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Cover Story: Franchise Player

UIC alumnus Mike Young
(Photo by Norma Lopez)

As creative director of the best-selling video game Madden NFL, Mike Young is part of something that’s highly anticipated, beloved by millions and devoted to the nation’s favorite sport. It’s no wonder he loves his work.

By Peter Kerasotis

It should have been a relaxing time, a good time. Mike Young ’99 BFA was with his father at the 2013 NFL season opener for their hometown St. Louis Rams. But Young was restless. His eyes scanned the field, the stands and the scoreboard, looking at areas and intricacies in ways only his eyes can absorb. There was the player sporting a new beard; a fresh banner honoring Rams’ NFL Hall of Fame defensive end Deacon Jones, who had died in the offseason; decals on Rams player helmets with Jones’ jersey number 75; and a new scoreboard animation.

As the game unfolded, Young’s thoughts focused on a different game. He grabbed his iPhone and started snapping pictures, his mind racing to capture details as he forwarded the photos to his coworkers, attaching notes.

A week later, sitting at EA Sports’ Orlando facility in jeans, a “Madden 25” shirt and electric blue Nike sneakers, Young leans his 6-foot-4 frame forward in his chair and states the obvious. “I never shut it off,” he says. “What I do is awesome. But it’s a curse, too.”

Not really, and he knows it.

Young, 38, is creative director for EA Sports’ most iconic and best-selling video game, Madden NFL, which is celebrating its 25-year silver anniversary as an integral part of American pop culture. Young manages a creative design team of 14 people, overseeing various facets in the game’s ongoing evolution. Nearly 100 million copies of Madden NFL have been sold since 1988, when it debuted on an Apple II.

For Young, however, it goes beyond managing a creative design team. He has sat in TV production trucks at NFL games; tagged along for the filming of NFL documentaries, including HBO’s Hard Knocks; and worked with a who’s-who lineup of legendary NFL players and coaches such as Barry Sanders, Kurt Warner, Drew Brees, Mike Tomlin, Bill Cower and, of course, John Madden.

“It can get surreal and nerve-wracking, too. Think about pitching the latest version of the game to the guy whose name is on the cover,” Young says, speaking of John Madden, former head coach of the Oakland Raiders, and color man on CBS’s NFL broadcasts, ABC’s Monday Night Football and NBC’s Sunday Night Football. The first time Young met Kurt Warner, his favorite Rams player from his youth, he “freaked out” inside. Meanwhile, Warner’s reaction to Young was similar to that of other NFL icons he’s met and worked with: in awe of the guy who oversees the creative direction of their favorite video game. As a result, they’re both eager and excited to work with Young. In fact, if you saw and heard Drew Brees’ impassioned “what it takes” speech at the start of Madden NFL 11, then you saw and heard Mike Young’s work. Young wrote the New Orleans Saints quarterback’s script and directed him through the scene before digitizing it for the video game. He’s done similar work with other players, such as Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back Troy Polamalu, Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald and former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis.

At a recent event in New York City, Barry Sanders, whom many regard as the NFL’s greatest running back and who graces the cover of Madden 25, turned to Young and said, “Thank you for keeping me relevant.” Hall of Famer Dallas Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin said the same thing, explaining how his “son’s friends now come up to me because they know me through your game.”

Avid gamer, sports enthusiast
Young can seemingly do it all when it comes to his creative talents with EA Sports, which is probably why it took him awhile to home in on a career path.

He first pursued higher education at the University of Missouri, changing majors and direction almost as often as his socks. He was in business school, then journalism school. He excelled in art classes, but wondered if he could make a living doing that. Nothing seemed to click. Young had a creative, visual mind and a passion for technology. He loved watching and playing sports, and grew up an avid gamer. When the first PlayStation debuted in the mid-90s, it prompted Young to consider a career in the gaming industry—particularly sports gaming. He scoured the Internet for a school with a curriculum that could take his sundry skillset and channel it in that direction.

