The advent of connected consoles has ushered in more than just online leagues and gaming for fans of the franchise. It’s allowed the game makers to make digital updates throughout training camp and through the NFL playoffs.

“They are grading and measuring guys’ strengths based upon statistical analysis, and updating player ratings and stats ­in-­season as things progress,” says New ­Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who was on the cover of Madden NFL 11.

With the launch of Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony’s PlayStation 4 this fall, ­Madden NFL 25 is one of the four EA Sports franchises­ (along with FIFA 14, NBA Live 14 and UFC) making the leap to next-­generation gaming. With that leap of increased graphical fidelity will come virtual players who act and react more like their real-life ­counterparts. According to Andrew ­Wilson, executive vice president and head of EA Sports, in-game athletes will possess humanlike intelligence for advanced decision making, players will have the agility required to change speeds and directions with true athletic motion, and living worlds will make the game experience as rich and dynamic as real-world stadiums and arenas.

But more than video games that look just like a real NFL broadcast (right down to the same in-booth teams providing dynamic commentary), it’s the competition that keeps players coming back to Madden again and again. Ask any Madden fan for a favorite memory from playing the game, and whether they’re a professional gamer making hundreds of thousands of dollars playing through the EA Sports Challenge Series (yes, you can make money playing video games) or simply a two-time Super Bowl champion like New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning, you’ll see their eyes light up as they recall that monster touchdown or that special moment between brothers on a sofa long before they became elite players.

“It’s tough to say who’s better at Madden,” says Eli Manning, when asked about his virtual battles against his brother Peyton, the Denver Broncos quarterback. “I think Peyton cheated. He was kind of looking over to see what play I was running. If you guess the same play, you had no chance of having success, but he was looking at my controller. He was five years older than me, taking advantage of a little kid, always guessing my play.”

Playing football at any level, whether on the TV screen or on the gridiron, has become America’s “other” national pastime. And the Madden franchise, now a part of the pop-culture landscape, has introduced millions of kids to the sport and kept them coming back as they, too, had kids to share the game with. 

JOHN GAUDIOSI has spent more than 20 years covering the $70 billion video game industry for top outlets, ­including The Washington Post, Wired, Yahoo! and Variety.