When Ty Lenhart first picked up an Xbox controller, no older than seven, he was more focused on mashing buttons than what was really happening on the screen.
Madden, EA Sports’ hallmark NFL video game, is the first game Lenhart remembers playing. He started by mastering the basic controls: “B” for a spin move, “Y” to jump, right trigger for “Turbo.” It was all instinctual, and winning came easy.
But as he learned more about football, and as each version of Madden became more realistic, Lenhart started to incorporate strategy into his gameplay. There were routes that always earned a first down. There were defensive zone schemes that seemed to cover the whole field. And as he became a quarterback at DeMatha High in Hyattsville, Md., his understanding of Madden — and, at the same time, football — became a lot more nuanced.
“I’ve had coaches say, ‘Go play Madden, go try things on there,’ ” Lenhart said. “When you run concepts with your team, and then in Madden you see the same concepts but you see different tweaks and stuff, I think it really helps you understand the point of the play and the goal of it.”
Football is changing, and some critics point to decreased physicality and less practice time as reasons for the game going soft. But a wave of technology, the annual release of Madden included, has improved the football intelligence among the sport’s young players. They come to high school with a better understanding of terminology, passing concepts and defensive schemes. They are visual learners who can really think the game.
Lenhart, a 17-year-old senior who plays quarterback for the Stags, is part of a generation of lifelong Madden players. The game was first released in 1988 when John Madden, the Hall of Fame coach, wanted a video game that could also serve as an educational tool. Almost three decades later, it is a high-level football simulation built with the input of NFL players and coaches and stocked with real-life playbooks.