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Madden is the one game that lives forever

EA Sports

In big yellow letters, the message popped on the screen. It was jarring. Deflating. One player -- mentioned only by number -- was injured by another number meaning to simulate a player. And the ambulance came speeding onto the field, running over anything in its path.

The year was 1992. John Madden Football was a world from where it is now. It was more cartoonish than simulated, the limits of not-so-modern technology guaranteeing that. It was a glitch -- at least we think it was -- but in the bedroom, Sega Genesis controllers in our hands, we would laugh and laugh. My grandparents were a room over wondering what the heck was going on. My cousin, down from suburban Boston, was visiting my grandparents and me in Queens. And he and I, decades after our dads shared the same room, spent time together bonding over Madden in ways our fathers never could.

We played on the same team then, a teenager and a preteen trying to beat the computer through the playoffs to win the Super Bowl. In the three to five times a year we'd see each other, we'd spend hours playing basketball or video games -- and other than brief dalliances with Microsoft Flight Simulator and "TV Sports Basketball," the video game was always the same: Madden. It carried us through our childhoods. A combination of Madden and NCAA brought us through college together at Syracuse and then when we could finally play online in early adulthood.

For a generation of video game players -- specifically sports video game players -- Madden was a rite of fall. Before you could play online with people you didn't know and mix players from various eras on certain teams, playing Madden was congregating in basements of the house of the kid with the biggest television or a dorm room on a weekday night.

It led to bar bets and endless trash talk, to bonding between friends that still exists decades later. Most gamers have their Madden stories of bad beats and championships won, of discovering plays that worked over and over again and the glitches that caused so many problems. My favorite was one game -- the teams long ago forgotten -- when, in the AFC championship game my cousin and I played, the computer decided to spot our opponent a 14-point lead.

We played and won anyway.

At Syracuse, 10 of us lived in a house together. It was a dingy place that had a slanted second-floor porch and a basement that could be compared unfavorably to a dungeon but also was where some of the most intense Madden games I've ever witnessed were played. Basically, a place like it still exists today on almost every college campus.

Eight of us were in a dynasty league together in Madden '01. The PlayStation2 memory card traveling from room to room and system to system was labeled "Madden" so it wouldn't get confused with another or mistakenly deleted, wrecking the work we put in. Rivalries became so heated some opponents had to have "closed games" when they played, which meant only the two participants and a neutral third party would be allowed in while the game was played.

And it got intense. At least once, the loser of a game wouldn't talk to the winner for a day. If it was a playoff game, it might be two. One of my fraternity brothers had a habit of throwing controllers. There were at least a couple of damaged ones lying around the house by the end of the year.

Even now, 15 years later, Madden gaming nights still occasionally happen in suburban Washington, D.C., when one of my fraternity brothers and I get together, with full drafting and simulating seasons while playing the two games we have against each other each year.

It's the nostalgia of it, taking us back to the days when video games were simpler and we were younger, even if we always use the updated version of it. The game has evolved -- I joined a Madden league this year with one of my ESPN colleagues, Daniel Dopp, and three of his friends I have met only through text message: speaking over the headset when we play each other and on draft day.

This happens with regularity now. Online players measure in the thousands on Xbox One and PlayStation 4. The Madden market has grown. There are national tournaments and cash prizes. There is an entire new generation of players who don't remember the days before online gaming, who don't remember the days of sitting next to your opponent on a beanbag chair, with a line waiting of players wanting "next."

Next is easy to get now. It's as easy as finding another opponent online. I still play online, but it's not the same. Maybe that's the nostalgia, with my cousin states away and now an NBA2K fanatic. We've all grown up with lives and work and, in many cases, families of our own.

But video games are part of the culture now. So on a cold winter day, when the kids are old enough, parents can play with their children and -- just like in basements and dorm rooms with friends long before -- a new generation can bond through Madden.

Because that's what more than a quarter-century of video gaming can do.

Listen to Madden's Game on the 30 for 30 podcast page.