The Biggest Game in the NFL ... is a Video Game

After lofting yet another touchdown pass to the back of the end-zone, Daunte Culpepper threw up his arms in exaltation and slapped fives with throngs of cheering fans.

No, it wasn't an NFL game, but rather an early anniversary party at a midtown Manhattan nightclub.

The release on August 12 of "Madden '09" will mark the 20th year of the record-setting EA Sports series, which is both the longest-running and highest-selling sports video game of all-time.

"The impact Madden has had on the sports game industry is massive," said Kevin Kelly, a contributing editor to the video game blog Joystiq.com. "They kind of have a monopoly on the [football] game, but they got to that place by making such a quality football game that really puts you in the game with so much detail. It's helped build a giant sporting empire for them."

Free cocktails and skimpily clad "Madden Girls" flowed freely across the spacious nightclub, a festive backdrop to the presence of five NFL all-pros who've adorned past game covers, including retired St. Louis Rams' great Marshall Faulk, the Baltimore Ravens' linebacker Ray Lewis and last year's cover star, Tennessee Titans' quarterback Vince Young.

"I've been a part of Madden since 2003 [when I was on the cover] and I played Madden since I could afford the game," Faulk told ABC News at the premiere. "So to be here at this event is just great. I love coming out and supporting and being a part of this. And to have five of the guys who have been on the cover here all at once talking about our experiences of being on the game is truly special."

Former Seahawks' all-pro running back Shaun Alexander, who was on the cover of the game in the 2007 edition, which sold a sports-gaming record two million copies worldwide, joined Faulk, Lewis, Young and ex-Minnesota Vikings star Culpepper at the event.

The players discussed any and all things Madden, from how often they themselves played Madden ("anytime, all the time") to the league's best Madden player (much debated) to some good-natured ribbing of Lewis for his status as the only defensive player on the panel.

When it came to the significance of being on the prestigious cover, the players exuded an emotional combination of gratefulness and awe.

Lewis spoke passionately, calling it "one of the greatest honors you'll ever achieve."

Lewis also holds a slightly more dubious cover distinction: he avoided the infamous "Madden Curse," which mandates that a player who appears on the cover of Madden is fated to sustain an injury or significant drop in production the following season.

It started with running back Eddie George in the 2001 release. After being one of the first athletes to appear on the cover (John Madden was the cover fixture until 2000), George sustained a toe injury the following season and set career-lows, after an all-pro season the year before.

The following year was Culpepper's turn. He suffered a crippling back injury and played in only 11 games — throwing 14 touchdowns after a career season prior — in the season after appearing on the Madden 2002 cover.

The most famous example of the Madden Curse is undoubtedly ex-Atlanta Falcons star Michael Vick, who graced the 2004 edition cover after an electric sophomore season in the NFL, but fractured his right fibula in the ensuing preseason, and is now in prison for his highly publicized involvement in an illegal dog fighting ring.

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