It's shaping up to be a good year for the Detroit Lions and they haven't even kicked off the regular season yet.
Sixth-seeded wide receiver Calvin Johnson came out of nowhere to beat top-seeded Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton in the fan vote for who would grace the cover of EA Sports' "Madden NFL '1." On top of that, former Lions running back Barry Sanders, who appeared with Coach John Madden on the front of Madden NFL 2000, is on the cover of EA Sports "NCAA Football 13" this year, behind fellow Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III.
Johnson appeared in a live one-hour ESPN "SportsNation" TV show in the streets of Manhattan, while fans voted online to make the final push. His first duty as cover athlete was to shoot the cover, which was done on location in the Big Apple right after the live broadcast in front of hundreds of NFL fans (many of whom were in town for the NFL Draft).
Being a cover model isn't all that's going Johnson's way this year. The Lions signed the wide receiver to an eight-year, $132 million extension just before he was awarded the Madden cover.
Johnson has also been helping Madden experience record sales since the game launched on August 28 on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii and PS Vita. The game sold nearly 1 million copies in its first 24 hours and sales are up 7% over last year's game, which featured Peyton Hillis on the cover. With the Wii U version of "Madden NFL 13" coming this fall, Johnson took some time to talk about his own gaming background off the gridiron.
CNN: What games did you play growing up?
Johnson: Growing up I was a big fan of the Nintendo 64 and those games, but I always played Madden. I've always been a Madden fan, and an EA fan, period.
CNN: What was the first Madden game that you recall playing?
Johnson: The first one I recall playing. I can't even recall that. I don't even know who was on the cover, and this was back in early 2000s.
CNN: What are your thoughts on how far the game itself has evolved over the years since you started playing?
Johnson: It's pretty cool. Now the fans vote. Back in the day, EA used to pick, but to know that 20 million fans vote and that they voted for me, it's an honor. It's very humbling.
CNN: What's your favorite Madden video game memory?
Johnson: My favorite Madden memory would probably be taking another kick-off return to house, because I've only done that one time in the game. It's very hard to do. That's the Madden with Troy Polamalu and Larry Fitzgerald on the cover in 2010.
CNN: As a player, how realistic is the game now compared to playing out there on the field?
Johnson: It's pretty crazy what they're doing with the game nowadays. I heard that they now have the ability for you to traject where the ball is going to go as a quarterback, so you could put it in more specific places for your receiver to catch it and lead the receiver. It's pretty crazy how it's evolving.
CNN: Do you have more control with the receiver, too, in getting the ball?
Johnson: It's crazy. I heard they've got hundreds of new animations for the receivers as well. It's definitely turned into a passing league, and it's turned into a passing video game.
CNN: How popular is Madden among some of the NFL players on your team? Do you guys compete against each other and go online?
Johnson: I play. We play online, but definitely during camp time. Guys, when we're at camp, they have a suite at the hotel for us if we want to get in there and play, or we play it in our own facility.
CNN: What kind of impact do you think that being on the cover of the game will be for your player rating?
Johnson: I actually just got off the phone with somebody, and they were saying that my rating should definitely be a 99, especially since I'm on the cover.
CNN: Where do you put this as far as accomplishments in the NFL, being on the cover of Madden?
Johnson: When I was a kid looking up to all the greats that were on the covers coming up, and then to be one of those guys on the cover, it's surreal. Knowing that millions of fans took part in the campaign, and to be the one they selected to appear on the cover of the game they play every day is an honor. To make it this far, and to beat out guys like Cam and Aaron Rodgers, a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, it's surreal to say the least. Much love to all the fans who voted for me.
CNN: When did you realize how big Madden has become, evolving from game to pop culture phenomenon?
Johnson: I saw how big it was yesterday. The stage that they set up in Times Square, and what they're able to do just because of this game. The game, obviously, has this tremendous impact on the Madden community. I wanted to be in the Madden fraternity myself. Like I said, it's an honor.