How Video Games Are Helping NFL Stars Train

New Orleans Saints Drew Brees uses the Madden NFL video game to train for real-life football. Credit: Brian D. Kersey / Getty Images

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona – Something’s happened behind-the-scenes over the past 27 years with the sport of football. Generations of Pop Warner, high school and college kids grew up with video game controllers in their hands playing Madden. And as the game consoles have improved, developer EA Sports has been able to implement real offensive and defensive schemes, NFL team playbooks and even tutorials from coaching legends that offer an encyclopedia of interactive knowledge for those who want to bolster their football acumen.

Electronic Arts, has seen its Madden video game franchise rake in over $4 billion and become ingrained within the sport of football — including a Madden Bowl tournament that attracts celebrities and NFL elite during Super Bowl week every year. This is changing the real game, too, as players weaned on video game football head onto the field with virtual Xs and Os in their minds.

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Jarvis Jones actually used Madden to get a better understanding of his own playbooks when transitioning from college to the NFL. "A lot of the playbooks I did understand from what we learned in college," Jones said at Madden Bowl XXI outside the Super Bowl stadium in Scottsdale, Arizona. "Madden helps you out a whole lot when you’re trying to learn different things. Using these playbooks teaches you a lot about what the teams runs. If you actually know what’s going on, it’s very helpful."

Even veterans like San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates has watched as the newest Madden games have been utilized by rookies and the younger generation of NFL stars. "The biggest shocker for me is that when you open up the playbooks in Madden, it’s exactly what teams do," says Gates. "I’m pretty sure they modify some things because of the security of offensive coordinators and just keeping everything we actually do private, but when I watch the Patriots playbook, when I watch the Packers and the Texans playbooks, that’s exactly what they do. It’s exactly what Philadelphia does on defense. It’s exactly what Seattle does on defense. Everything is schemed around certain players. You can definitely learn from it."

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who took home the Pepsi Rookie of the Year award in Phoenix, has been incorporating video games into his on-field preparation since college. He uses Madden to get virtual reps when he’s away from the training facility. He’s also one of many avid gamers that has seen the influence of a video game generation when it comes to making tough decisions on the field.


"Madden impacts players when it comes to being 4th and 1 in real life because it’s so easy to do that in a video game," Bridgewater said. "[In the NFL], a team knows that you only have inches to go and they know how to line up their defense against you. The video games urge you to go for it every time, but it’s very hard in real life. The coverages and everything are somewhat similar, but the talent level is way more difficult."

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees has a Super Bowl trophy at home in Louisiana, but he also has memories of winning the Tecmo Bowl with Bo Jackson, who’s now in Madden NFL 15 for the first time. "I remember the Tecmo Bowl days when you would just be Bo Jackson and nobody could ever tackle you, ever," Brees said. "It was the greatest thing ever, but that obviously wasn’t realistic. Now (with Madden) they do facial scans, so you’re actually getting your facial features in the game. And they are grading and measuring guys’ strengths based upon statistical analysis and their observations. It makes the game as accurate as it can possibly be and as realistic as it can possibly be."

All those real-time statistics, which are updated regularly throughout the season, adds more fuel to those who want to teach future generations of football players about the sport. Back when Emmitt Smith was helping the Dallas Cowboys dynasty win three Super Bowls, football games weren’t advanced enough to help players. But today he sees their value as an instructional tool. The Hall of Famer actually uses Madden to help his son get better at real football. He uses the game to offer a visual real-time instruction on football fundamentals so he can see things in action.

"I taught my son that you have to understand if you’re playing quarterback and you see this type of offense, and it’s a reduction and you’re on the tight end side and they have twins on the opposite side, your job is to play contained," Smith said. "If you’re going to play contained you need to be off the ball a little bit."

With fathers, and some coaches, across the country tapping into kids’ love of video games to benefit their on-the-field skills, there’s a generation of players who have spent hundreds if not thousands of hours on virtual NFL fields before ever being drafted.

Although he’s not in the Super Bowl, New Orleans Saints wide receiver Kenny Stills did have a trophy in Phoenix, courtesy of the fan-voted 2014 Vizio Top Value Performer award. Stills has two 80-inch Vizio 4K TVs in his home, which he uses to play PlayStation 4 games like FIFA 15 and Madden NFL 15 with teammates and friends. 

"Madden influences things a little bit in the NFL," Stills said. "There’ s few things that you can take from the video games and visualize and see it there and you take it onto the field, but at the same time it’s still a game."

Sometimes, the benefits of video games are simply to relax. When San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis isn’t working out and keeping his body in condition for the grind of the NFL season, he’s likely hitting the sticks on his console.

"A lot of us love to play Madden because we’re always active every day and we like to come home and relax," Willis said. "I love playing Madden online with some of my teammates, but I like to play different people so sometimes I still like to play one-on-one online with gamers."

With the season officially over, NFL pros can stay connected, and stay focused on football through Madden during the off season. Whether or not this results in victories next year remains to be seen, but with so many pros playing the video game, Madden has become more than just a pop culture phenomenon.