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Patrick Hruby

High-Stakes "Madden"

The wired world of competitive video game football

After hanging out with the nation's top "Madden NFL" gamers, one thing seems certain: I have absolutely no future as a semi-professional football video game player.

Like, zilch.

Won't ever make a dime.

Probably would be better off hiring a personal trainer, guzzling a supertanker's worth of performance-enhancing flaxseed oil and attempting to land a second career as a third-string emergency training camp placekicker in the actual NFL.

Oh, and all of the above goes for you, too. Really. Trust me on this.

Back in January, I attended the Madden Bowl, an annual pre-Super Bowl party that doubles as a video game tournament. Held on an outdoor stage next to the swimming pool of an art deco hotel on Miami's South Beach, the event featured 16 pro football players -- including Chad Ochocinco and Miles Austin -- competing for joystick jockey bragging rights. As Austin and Santonio Holmes squared off, a guy named Jet Steele looked on from the other side of a velvet rope, wrinkling his nose as if chained to an overflowing port-a-potty.

"They don't know what they're doing up there," Steele complained.

"Ochocinco can play," his friend, Topp Taylor, said. "He is legit."

Steele pondered the notion -- for approximately 1.8 seconds.

"The pros don't know [expletive]!"

Who is Steele? He's a student at the University of South Florida and a former all-conference high school quarterback. He swears his name is real. (Turns out he has two sisters, Star and Sky, and a brother named Titan. Seriously).

More to the point, Steele also is a semipro "Madden NFL" gamer, one of the best in the country, in fact. He pocketed $25,000 for reaching the finals of the Madden Challenge -- a concurrent tournament held for the very best virtual gridders -- where he lost to friend and two-time champion Eric "Problem" Wright.

A 21-year-old college student from West Covina, Calif., Wright is considered by many within the hardcore Madden NFL community to be ... the greatest player of all time. The Jerry Rice of rocket catching. The Dick Butkus of the game's virtual lumber-laying "hit stick." Since entering the competitive "Madden NFL" scene as a high-school junior, Wright has won dozens of tournaments and thousands of random games.

And that's not all.

"I've made close to $300,000 in tournaments," he said. "I've made nearly $500,000 underground. Online, I have to play with aliases. Or else no one will bet with me."

Add it up: that's 800 large. I thought Wright was joking. That is, until former Madden Challenge champ Ayan "Fool" Tariq mentioned that the pot for Madden NFL "money games" -- read: wagering on wins and losses -- can run between $300 and more than $3,000. Meanwhile, Topp told me that he won $50,000 playing against former NFL defensive tackle Sam Adams.

None of the "Madden NFL" hardcore scoffed at that claim, either.

"My dad would use me to hustle guys," said Madden Challenge semifinalist Dennis "Evil Ken" Alston, a 19-year-old from New Jersey. "I was 12 playing 30-year-olds. One time I lost $2,500 in a single night. My dad was disappointed."

"Ken lost that game to my brother!" Tariq interjected. "I think it was like 55-0. He had tears in his eyes. My first money game, there was $8,000 on the floor. Everyone had crews, chipping in."

How old was Tariq?

"I think I was 14," he said.

Eight grand. Age fourteen. Hearing that, I wasn't aghast. I wanted in. A little piece of the action.

More than a little, actually.

Oh, sure: I knew I was a mediocre gamer. Hadn't put serious time into virtual football since junior high. But so what? I wouldn't try to become a Madden Challenge contender, nor land a spot on ESPN's transcendently silly "Madden Nation."

No, all I would aim for was to thoroughly whoop my game-playing friends, and to maybe, just maybe, become good enough at Madden NFL to earn some recession-cushioning cash on the side. Heck, this wasn't like trying to take down berserker Jared Allen -- another Madden Bowl participant -- in an Oklahoma drill. It wasn't even like trying to pass a Mike Shanahan conditioning test.

It was just ... pressing buttons while sitting squarely on my rear, two things I already do all the time, and for profit to boot.

Seriously, how hard could it be?

Fast forward to this week. I gave Wright a call. Asked him if he would be willing to tutor me in the upcoming "Madden NFL 11" a few days before it officially hit stores, to help me get a competitive edge with some insider tips and tricks.

He agreed. EA Sports' public relations ninjas graciously supplied early copies of the game. One problem: Wright has a PlayStation3. I have an Xbox 360. We couldn't connect for a contest, and last night ended up talking over the phone.

As I quickly discovered, this was a good thing. Because I would have gotten slaughtered.

