By John Gaudiosi
FORTUNE -- There was a big game being played in New York, although it wasn't on Super Bowl Sunday. At Pier 86 on Jan. 30, Electronic Arts celebrated the 25th Anniversary of its $4 billion videogame franchise, Madden NFL 25, at Madden Bowl XX, the annual videogame tournament and Super Bowl party that attracts some of the biggest names in the NFL.
EA Sports (EA) invited seven NFL stars, including New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz, Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green, New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham and college standout Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to compete on Xbox One in a single elimination bracket tournament. By the end of the night, Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy was the last player standing.
Playing as the Seattle Seahawks, McCoy defeated Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (who chose the San Francisco 49ers) 24-22 in a game filled with drama that saw a pair of last-minute interceptions keep the crowd of 4,000 entertained. Newton said players take the Madden Bowl very seriously.
"It's a lot of bragging rights," said Newton. "You'd be shocked to see how many people really wear that honor with joy. To have the skills and the talent to play this game virtually is a talking point everywhere."
It's a testament to the popularity of the sport of football and the appeal of videogames that the players who make millions of dollars on the real gridiron devote time to the virtual incarnation.
"Winning the Madden Bowl actually was really cool, especially since we had to drive down and I think we scored with about 16 seconds left," said New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who won Madden Bowl XVIII and provided commentary onstage for Madden Bowl XX along with ESPN's Trey Wingo. "The RG3 team had all the young guys, and we were kind of the old guys taking them on, and we beat them right at the end."
In addition to the Madden Bowl, the football game is featured in an exhibit, "Madden: 25 Years and Running," at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. There are five playable versions of the game on display for visitors to compete on, as well as a chronicle of the evolution of the virtual sport from its Apple II debut to current day Xbox One (MSFT) and PlayStation 4 (SNE) next-generation technology.
St. Louis Rams Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk, who's been on the cover of Madden twice, says 25 years is a long time for a videogame to be around and still be relevant. Faulk hosted a panel featuring Newton, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, and some EA Sports developers at the Museum of Moving Images on Jan. 29, which explored the progression of the videogame franchise over the years.
"Look at how much game has grown since its humble beginnings," said Faulk, showing rudimentary sprite graphics. "I can't wait to see what they have in store for us in the future."
"Madden has been a pop culture phenomenon for quite some time," said Detroit Lions Hall of Fame running back and Madden NFL 25 cover athlete Barry Sanders. "After the first couple of years it became a must-have for many people, including hardcore fans and more moderate fans of the game. Actual NFL players truly love playing the game as well, including current and retired players."
Even players who are no longer into videogames can reminisce about playing Madden at some point in their life.
"My favorite memory is just playing games on Madden all the time when I was younger," said Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. "I don't play it anymore. It's ironic that now I'm in the game, I never play it ever. I think I get plenty of football nowadays. But just playing Madden with my high school buddies; I was so competitive. In fact, I used to throw controllers and get all upset if I ever lost or had a few interceptions. I think that helped me transition into being the competitor I am today."
According to videogame research firm Newzoo, EA sells approximately 5 million copies of the game each year. The franchise has sold over 100 million copies life to date, generating over $4 billion in revenue. Michael Pachter, videogame analyst at Wedbush Securities, said sales of Madden NFL 25 are within 10% of last year. More importantly, the game is attaching pretty well to next-generation consoles, and he expects the franchise to grow next year.
The game has also taken the mobile space by storm. The free-to-play Madden NFL 25 mobile edition has been downloaded more than 6.5 million times since August 2013.
"By selling in-game bundles within the mobile game, consumers have spent around $6 million dollars in the game to date," said Peter Warman, founder of Newzoo. "Over a full year, I expect that Madden mobile games will add between 10 and 15% to the total franchise revenues."
Things have certainly progressed since John Madden first sat down with EA founder Trip Hawkins to discuss bringing the sport of football to the videogame space, which at the time wasn't the $74 billion global pastime it is today. He's watched as his simulation game has progressed to the point where NFL rookies can actually benefit from the videogame.
"They have a lot better understanding of what the NFL is not only on the field, but off the field," said Madden. "They be a general manager and put teams together and see how the league works. They probably come in a lot more prepared with the knowledge of what pro football is, but that doesn't help them play. Ultimately, they have to go out to the field to do it."
Faulk said that in real life, players never get faster as they get older. But in the videogame, Hall of Famers are featured in the Madden Ultimate Team mode, which allows anyone to experience the greats in their prime, and even take on current-day superstars.
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