He found it at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“UIC had a rare mix of technology and traditional art,” Young says. “It also had one of the only virtual reality cave systems in the country. UIC was ahead of the times. That’s where it all came together for me.”

At UIC, Young took classes in multimedia, programming, virtual reality and 3-D software, in addition to courses in photography, sculpture and art. He also fell in love with the city. “There were a lot of young people there with hard career paths—people with goals and ambitions, who knew where they were going and what they wanted to do,” Young says. “Chicago had such a cool energy.” He graduated with a degree in fine arts, focusing on electronic visualization.

But instead of finding a job waiting for him, Young was greeted by a Catch-22. Doors he knocked on demanded five years’ experience in the gaming industry before entering. But how could he gain experience unless someone gave him a chance? To pay the bills, he took a job at Walsh Construction down the street from UIC, serving as its IT guy by day. At night in his apartment, Young worked his craft, building his demo reel, which is his industry’s portfolio.

His breakthrough came on what he calls an “amazing flight” one night when he was traveling home to St. Louis. Young was reading a gaming design book when the man sitting next to him struck up a conversation that consumed the entire flight. Turns out the man knew people in the gaming industry, and he connected Young with a company outside of Chicago called NuFX.

“Sometimes you need a little bit of luck,” Young says. “But I also had that book. It sent a signal.”

Lucky or not, he still needed to pass a tryout period. NuFX gave him one week to build a digital car with less than 500 polygons, along with other specific—and formidable—tech instructions. “I didn’t have the software to do it,” Young recalls, “so I spent $1,500 on a credit card to get some.” Young got the job and then hunkered down in a drab, nondescript office with low ceilings and a cramped studio. A year-and-a-half later, he was part of the team that delivered the arcade game NBA Street, featuring the three-on-three basketball played on the country’s most famous street ball courts. In gaming circles, NBA Street is considered one of the top 10 video games ever produced. At the time, it caught the attention of NuFX’s business partner, EA Sports.

Married now, Young took his wife, Janet, on vacation to Vancouver, corporate home of EA Sports. What he was really doing, though, was paying his way to interview with EA Sports. Because of NBA Street’s business agreement with EA Sports, Young first had to quit his job with NuFX with the hope that in six months EA Sports would hire him. It was a risk, but he took it. “I knew I had to do it after I walked into [the EA Sports’] facility in Vancouver,” Young says. “It was the big leagues. It was like going to the New York Yankees.”

Creative distiller
Hired in 1999, Young eventually relocated to EA Sports’ facilities in Orlando, where Madden NFL, Tiger Woods PGA Tour, NCAA Football and NBA Live are developed. For four years, he worked as Madden NFL’s art director before being promoted to creative director in 2011.

Young’s role is distilling all the creative ideas for Madden NFL, including his own. His team consists of engineers, artists, producers and designers, all of whom have various skillsets and, in turn, oversee more than 100 people. “It’s a year-round process that’s always evolving, morphing, with everyone jockeying for what they believe in. Each guy owns a certain feature of the game, and I’m the center of all the ideas.”

After Young winnows those ideas, he lobbies and negotiates their merits with Seann Graddy, a line director with EA Sports— which means Graddy converges Madden NFL’s creative side with its business model.

“Mike is one of the most well-thought-out persons I know,” Graddy says. “When he brings me a new idea or solution, he can walk you through it in a very thorough way.”

It was Young who shepherded the concept of career mode, called “Connected Franchise,” where a gamer can become his own virtual player, coach or owner, and then progress that individual through a virtual career.

Once Graddy signed off on the idea of Connected Franchise, which debuted on Madden NFL 12, they went to work on making it authentic. Part of that plan was to create a virtual news feed, where well-known media members use avenues such as Twitter to weigh in on fictional players created and developed by gamers. Depending on how skilled the gamer is, the fictional player can become an All-Pro player. But the deadline to get those types of recognizable media names under contract was just days away, and procuring them in time didn’t look promising. Graddy informed Young that they’d have to go with made-up media names. Young told Graddy that doing so was “unacceptable” and “awful,” and that they simply couldn’t ship a Madden game that way.

