If you read Patrick Hruby's article on the history of the "Madden" franchise, you probably remember reading about some Sandy Sandoval character. If you didn't read Hruby's article, this excerpt should sum it up for you: "'Madden's' secret weapon? A man named Sandy Sandoval. Officially, Sandoval is the Director of Athlete Relations for EA Sports; unofficially, he's the games answer to World Wide Wes and Winston Wolf -- part fixer, part bon vivant, the guy who helped give the game its inimitable pro football cachet."
EA Sports recently took over the city of New Orleans to celebrate the release of "Madden NFL 11" with an over-the-top celebration dubbed "Madden Gras." I was able to sit down with Sandy for a quick interview.
Connor Nolte: You've been called Madden's secret weapon and compared to World Wide Wes. How would you describe your job?
Sandy Sandoval: (Laughing) My primary function is, I'm out there looking for the latest upcoming talent, building relationships with them, whether it has to do with "Madden", "NBA Elite", "Fight Night", or "NHL Hockey". So, I'm out there like a scout, making recommendations. When we get to the point of who we want to execute for the cover, I usually go in there and knock that deal out. You know, there's a lot of other stuff that goes on behind the scenes that a lot of people don't know. I'm responsible for signing all the boxers for the "Fight Night" games. For the NFL and NBA, there is group licensing. With PGA and "Fight Night", we have to go [sign] these guys individually. So, in order to get a good deal of it done quickly for EA, usually that's where I come in. I've built relationships throughout the years with these guys, so I'm able to get things done a little bit quicker than maybe the normal guy that's out there doing some sports marketing stuff.
CN: You have a sports background. Can you share some of that and how you started working with EA Sports?
SS: I played baseball, and when I left the game of baseball I went to work for a company called Easton Sports. I worked for them for quite a while and that's where things started out for me. We were doing football, we were doing hockey, we were doing professional and college baseball and women's softball.
When I started out there I was a big sports fan. I lived in the Bay Area, so I was a big 49er fan. I knew everything about Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott just because I read up on them from the Super Bowl days. But all of a sudden, I'm thrown out there where I'm actually working deals for these guys. Being from the Bay Area I didn't know much about hockey, the Sharks had just gotten into town, but one of my clients was Wayne Gretzky. I knew Alex Rodriguez when he was 19 years old. I'm just learning on the fly with all these guys. When I first started, I just worked to build those relationships. So by the time I left Easton and went over to EA, I just moved those relationships right over to EA Sports. I was able to get a lot of these deals done pretty quickly and cheaply and it benefited EA.
CN: You said you joined EA years ago. When you started with them, would you have ever imagined a party like this being held for the release of a video game?
SS: No. I've been with the company going on 15 years now, and when I first started, I saw the very first launch events for "Madden". I mean, we used to do them in a little hotel room and guys would just kind of come. It's just grown into a huge event. People come in the masses to participate, they want to see the athletes, and the athletes do a great job getting involved with it. Its such a phenomenon now, it makes my job fun. I think the consumers out there enjoy a lot of the things that we do with advertising/creative leading up to the launch of "Madden". Everything that leads up to the release is very well executed and planned. I just have a small hand in that. EA is a great company to work for and we have a lot of talented people, smart people. When we put it all together, the product is what it is at the end of the day and it's a superior product.
CN: The goal is to have the superior product. 2K Sports is a competitor of yours. Do you look at who they are signing for their covers or do you just do your own thing?
SS: I don't particularly look at that. Listen, they make a great basketball game, I feel we make a better basketball game. Whatever guys we decide to use on the cover to do our endorsement, I'm very happy with. I know for a fact, we pick them for a reason. Whether it's a retired guy or whether it's a current guy, it fits our marketing strategy is. So, you know, I don't look at them, I don't pay attention to what they're doing. I'm sure they don't pay attention to what I'm doing. I just care about what's best for EA Sports and that's what I get paid to do and that's what I enjoy doing.
CN: You spend time with these athletes. Do you have any "Madden" stories that come to mind or have you heard of any "Madden" rivalries that have been taken to the next level?
SS: Through my years, I've seen it all. One story that stands out in my mind is from early in my career. I went over to Cincinnati Bengals camp. At that time we were kind of touring around showing "Madden" early. At that times you would use special coded discs that you could only play on a [developer kit] and nobody had those things. They're real expensive, but we were traveling with one. I turned my back and somebody stole it. They thought they had an early copy. After hours of investigation, I found out it was my man Chad Ochocinco. I had to go knock down his dorm room door and get it back from him. He was disappointed. He thought it was just a regular copy, but after hours of persuasion, I ended up getting it back from him.
CN: You work on signing guys for the covers. What are your thoughts on the curse?
SS: I've been hearing about that curse for years. Look, football is a tough sport, it's a physical sport. Most of the guys on the cover are at the two most vulnerable positions. They're running backs, quarterbacks.
In my opinion, I don't think there's any curse. For me, the curse is guys that can't get on the cover usually call me up and curse me out asking why they're not on the cover. That's how I look at it.