The cheat code 20 years later: Michael Vick's lasting Madden legacy

Michael Vick ESPN

TWENTY YEARS AGO Madden ratings czar Donny Moore evaluated NFL players in a distinctly lo-fi way: parked in front of a bank of large-screen TVs at a gastropub near his Florida home jotting down notes on a pad of paper. In 2002, a lot of those scribblings had to do with Moore trying to decipher Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick.

In his first season as a starter, Vick's spectacular speed and revolutionary dual-threat approach to quarterbacking had already earned him a spot in the playoffs, a trip to the Pro Bowl and a spot of the cover of upcoming Madden NFL 2004 video game. (For the uninitiated, Madden rankings and covers are based on the previous season and labeled a year in advance.) But it was Vick's iconic Week 13 performance in Minnesota that ultimately convinced Moore to break the mold at Madden -- and change video game history forever -- by creating an avatar for Vick that was just as unstoppable as the real thing, a singularity that gamers are still debating to this day.

"Twenty years later it's funny how it all works out," Moore said from his home in Orlando, where he is now the head designer at EA Sports. "It wasn't intentional what we did with Vick, but, looking back, it was beautiful the way it all turned out, magical almost."

Before that game in Minnesota, no Madden QB had ever been considered for -- or, in Moore's words, "allowed" -- a speed rating above 89. (For context: Donovan McNabb was an 81.) But against the Vikings, Vick tore through the Minnesota defense with effortless ease, piling up a record 173 yards rushing, including a 46-yard walk-off TD run to win the game in overtime. During that scramble, as Vick cut up field, two Vikings defenders appeared to have him contained. What they didn't know, what no one really understood just yet, was that the speed and the physics of quarterbacking had changed. When the tacklers converged on him, Vick dropped another gear and was gone -- poof, like an apparition -- leaving the two defenders crashing into each other like a pair of Wile E. Coyotes.

"He had NFL defenders going, like, 'holy s---' to themselves, because even they had never seen anything this fast, even they couldn't realize how fast he was even as he was flying right by them," Moore said. "He was unstoppable. At that moment, I knew it was crazy but I knew what Vick had to be to reflect real life, to represent that new level of running threat he brought as a guy with wide receiver speed playing quarterback."

Up until that moment, Mike Tyson in Mike Tyson's Punch Out!! and Bo Jackson in Tecmo Bowl had always been considered the gold standards of video game cheat codes. But Madden 2004 Vick was going to be like something from a different dimension. Moore grabbed his pen, reached past his plate of wings and wrote "95" next to Vick's name on his notepad. No, no no, he thought, this is going too far. He glanced back up at Vick's highlights on the TV, then down at the notepad where he circled the 95 several times and notarized it with a stamp of his fist.

It was official.

The most unstoppable force in video game sports history was born.

"I've played them all and the best athlete in any video game would have to be Mike Vick and I don't even think there's a close second," Madden World Champion Eric Wright said. "With Vick it was more than just groundbreaking, I mean, Vick literally broke the game. He changed it forever."

LONG BEFORE DEVELOPERS coded him this way for his iconic Madden '04 cover, Vick had been the ultimate cheat code IRL.

The first people to realize it were Vick's neighbors in the Ridley Circle housing project in Newport News, Virginia, where an 8-year-old Vick used to hustle the old-timers hanging out in the courtyard by betting them he could throw a football over the 120-foot-long building. He never lost that bet. Parents and teammates at Ferguson High School learned it during Vick's first start as a freshman, when he threw for 433 yards and four TDs. The rest of the world caught on during Vick's electric, jaw-dropping stint at Virginia Tech, where he led the nation in passing efficiency (180.37) as a redshirt freshman before taking the undefeated Hokies to the 2000 BCS title game.

I witnessed it for the first time the following spring in a remote corner of the Virginia Tech fieldhouse. That day in Blacksburg, Vick's cover photo shoot (the first of five cover stories we'd work on together over the past two decades) was interrupted by an errant baseball from a batting practice session going on at the opposite end of the cavernous sports complex. After the ball rolled to a stop near his feet, Vick picked it up and sort of bounced it in his right hand for a second or two. And then, just as several players jogged deep into the outfield to form a relay chain to retrieve the ball, with a flick of his arm Vick fired it over everyone's head and straight into the startled catcher's open mitt, easily more than 100 feet away, where it arrived with what can only described as an otherworldly sonic thwack.

