From the Madden Bowl to NASCAR simulations, competitors are linked to their animated counterparts. Some play for instruction, some just for fun, and sometimes so much they're tired the next day.
The addict looks up sheepishly, summoning the courage to bare his soul and admit the first time he positively knew he needed help.
“You won’t use my name?” he asks, a professional athlete wisely pleading to remain anonymous.
“OK, remember the day they knocked those towers down?”
“Well, I didn’t know what to do. So I turned on my PlayStation, drafted a team and played a whole season of Madden while the world watched CNN. That’s when I knew. I was a video-game addict.”
So that’s what this has come to, video games as therapy, couch included but not necessary.
Players at all levels in all sports linked to shoe-sized boxes filled with wires and computer chips, connecting the cultures of sports and video games or connecting the football-kicking Gramatica brothers, who play XBox against each other, live, from separate states. Players staying up all night — working on their salary caps, making trades, buying end-zone celebrations — and then trudging into practice with a video-game hangover.
That’s what this has come to. Sports and video games, linked like arms clutching those controllers, a permanent part of the sporting conscience.
“I get to the point where I’m like, ‘Man, I need to get up and go do something else,’ ” Seahawks defensive tackle Rocky Bernard said. “Get outside or something. Go to a movie.” He’s not the only one. Fellow defensive tackle Rashad Moore estimates 85 percent of the Seahawks play video games regularly.
And it’s not just NFL players. In 2001, the market for video games hauled in an estimated $9.4 billion. For comparison’s sake, Hollywood’s box-office receipts were roughly $8.35 billion the same year.
If that doesn’t prompt a “What’s wrong with kids these days?” then this certainly will. At least two colleges, USC and Central Florida, offer video games as a course, giving newfound pleasure to the phrase “pulling an all-nighter.”
“It’s a national pastime,” says Seahawks receiver Koren Robinson.
Or it can disrupt the national pastime, something the Mariners found out when, as legend has it, shortstop Rey Quinones was unavailable to pinch hit because he was in the clubhouse — playing video games.
Not even that story can trump the time Tom Goedde, a senior product manager at EA Sports in charge of marketing for Madden and NASCAR, went to the first EA Sports 500 race. Standing front and center for the presentation of the $1 million purse, Goedde hears Dale Earnhardt Jr. whispering in his ear, asking for an advance copy of the World War II game “Medal of Honor.”
“It just shows you,” Goedde said in a phone interview, “that these guys will do anything.”
Particularly to grace the cover of the Madden enterprise, an endorsement Goedde refers to as “the modern-day Wheaties box,” even though injuries seem to befall the person on it each season.
Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis clamored for the cover for five years. The same Ray Lewis who hosts Madden tournaments with teammates, awarding push-up rights to the winner. As in, “I know we’re in this black tie restaurant, but I beat you in Madden yesterday, so drop and give me 50.”
Then there’s the Madden Bowl, named after the game legendary coach and broadcaster John Madden helped develop 15 years ago. A game that now sells 5 million copies annually. A game that 60 people spend their lives developing.
The Madden Bowl is an annual Super Bowl event, complete with more than 100 players and hosted last season by entertainment mogul P. Diddy.
Then there’s the day they release Madden to the world, to video-game geeks and superstar athletes alike, to crowds that would pack stadiums and to fans that gather outside stores hours before they open.
“The Madden launch every year is a cultural event,” Goedde said. “The world stops. People use sick days. And every athlete in every sport is calling me, asking, ‘Where’s my advance copy?’ ”
That’s not even the hot-button topic among athletes. Ratings are far, far more important. It’s not enough that the 60 people working on Madden sit in a room and pound a table and argue until their faces redden to decide whether Bernard, a backup with the Seahawks, should get a 62 or a 63 rating for his speed.
Oh, no. Players have opinions, too.
Emmitt Smith told Goedde he was too fast in the game, something that almost never happens. Usually, it works the other way, like when Jacksonville quarterback Byron Leftwich served as the grand marshal at the Daytona 500 and immediately ripped into Goedde about his ratings on the game.
Or the time Aaron Brooks, the Oregon basketball guard and Franklin High grad, approached EA senior brand manager Brian Movalson and asked, quite sheepishly, when he’d be appearing on a video game. Or the time Seahawks linebacker Solomon Bates saw the box full of Madden games arrive at the 2004 training camp and pronounced the event “almost like Christmas.”
That kind of obsession creates problems for coaches intent on limiting distractions. On one hand, there are worse ways players could spend free time. On the other, staying up all night playing video games doesn’t exactly increase performance.
“I’m not going to name names,” Seahawks linebacker Tracy White said. “But there are players who come to practice tired because they’ve been up playing video games all night. One player in particular. But I’m not going there.”
Some teams, like the University of Texas or the Miami Dolphins, have banned Madden during portions of the season, according to Movalson.
Other teams use video games as a teaching tool, particularly at the high-school level, schooling players on formations and stunts and packages with a tool the players are using anyway. Games are so realistic that the Seahawks offense actually resembles the Seahawks offense, right down to a bare-bones version of the playbook. Heck, you can even buy “The Sprinkler” to use as your celebration.
Goedde recalls a survey EA performed on NASCAR drivers last year. It concluded that drivers use NASCAR games to simulate the race they want to run, learning the curves, the braking points, the shift points. In fact, at one point all the drivers in the top 10 used this video-game technique to train and unwind simultaneously.
“I’m amazed that these young kids know about blitz packages and dime packages and stuff I never thought about when I was 10 years old,” Movalson said. “It’s a little crazy if you think about it.”
The really crazy thing, according to Peter Roby, director of The Center of Sport in Society at Northeastern University, is the professional leagues’ role in the release of these games. All the major leagues — the NFL, the NBA, Major League Baseball — profit off the licensing of their league and their players. Yet the majority of these games hold options for the very celebrations and behavior that bring fines from the leagues.
“I do think it’s a bit hypocritical and inconsistent,” Roby said. “The problem for us comes in terms of the content, the lack of sportsmanship portrayed. The showboating. The lack of respect for the opponent. It’s sending a subtle message about what’s expected or what’s allowed.
“I really do worry about that. There’s no place for it, no need for it. It sends a bad message to an impressionable age group.”
That’s what this has come to. The link between sports and video games so strong and powerful and popular that it prompts an ethical discussion regarding the relationship between the two.
“Every athlete I know plays video games,” White said. “And yes, I’d consider myself an addict. As a matter of fact, right now I’m going to go home and play.”
“I’ve been thinking about it since this morning,” White said after practice finished. “I can’t wait, actually.”
Greg Bishop: 206-464-3191 or firstname.lastname@example.org