Electronic Gaming Monthly.

"They call baseball America's pastime but in the realm of video games it's football," he said. "It's become like a Mario. Madden is in many ways a video-game icon."

Intihar said he has already played the newest version and likes many added features, such as a bigger front-office mode, a superstar mode, and better performance, particularly on the Xbox 360 version.

Special icons now identify the strengths of franchise players like Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and running back LaDainian Tomlinson of the San Diego Chargers. Another new feature, called "Family Play," is designed to make the game easier for Madden newbies on Nintendo Co.'s Wii console by simplifying the controls.

Actual NFL players play as much as anyone, including Tennessee Titans quarterback and current "Madden" cover star Vince Young. "We're beautiful," he said of his team's digital likeness in the game.

Young added that he's "not even a little bit" worried about the so-called "Madden Curse." Earlier "Madden" cover athletes such as Marshall Faulk and Donovan McNabb ended up with injuries later in the season, leading some to conjure up a connection.

"You know you have to go out and play so nobody tries to worry about a Madden jinx," explained Titans receiver Brandon Jones, who often plays the game as other NFL players he's friends with on other teams.

Key Features of Madden NFL 08

All-New Read and React System: New player skill icons identify on-field strengths and weaknesses, providing an immediate read on what your opponent is giving you. Quickly react, create mismatches, and exploit opponent weaknesses before every play.

All-New Skill Drills: Take on an army of tackling dummies in an all-new skill drills mini-game designed to teach you the game of football. A progressive learning system teaches you how to use game controls under pressure, while advanced and multiplayer modes allow you to fine-tune your skills or challenge a friend to a head-to-head competition.

New Fantasy Challenge Mode: Leverage your fantasy football knowledge by drafting the ultimate NFL dream team. Play through four competition levels with your fantasy squad in hope of winning challenges, increasing your salary cap, and adding new superstars to your team.

Madden Unmatched: All-new player moves, including auto-motion and low-hitting tackles, plus ultra-smooth gameplay provide the most realistic NFL gaming experience ever.

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