IRVING, Texas (AP) - Say Madden this time of year and most everyone knows the reference is not about the Hall of Fame coach and sportscaster himself. It's about his video game.
In an industry seemingly fixated on aliens, dragons and crime sagas, John Madden's football series rushes its way annually to the top of the sales charts, selling some 60 million copies in the past 17 years.
The newest version, "Madden NFL 08," debuts Tuesday for 10 different gaming systems with the sort of spectacle usually reserved for blockbuster movie premiers and "Harry Potter" books.
The hype for this year includes "Maddenoliday" festivities in New York's Times Square on Monday evening, where former players such as Eric Dickerson, Warren Moon and Marshall Faulk will meet with fans. Former New York Giants running back Tiki Barber will hand off the first copies of the game to rabid fans Monday night at midnight at Toys "R" Us.
For hardcore devotees like Steve Williams, a 35-year-old from the Houston suburb of Sugar Land, "Madden" is more than a game - it's a way of life.
"You're playing as opposed to just watching; it's like chess," said Williams, who goes by the handle "Coach" when he plays the game with others. "You are the coach, the general manager, you're everything that you've always wanted to be."
Williams is such a big fan he runs his own Web site, where he posts a podcast with insider Madden game tips. And recently he was among a handful of professional Maddenheads to participate in the taping of season three of ESPN's "Madden Nation" reality TV show, which airs in October.
The game has spawned a competitive tour, as well. Called Madden Challenge, the world's best ballers vie for cash prizes and a trip to Hawaii.
"Madden" has been a guaranteed profit maker for publisher Electronic Arts Inc. EA sold 7.4 million copies in North America last year, including 2 million in the first week, making it the top-selling title in 2006, according to market research firm NPD Group. Each copy retails for $30 to $60, depending on the game system.
The game's release comes at a crucial time for EA, one of the world's largest video-game makers, which recently saw first-quarter losses widen by 63 percent amid a seasonal slowdown.
There are other football games on the market but EA hasn't had much competition in terms of realism on the virtual gridiron because of deals it struck in 2005.
That's when EA reached an exclusive agreement with the National Football League and its players' association that prevents other publishers from making games that include actual NFL teams and players. A month later, EA got exclusive rights to use the ESPN brand in its video games.
Rival products include "All Pro Football 2K8." The game from 2K Sports, a division of Take-Two Interactive Software Inc., depicts historically important players like Jerry Rice and John Elway, but can't use current rosters like "Madden" does.
From its first release 18 years ago, "Madden" has transformed into something that closely mirrors America's obsession with real football, said Bryan Intihar, 30, news editor of the video-game magazine Electronic Gaming Monthly.
"They call baseball America's pastime but in the realm of video games it's football," he said. "It's become like a Mario. Madden is in many ways a video-game icon."
Intihar said he has already played the newest version and likes many added features, such as a bigger front-office mode, a superstar mode, and better performance, particularly on the Xbox 360 version.
Special icons now identify the strengths of franchise players like Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and running back LaDainian Tomlinson of the San Diego Chargers. Another new feature, called "Family Play," is designed to make the game easier for Madden newbies on Nintendo Co.'s Wii console by simplifying the controls.
One thing Intihar said he and many others in the community are still waiting for, however, is online leagues that let players guide their favorite teams through an entire virtual season against rivals. For now, online games are limited to head-to-head matches.
Actual NFL players play as much as anyone, including Tennessee Titans quarterback and current "Madden" cover star Vince Young.
"We're beautiful," he said of his team's digital likeness in the game.
Young added that he's "not even a little bit" worried about the so-called "Madden Curse." Earlier "Madden" cover athletes such as Marshall Faulk and Donovan McNabb ended up with injuries later in the season, leading some to conjure up a connection.
"You know you have to go out and play so nobody tries to worry about a Madden jinx," explained Titans receiver Brandon Jones, who often plays the game as other NFL players he's friends with on other teams.