That day, Vick sat in silence as we drove around the Virginia Tech campus one last time before he stepped into the NFL spotlight. When he was 6, he had promised his beloved grandma that he'd be an NFL star one day. But when it happened so quickly -- the draft, winning a playoff game at Lambeau Field, Nike commercials, events with Tiger Woods, the ESPYs and the Madden cover -- he found the whole experience surreal and overwhelming, he said. And, looking back, maybe a bit premature. "The Madden cover was, at the time, one of the greatest accomplishments of my life -- a dream come true," Vick recalled during a mid-August phone call from his home in Florida (while supervising one of his kid's art projects). "To have that much success on the field as a second-year player, at 22 years old, it was abrupt but abrupt for all the right reasons. Then to have all these things, accolades, attention, sponsorships, covers, all this stuff I didn't really think I was ready for, but when it happened I was so grateful and so thankful."

When Vick saw the cover for the first time, he asked if the Madden developers could switch his Falcons jersey from white to his favorite: black. They said no. (Over the years, Vick has grown to love the white jersey, too. "White's generic," he said, "but it's cleaner.") Vick did get a special sneak peek at the player ratings of his former Virginia Tech teammates. The only other topic Vick remembers discussing with developers was whether he'd eventually abandon his dual-threat approach to become more of a traditional pocket passer -- something Dan Reeves, his coach at the time, was also eager to find out.

"I told them, I'm going to play this way until the end of times," Vick said. "So the game should be the exact duplicate of what you saw on the field. I felt like that was only right, and I told EA that and they agreed. They said, 'OK then, we aren't holding anything back, this is you, this is Mike Vick the player: Bo Jackson and Steve Young in one body, that's what we went for.' That's when I knew it was going to be special."

NOT EVERYONE AT EA was so sure. By the summer of 2002, as pressure mounted to finalize the game and start shipping it to retailers, Moore and his team began getting internal feedback that the Vick character they had created (95 speed, 95 agility, 97 arm strength) was simply too good. As it stood, Vick was faster than all but two running backs in Madden. And this was still a time in video game production when, once the game was shipped, that was it, it couldn't be updated, edited or patched. Producers told Moore his realistic reproduction of Vick was "ridiculous" and asked him to add some kind of virtual governor on his speed and agility.

Moore refused. Thank goodness. That notion of stopping at nothing to create a game as close to reality as possible has been a driving principle behind Madden's success and growth over the past 20 years. By refusing to edit Vick's ratings in Madden '04, Moore also left behind an accurate time capsule of the true impact and influence Vick's singular talent had on the game, an undeniable fact that was nearly erased in 2007 after Vick pleaded guilty and served 18 months in a federal prison for his involvement in a dog fighting ring.

"All we were ever really trying to do was just make the numbers in the game reflect this player in real life as best as we possibly could," Moore said. "We did have to stick our necks out a little bit at the time and say [to the producers], 'Look, this QB is as fast, or faster, than all the cornerbacks and we need to reflect that if we want our game to be accurate.' That really was it. And I'm really proud that we stuck to it and were able to capture that part of Michael Vick and what he meant even a little bit."

As a compromise and an attempt at game balance, Moore increased Vick's injury rate and dialed back his ball security into the low 40s, which meant solid contact could trigger a fumble as often as seven out of 10 times. But in an era of Madden three console generations removed from today's mind-blowingly detailed production -- long before things like sophisticated stamina regulation, multiple defensive formations and substitutions -- none of the last-second changes in 2004 were enough. Not even close.

