Red Sox Nation? Take a hike, you chowderheads.

America's Team? Get down off your high horses, Cowboys fans.

No, the most entrenched and dominant sports franchise today is a hyperrealistic re-creation of pro football that comes in a box.

It's Madden NFL, a video-game behemoth that has sold more than 70 million copies since its inception in 1989. According to the NPD Group, manufacturer EA Sports has raked in nearly $2.4 billion at retail from Madden NFL since 1995, the year the marketing-research firm began tracking sales.

The game will mark its 20th anniversary tomorrow with the midnight release of Madden NFL 09 ($59.99 for Xbox, PlayStation, Wii and Nintendo DS), which boasts a new "adaptive" feature that will automatically enhance beginners' skills.

To celebrate, EA will throw a little get-together it has dubbed Maddenpalooza.

Today, the company will take over the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. (where John Madden, now an NBC analyst, coached the Oakland Raiders to a Super Bowl win over the Minnesota Vikings in 1977). Admission will be free for the expected 6,000 revelers.

Bands that have played on Madden NFL soundtracks, including Good Charlotte and rapper-singer Busta Rhymes, will perform. NFL greats such as Andre Reed, Roger Craig and Tim Brown will sign autographs as fans road-test NFL 09 on 300 Xbox consoles.

If ever a game deserved a self-congratulatory blowout, it's Madden NFL.

In the last four years, the game has sold 27 million copies, with each edition landing among the 10 best-selling video games of all time, according to Billboard.

"In the video-game industry, if you sell a million copies, you throw a ticker-tape parade," says Matthew Kato, an editor at Game Informer magazine. "If you're selling five to six million copies of the same title every year, you've just won the Super Bowl, World Series and Stanley Cup combined."

Not suprisingly, those brawny sales coincide with the December 2004 deal that gave EA sole licensing rights to the NFL's teams, players and stadiums. The deal, struck for an estimated $300 to $400 million, was extended this year through 2013.

Suddenly all the other pro gridiron games, such as NFL 2K, were banished to the sidelines.

"People who want to play with their favorite quarterback or their favorite team," says Nate Ahern, editor of the gaming site IGN.com, "they have to buy Madden."

This year's cover features Brett Favre in a Green Bay Packers uniform. His enshrinement was intended as an homage to a retired great. But now that Favre has been granted his wish and is returning to action with the New York Jets, he had better watch his back - and his ribs.

John Madden (who is estimated to make $2 million to $3 million annually from the product) appeared on the cover for the first decade of the game. But since the San Francisco 49ers' Garrison Hearst graced Madden NFL 99, a freakish series of injuries and career reversals has beset the players on the cover, leading to talk of a "Madden curse."

The only Eagle to receive this dubious distinction was Donovan McNabb on Madden NFL 06, just months after the team narrowly lost to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX. The next season, McNabb suffered a sports hernia, and the team went 6-10.

Tomorrow's release will set off an annual ritual as devoted players (often called "ballers") go into hibernation for weeks, testing the latest version, mastering new wrinkles, and searching for strategic advantages.

"Hard-core players can do hundreds of hours of 'labbing,' playing all the different teams to find an edge," says Dale Jackson, Madden NFL's executive producer (who usually plays as the Eagles). "There's a crazy amount of dedication to finding out ways to win this game."

The massive popularity of the game and its competitive essence have created a thriving tournament culture, dozens of national showdowns organized by EA and other sanctioning bodies, and countless online leagues. There's even a tournament for NFL players, the Madden Bowl. The current champion is Baltimore Ravens running back Willis McGahee. Strong safety Michael Lewis won the Madden Bowl in 2005 while playing with the Eagles.

Thomas Fulton of Philadelphia, a regular on the Madden tournament circuit, plays under the sobriquet Tommy Gunnz, and has been ranked as high as No. 3 nationally. Needless to say, Fulton, 32, is itching to get his hands on Madden NFL 09.

"Everyone starts from scratch," he says of the summer ritual. "Then it's a race to figure out the game. . . . The players change, but mostly it's what EA does with the game, the new features."

Because he likes their offensive approach, Fulton usually plays as the Denver Broncos. "I'm known for running the ball," he says. "That's my claim to fame."

Developing tournament-level skills, he says, depends on "mostly practice, and reaction time and getting everything down so you don't have to think about it while you're playing."

Maddenites are all looking for "money plays," certain offensive gambits that, because of quirks in the programming, consistently go for big gains. They are also drawn to "exploits," players with game-breaking skills.

That's why Brodrick Bunkley, the Eagles' massive defensive tackle and a Madden fanatic, usually plays as the Patriots. The team's wide receiver Randy Moss practically levitates in Madden NFL.

"Randy Moss has a big advantage over any defensive back," Kato says. "Just throw the ball up, and he'll go get it."

Bunkley doesn't have to break training camp to find a game. Eagles Jerome McDougle, Bam Childress and Darren Howard are all devoted Maddenites.

"I'm very competitive, and I like to match wits with other opponents," Bunkley says. "I love to talk trash. That's the best part of the game for me."

With Madden NFL 09, EA is making an effort to woo new players and those who tried the game but were scared off after being stomped by more advanced players.

To even the playing field, this year's model features an "adaptive" design. The first time you start up NFL 09, you must take 12 skill challenges that measure your proficiency at running, passing and defense. Then you are designated a "Madden IQ," which works like a golf handicap - if a handicap drained 30-foot putts for you. Madden NFL 09 will automatically adjust to bolster your deficiencies.

"We've made it not as intimidating for people," EA's Jackson says. Adds IGN's Ahern, "It's more accessible for someone who's just starting out."

Critics of the game say Madden's relentless once-a-year release schedule doesn't allow time for significant improvements in the product. Typically, video-game developers spend as much as three years building goose-bump thrills into a sequel.

For all the game's versimilitude, certain jarring implausabilities never seem to get corrected, such as defensive backs dropping passes that fall right in their hands.

"If you're playing a good defensive back like Antonio Cromartie, why would the ball go through his hands and hit him in the face?" Kato asks. "EA does it because they don't want the backs to have outrageous interception stats, but it's really annoying."

That brings us to the age-old conundrum of Madden NFL: If someone who is well-versed in football strategy sits across from someone with mad game-controller skills, who will win?

"The video game player would," Kato says.

Jackson begs to differ. "If we've done our job right," he says, "it should balance out between someone with twitch skills and someone who knows football strategy."

Guess we'll find out tomorrow. Madden Nation awaits.

Contact staff writer David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552 or dhiltbrand@ phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/
daveondemand.