Head coach on the Madden NFL design team

Mike Young

Mike Young is creative director for Madden NFL. “I love my work,” he says. Photo: Norma Lopez

By Peter Kerasotis
UIC Alumni magazine

It should have been a relaxing 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.

There was the player sporting a new beard; a fresh banner honoring Rams’ NFL Hall of Fame defensive end Deacon Jones; decals on Rams player helmets with Jones’ jersey No. 75.

As the game unfolded, Young grabbed his iPhone and started taking pictures, capturing details as he forwarded the photos to his coworkers.

“I never shut it off,” Young says. “What I do is awesome. But it’s a curse, too.”

Young, 38, is creative director for EA Sports’ most iconic and best-selling video game, Madden NFL, celebrating its 25-year silver anniversary as an integral part of American pop culture.

Nearly 100 million copies of Madden NFL have been sold since 1988, when it debuted on an Apple II.

Young manages a creative design team of 14 people, overseeing the game’s ongoing evolution. He works with a who’s-who of legendary NFL players and coaches: 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 of 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.

In turn, the NFL icons are in awe of Young, the guy who oversees the creative direction of their favorite video game.

Brees’ impassioned “what it takes” speech at the start of Madden NFL 11 was Young’s work. He 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 like 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 his son’s friends “know me through your game.”

 

Avid gamer, sports enthusiast

Young 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 in art.

He had a creative, visual mind and a passion for technology. An avid gamer, he loved watching and playing sports. When the first PlayStation debuted in the mid-90s, he decided on a career in the gaming industry and scoured the Internet for a school that could channel his skillset in that direction.

He found it at UIC.

“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.”

Young took classes in multimedia, programming, virtual reality and 3-D software, in addition to courses in photography, sculpture and art.

He graduated with a degree in fine arts, focusing on electronic visualization. But doors he knocked on demanded five years’ experience in the gaming industry. How could he gain experience unless someone gave him a chance?

His breakthrough came on a flight home to St. Louis. Young was reading a gaming design book when the man sitting next to him struck up a conversation. His seatmate knew people in the gaming industry and connected Young with a company called NuFX.

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

Mike Young

Young’s creative team includes Brian Murray, left, director of presentations and an Emmy Award-winning cinematographer. Photo: Norma Lopez

NuFX gave him one week to build a digital car, following 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 a year-and-a-half later, he was part of the team that delivered the arcade game NBA Street, considered one of the top 10 video games ever produced. It caught the attention of NuFX’s business partner, EA Sports.

Young took his wife, Janet, on vacation to Vancouver, corporate home of EA Sports. What he was really doing was paying his way to an interview. Because of NBA Street’s business agreement with EA Sports, Young had to quit his job with NuFX with the hope that in six months, EA Sports would hire him.

“I knew I had to do it,” Young says. “It was the big leagues. It was like going to the New York Yankees.”

 

Creative distiller

Young eventually relocated to EA Sports’ facilities in Orlando, where Madden NFL, Tiger Woods PGA Tour, NCAA Football and NBA Live are developed.

He was Madden NFL’s art director for four years he was promoted to creative director in 2011.

Young distills all the creative ideas for Madden NFL, including his own. His team includes engineers, artists, producers and designers who, 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; 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. The feature, which debuted on Madden NFL 12, became instantly popular.

 

Detail-obsessed

Young culls information from consumer reviews, profits and loss data, and Metacritic.com, a website that aggregates industry reviews.

MikeYoung

“The generation currently playing in the NFL grew up playing Madden NFL,” Young says. Photo: Norma Lopez

Pushing the game forward is now a science.

“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 to house all 32 team jerseys under intense security months, before the season, so they could be included in Madden NFL 13.

ESPN producer and director Mike Roig said of the latest incarnation of Madden NFL, “this looks like TV. That’s the way I would’ve shot it.”

“That’s exactly what I’m looking for,” Young says.

NFL experts who come to EA Sports as consultants tell Young that in the future, coaches will teach players from 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.

Young looks around the stunning facility where he works — with the vintage arcade games in its break rooms, a pool table in the lunch area, a Starbucks, free snacks, cutting-edge technology, signed NFL memorabilia and a palpable creative vibe.

“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,” he says.

“I love my work.”