"In the last day I've played at least 20 games or so," Wright said. "Trying to see what pass routes work and what coverages work best. Going through the rosters, figuring out what is going to work. Just labbing."

Labbing? Come again? Turns out that's slang for "Madden NFL" practice -- which, for top players like Wright, is a lot like actual pro football training camp. Well, mixed with film study. Before the competitive "Madden NFL" season kicks off with a Major League Gaming tournament in Washington, D.C. this October, Wright and others will spend countless hours breaking down the game, looking for players and plays that can be exploited.

In the manner of real NFL coaches -- think Bill Belichick -- semipro gamers work in secrecy, bordering on paranoia, only working and sharing their findings with people they trust. To wit: Wright and Steele are in the same Madden NFL "crew," a group of like-minded players who provide moral support and all-important stake money at official and underground tournaments.

"You keep your ideas within the crew," Wright said. "Nothing leaks out. Say you find a really good blitz where one of your middle linebackers gets through the 'A' gap and sacks the quarterback every time. You start playing random people online? That gets out. People will steal it. Some people even record games.

"I still play random people online and try to get ideas. But I go under an alias that no one knows. You still play to win, but you don't have to use all your tricks. You just make sure there's nothing out there you haven't seen."

If competitive "Madden NFL" gaming sounds like work, that's because it is. To stay sharp, Alston plays the game at least five hours a day. In high school, Wright would come home from class, play until 2 a.m. and then finish his homework in the morning or during lunch.

Why the dedication? In part, it's simply the cost of mastering the game; in part, it's to build mental toughness. No joke. Playing "Madden NFL" for serious money isn't like playing for dorm room bragging rights -- especially when tournaments generally allow rival players and crew members to scream, gesture and talk smack literally inches from your ears, so long as they don't touch you or obstruct your view of the screen.

"You can't break down or get nervous," Wright said. "There's no rules against that stuff in tournaments. If someone can get in your head, they've already won the battle. You have to stick to your game plan.

"None of us are millionaires. Knowing you have your own money and your friends' money on top of that creates a lot of pressure. With the best players, it doesn't bother them. But some people can't do it. You either have it or you don't."

For Wright and his ilk, no detail is too small. Take clock management. Yes, clock management. Wright insists that most gamers overlook it, even though many games come down to who has the ball last. Or take in-game player ratings. Ever wonder why fans of the game go crazy over Wes Welker's speed and agility? Why T.J. Houshmandzadeh last year announced a boycott of "Madden NFL 10" because he felt his 91 overall mark was too low?

The answer is simple. In Madden NFL, ratings uber alles.

During Madden Challenge, the go-to team was the Dallas Cowboys, whose stellar, reputation-based ratings made the squad as formidable in-game as they are perennially disappointing in real life. Similarly, Cowboys users made sure to start -- and use -- Pat Watkins, a third-string safety who started a single NFL game last season.

"In 'Madden,' Watkins is a legend," Alston said. "He's 6-foot-5, ran a 4.3 40-[yard-dash], and has tremendous jumping ability. Height and speed control the game."

Alston's favorite Madden NFL squad? The Oakland Raiders -- a dysfunctional franchise that hasn't won more than five games in a real world season since 2002.

"Last year, they had cornerback Derrick Brown, 6-foot-4, and receiver Ramses Barton, 6-foot-6," he explains. "Al Davis might be the worst drafter in real life. He puts together horrible teams. But he is the best drafter in 'Madden.'"

Long hours. Obsessive focus. Having to think like Al Davis. It all sounded too much like a job, way tougher than I figured and not like a game at all. I'll never make money at "Madden NFL," I realized, because I'll never be willing to pay the price of doing so.

Back at January's Madden Bowl, I saw a woman in a black strapless dress -- teetering on four-inch heels that resembled medieval infantry pikes, crammed into an outfit best described as prophylactic -- desperately trying to charm her way into the party, the same way I wanted in on Wright's world. As the woman paced and pouted, I recalled an earlier overheard conversation, between a guy with a white earpiece and another guy who sells video games for a living:

Earpiece guy: How are we doing with set up?

Video game guy: Why?

Earpiece guy: I have a VIP guest who will literally pay whatever for a table downstairs tonight.

The earpiece guy was named Mike. He worked at the hotel, managing special events. He was on hand to watch Wright win the Madden Challenge and a cool $50,000, presented as a large novelty check.

"Hey, I'm nice in 'Madden,' too," Hotel Mike said, smiling. "Everybody thinks they're nice in 'Madden.'"

Maybe so. But some of us know better.

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