All Your History: EA Sports Part 1 – Play Ball
When you hear the name Madden, chances are one of two images pop into people’s minds: a few see John Madden, former coach of the Oakland Raiders and legendary football broadcaster. But for everyone else, they instantly think of EA Sports’ hit video game franchise, Madden NFL, a genre-defining juggernaut. For years, EA Sports has dominated the video game industry, giving its competition the stiff-arm by not only producing high quality titles, but also by locking up exclusive contracts to keep its rivals from even making it onto the field. But just how did EA Sports make it to number one?
In the early 1980s, Trip Hawkins left his position as Director of Strategy and Marketing at Apple to find success with his new computer game company, Electronic Arts. With a staff made up of other former Apple veterans, as well as recruits from Atari, Xerox, and more, Electronic Arts’ business philosophy put special emphasis on the designers of its products: the electronic artists themselves. Consumers responded by handing the company dollars by the fistful for each new game it released.
In 1983, programmer Eric Hammond worked with Hawkins and EA to release the company’s first sports game, Julius Erving & Larry Bird: One on One. Released for the Apple II and later ported to the Commodore 64 and other platforms, One on One broke ground as the first video game to be endorsed by sports celebrities and to feature their licensed likenesses. For such a simple-looking game, One on One offered a surprising amount of detail. Gamers had a full range of offensive and defensive moves at their disposal, including dunks, spins, steals, and blocks. The players’ “fatigue bar” needed replenishing as each match went on; if Dr. J or Bird didn’t call the occasional time-out or stop to dribble for a moment, their on-screen avatars would start to move sluggishly and miss shots and blocks. The characters could even shatter the backboard if they dunked too many times. To the delight of players, broken backboards prompted an angry janitor onto the court to mutter curses while he cleaned up the mess.
One on One was a success, earning great reviews and sales—just as the video game industry imploded in 1983. Electronic Arts’ first step into the world of sports was an early sign of the great things still yet to come, giving the company’s employees hope in an industry that had suddenly started to dissolve. EA needed to keep making hits to ensure its continued existence. Fortunately, they were up to the task.
Two programmers at EA, Evan and Nicky Robinson, created EA’s next sports title, World Tour Golf, which came out in 1986 for the Commodore 64, Amiga, Apple II, and MS-DOS computers. It offered players the most accurate recreations of real-world golf courses that the era’s hardware could manage. World Tour Golf also featured the first in-game course editor, giving gamers the chance to make their games as realistic or insane as they wanted. Electronic Arts once again earned glowing reviews and great sales for their efforts, and the company wanted to keep the hits coming. For that, they’d turn to a pioneer of sports video games.
Don Daglow, the producer at EA who helped guide World Tour Golf’s production, is a self-confessed baseball nut. While a student at Pomona College in Claremont, California in 1971, he created the very first baseball simulator for the PDP-10 mainframe computer. The game wasn’t much to look at, though. Said Daglow in an interview with Machinima:
“Calling it a video game would be a stretch because of course back then all we had was text, and it was printing on flimsy paper that was only about two grades better than toilet paper that went through these really slow, ancient printers.”
Despite those shortcomings, however, Daglow’s creation is a legend by virtue of its place in history. The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, has it on record as the first-ever baseball computer game.
After he graduated, Daglow started working in the game industry, teaming up with fellow Pomona alum, programmer Eddie Dombrower, to create Intellivision World Series Baseball for Mattel in 1983. The game improved on Daglow’s earlier game with colorful graphics and multiple camera angles. However, Mattel didn’t want to spend the money on acquiring the MLB license, says Daglow, resulting in players being named after other game programmers.
Worse, the stats simulator the duo had wanted to include was scrapped, too. *
But shortly after Mattel’s game was published, Daglow was hired by EA as a producer in 1983. And while World Tour Golf was in the works, Daglow once again teamed with Dombrower to create a brand new title: Earl Weaver Baseball.
Based on his winning reputation and his penchant for making trouble, Earl Weaver might as well have stepped out of a video game himself. In addition to leading the Baltimore Orioles to six division titles, four American League pennants, and a World Series championship, Weaver was famous for getting booted from games after getting into blowout arguments with umpires. Though Earl Weaver isn’t a household name among non-baseball fans, Daglow says the staff at EA was unanimous in choosing the Orioles’ skipper to headline the game:
“Weaver was our first choice, because as of ‘83, he had written the book on strategy…he was the first one to start using head-to-head stats in baseball in the dugout…he was a colorful figure, he was known for using statistics, and he was a guy who seemed destined for the Hall of Fame, so we were dealing with somebody who was very strong. So for all those reasons, he seemed like he would be a good choice.”
Daglow and Dombrower met with Weaver a few times to refine their game’s AI, quizzing the coach on his strategies. But while they programmed the best artificial Earl Weaver they could, sometimes the real Weaver would throw them a curveball.
“If Earl did something in real life different from what the AI was going to do, we made a note about it and asked Earl… Very often it would come out Earl had changed something because he was making sure he was not predictable… So a lot of what we caught were some of those surprises Earl was trying to do, but some of them were things we just got wrong.”
Working with the coach paid off: Earl Weaver Baseball, released for the Amiga, Apple II, and MS-DOS computers, was another homerun for Electronic Arts. Players had gotten the baseball game they never realized was possible. Real-life stadiums were digitally recreated, angry managers kicked dirt onto umpires’ feet, and the Amiga version even featured an announcer that read out the names of each batter as he stepped up to the plate.
Players could control the game as managers directing their teams, or could take control of the pitchers and batters directly. And like World Tour Golf before it, players had the ability to edit stadiums, teams, and even players, offering the kinds of options and control that had never been seen before. Critics and consumers loved it, with reviewers naming it the best baseball video game yet. Nearly a decade later, Earl Weaver Baseball even earned a spot in a 1996 issue of Computer Gaming World as one of the “Best 25 PC Games of All Time.” EA’s sports offerings had managed a hat trick with three solid, innovative titles in a row.
“I think if you look at the best games in any category in the history of the industry…if you looked inside the teams, so often you will find that passion for the material and just a love…people came to work every day loving what they were doing. I know Eddie had that. I know I had that, I know I felt that way about working with Eddie Dombrower. And I think that is something that’s true of many of those titles over the years. Once you scratch the surface, underneath you’ll see that passion.”
Daglow and Dombrower had worked out the kinks of making a baseball video game on the Intellivision. By the time they’d gotten together with Coach Weaver, the two made it look easy.
Meanwhile, EA founder Trip Hawkins and producer * Joe Ybarra
, his second-in-command, were tearing their hair out for over three years trying to get their new game, John Madden Football, into the end-zone…without fumbling along the way…
Tune in next time to hit the gridiron…
*In this episode of All Your History, we stated that Joe Ybarra was Trip Hawkins second-in-command at Electronic Arts. While Ybarra was a producer on John Madden Football, further research revealed that he was not Hawkins’ lieutenant. Additionally, the show stated that World Series Baseball on the Intellivision did not feature Don Daglow and Eddie Drombrower’s in-game statistics simulator, when it in fact did. We deeply apologize for these mistakes.