“Mike’s a low-key guy,” Graddy says. “He doesn’t get too high or too low. But when he believes in something, in his own way, he is relentless. It was a Friday, and I told him if we didn’t have those names in place by the following Wednesday, it was a no-go. Well, from that Friday to the following Wednesday, Mike was calling people, emailing, networking, driving deals to closure. He figured out a way to get it done, and he did it in the nick of time, delivering names such as Skip Bayless, Trey Wingo, Deion Sanders, Mark Schlereth, Todd McShay and Barry Sanders.”

The Connected Franchise feature on Madden NFL 12 instantly became popular. Young recalls being at a charity hockey tournament, where his mother-in-law introduced him to a chiropractor who went wild when he heard who Young was. “Oh my god, you’re the Madden guy!” he exclaimed. The chiropractor told him how he’d drafted a quarterback from the game’s career mode and zealously progressed him through a virtual world into a Hall of Fame player. The chiropractor was barely able to contain himself when he learned Young was the one who had created that virtual quarterback.

“He talked to me for 40 minutes, explaining every detail, giving me a million ideas,” Young says.

Detail-obsessed
Young culls information from consumer reviews, profits and loss data, and Metacritic.com, a website that aggregates industry reviews. Pushing the game forward is now a science. EA Sports can track page views—where gamers stop and where they go most often—along with lots of other data. “When I started, it was more gut instinct,” Young says. “Now there’s real data. The gut is still there, the creativity, but now there are ways to test how well those ideas are working.”

All of this feeds into a relentless attention to detail. Two years ago, when the NFL selected Nike to design its uniforms. EA Sports reached an agreement with the company to house all 32 team jerseys under intense security months prior to the season, in order to accurately incorporate—and portray—them in Madden NFL 13. It’s that same attention to detail that moves Young, when he’s at an NFL game with his father, to point his iPhone camera in directions that might seem odd to those around him.

And it has paid off. Recently, Young was talking with ESPN producer and director Mike Roig, who told him about the latest incarnation of Madden NFL. “This looks like TV,” Roig said. “That’s the way I would’ve shot it.” Young’s reaction? “That’s exactly what I’m looking for. When the TV experts say ‘that’s the way I would’ve shot it,’ then I know I’m doing my job.”

NFL experts are constantly brought in to EA Sports to consult. Once again, they’re usually more excited to meet the Madden NFL guys than vice versa. And lately, they’ve been telling Young something special: that the future for coaches is teaching players off an interactive playbook via Madden NFL.

“The generation currently playing in the NFL grew up playing Madden NFL,” Young says. “Coaches see where they can use our game to teach, scrubbing back and forth like they do with game film. That’s fascinating to us. It’s not just a game to play, but also a game to teach football. And not just for players and coaches. If you’re a fan, you should be able to learn the game, not through a tutorial, but through a cool interactive way.”

For Young, that means he’s on an endless quest to continue learning football. “You have to love your subject matter and learn your subject matter,” he says.

Brian Murray, a five-time Emmy Award-winning cinematographer who has worked on ESPN’s 30 for 30 series and HBO’s Hard Knocks, enjoyed collaborating with Young so much as a consultant over the course of three years that he recently joined the Madden NFL team as director of presentation. They now share an office. “It’s a huge testament to Mike that I left an arena where I was successful to join this design team and progress this game visually,” he says. “It’s a pretty cool creative environment to work in, and it’s an honor to work with Mike.”

Young feels honored, too.

Sipping on a Red Bull, he looks around the stunning facility—which features vintage arcade games in its break rooms; a pool table in the lunch area; a Starbucks; complimentary cereal, M&M’s and candy bars; cutting-edge technology; signed NFL memorabilia and a palpable creative vibe—and says, “To be a part of something so beloved, that’s based on America’s favorite sport and that every year everyone anticipates, is very special. I love my work.”     UIC