Almost immediately after Vick's Madden was released, Moore and the QB were getting word of people rushing for 500 yards per game using his character. (To this day, "Cheat code!" is still the thing Vick hears most from fans.) A YouTube reviewer went a step further, calling virtual Vick, "basically god." The Vick glitch was so sick, gamers began hiking the ball and backpedaling to their own goal line before reversing course and shredding the defense for a 99-yard TD ... on every drive. Just like in Minnesota, no angle of attack was ever enough for Madden middle linebackers with speed ratings in the 70s trying to contain Vick. "Mike Vick is a cheat code, an absolute cheat," Josh Allen, the 2024 Madden cover athlete, recently told reporters. "I think everybody, as soon as you turn that game on, you are picking the Falcons to play with. Mike Vick, he was it."

To make matters worse for Moore, the Atlanta Falcons in Madden '04 featured another offensive anomaly in the form of 6-foot-5 wide receiver Brian Finneran, who had an astronomical jump rating of 88. This meant you could scramble for days with Vick, make a sandwich, return a few calls and then just throw the ball up to Finneran 60 yards down the field and complete the pass almost every single time. "No character has ever been so far and away better than everyone else," said Wright who, from 2005 to 2007, rode Vick and the Falcons to dozens of Madden tournament wins and hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money. "It was a nightmare because Vick's speed was unreal and the mechanics of the game literally couldn't keep up. To the point where, with Vick, you didn't even care who was on the other side of the field."

Adds Vick, "When I think of the greatest football figures ever on a video game, yes, I think of myself and Bo Jackson and nobody else."

Bo never required a special statute, though. Eventually, the "Vick Rule" was invoked among friends who considered it unsportsmanlike (and boring) to select the unbeatable Falcons in Madden '04. (Something Vick himself never had to worry about, because he usually played with either Peyton Manning or Drew Brees because of their passing skills.) "That's when you know you're a powerful force," Vick said, "when they start modifying the rules and the game because you're just too good."

If a tiebreaker is needed between Madden Vick and Tecmo Bo, it's this: Just like NFL defenses were forced to do in real life, the developers at Madden had to step up their own games to keep up with Vick's QB revolution. The next year's cover choice of Baltimore Ravens Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis was a direct response to the chaos unleashed by Vick. Gamers could now use a "hit stick" to tackle running quarterbacks. Before long, the speed ratings of defensive ends and linebackers closed the gap on mobile quarterbacks and it got easier to substitute faster safeties for linebackers to create nickel and dime defensive formations on passing downs. But for one glorious year, it was just Vick running wild and untouched in the open field.

Currently, Lamar Jackson has a speed rating of 96 but even if the devs bumped him to a 99, it wouldn't have the same earth-shattering effect because of the advances and defensive guardrails inspired by Vick. "That's all Vick's influence," Moore explained. "He forced us to up our game, too. That's why his impact on the industry will never be matched. He changed the future of video game football."

The only thing the virtual Vick couldn't elude was the Madden curse. Just after the official release of Madden 2004, Vick became the fourth straight Madden cover subject to suffer a significant career setback when he broke his right fibula in a preseason game and missed the first 11 weeks of the 2003 season.

Not even the Madden curse, however, could curb the sensation created by the virtual Vick. "It's a reminder that I accomplished a lot in the game of football and did a lot for the game of football and the culture of football," said Vick, now a studio analyst for Fox Sports. "You start out playing the game as a kid, you don't know what's ahead of you. You don't know how long your career is going to be or how much of an impact you're going to have. To look back, 20 years later, and see all of the accomplishments that you were able to have happen, it feels good."

Still, the 20th anniversary of Vick's groundbreaking Madden cover was not the most significant life event the quarterback celebrated this summer. In early August, Vick was bracing for the emotional, bittersweet parenting milestone of his daughter leaving the nest for her freshman year of college. Jada Vick has been a flag football sensation in South Florida since earning the starting quarterback position for her high school team as a sixth grader and plans on continuing to play in college. "It's a beautiful thing to watch," Vick said, softly, of his daughter (a righty) throwing a football and running an offense.

And now, with her dad (and QB tutor) reappearing as a "legend" in the Madden Ultimate Team version of the original game, could there be another Madden cover on the horizon featuring not one, but two Vick quarterbacking cheat codes?

"Naw," the elder Vick said. "My time's over. It's all about the next generation now. There's never going to be another cheat code."

You can break the game only once.