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Madden NFL 12: Why the hold-outs cling to old-school football video games

For the legion of control-pad jockeys who have made "Madden NFL" both an annual best-seller and a pop-culture phenomenon, Tuesday's arrival of the franchise's newest iteration had the makings of an unofficial national holiday: late-Monday-night purchasing lines outside electronics stores, a surge in online excitement and competitive trash talk, and a rash of dubious sick-day call-ins to work.

Now in its 23rd year, the "Madden" football video game has become nearly as much of a national obsession as the sport it simulates, with cumulative sales exceeding 70 million copies, a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a branded ESPN television series and numerous NFL players among the title's devoted followers. Nevertheless, within the gaming community, there are hundreds - maybe thousands - of dissidents, united by a rejection of all things "Madden NFL."

"I didn't even know the game was coming out this week," said Anthony Orenga, a 25-year-old software developer from Madison, Wis.

Within the fast-evolving, "New-New-Thing" worlds of pop culture and consumer electronics, such recalcitrance is downright bizarre.

Do movie buffs cling to VHS players? When was the last time you saw a Walkman at the gym?

"It's like the guy walking around with a big old Gordon Gekko cellphone that you snap into a shoulder case," said Shawn Drotar, editor of the online sports gaming blog 5WGaming.com. "The people holding out, they're a little entrenched."

Don't get the wrong idea: Like many men his age, Mr. Orenga plays video games. He loves professional football, too.

Yet while other avid football gamers spent Monday evening eagerly awaiting the release of "Madden NFL 12" - Christmas Eve in August - Mr. Orenga unwound with "Tecmo Bowl," a football game that came out two decades ago. This relic features archaic two-button controls and crude, pixilated graphics that are to "Madden NFL's" complex, eight-button scheme and high-definition, photo-realistic glory what a Sopwith Camel is to an F-117 Stealth Fighter.

Why hold out?

For some "Madden" refuseniks, the answer lies in nostalgia, the same gauzy impulse that informs both Proust and the ongoing popularity of retro-style, 1980s cartoon character T-shirts.

Mr. Orenga, for instance, was born in 1986 and grew up controlling virtual versions of gridiron stars Bo Jackson and Jerry Rice in "Tecmo Bowl" on the Nintendo Entertainment System - the dominant video-game console of the Reagan era, home to "Super Mario Bros." and "Duck Hunt."

While later attending Penn State University, Mr. Orenga was surprised and delighted to discover a website, TecmoBowl.org, where a community of gamers was still playing an approximated version of his favorite childhood game, complete with leagues, tournaments and reprogrammed team rosters that featured the names and stats of current pro football players.

A Facebook page devoted to "Tecmo Bowl" has about 9,000 members, while roughly 200 gamers regularly participate in online leagues, said Matt Knobbe, a technology consultant from Lincoln, Neb., who runs TecmoBowl.org.

Yearly "Tecmo Bowl" tournaments held in Madison, New York City and other locations around the country draw between 32 and 144 gamers. Most participants, Mr. Knobbe said, are in their 20s or 30s.

"Madden NFL" tournament and online play can be a competitive hothouse, with thousands of gamers - many of them teenagers - going head-to-head for cash, bragging rights and the opportunity to play in professional video-game leagues.

According to Mr. Orenga, the "Tecmo Bowl" vibe is more relaxed.

"I don't think many of the guys in our community even play 'Madden,' " he said. "With 'Madden's' online play, there's so many jerks. And when you watch those 'Madden' tournament shows on TV, those are not people I want to associate with.

"The other big thing is that I'm older. I have a job. Playing something like 'Madden' nowadays, there's just so much going on. It's complex, and I just don't have the time to dedicate to a game like that anymore."

At the other end of the anti-Madden spectrum are football gamers - football geeks, really - who want added complexity. As a mass-market entertainment product, "Madden NFL" has to resemble professional football closely enough to seem authentic - without demanding of its players the strategic knowledge and workaholic time commitment needed from an actual NFL coach.

Thomas Paterniti, a 29-year-old graduate student at Florida State University, hasn't played a "Madden NFL" game since 2007. Over the same time period, he has logged hundreds of hours playing "All-Pro Football 2K8" alongside an online community of 300 to 400 regular users.

"I'm a grad student, so I take an intellectual approach to the game," Mr. Paterniti said. "I like being able to strategize, make adjustments, go deep into the mental aspect of the sport. I rent 'Madden' every year, but I always come back to 'All-Pro.' "

Released in 2007 with a digital roster of retired professional players such as Barry Sanders and John Elway - but without actual NFL teams or players - "All-Pro Football 2K8" was a marketplace flop, selling less than 400,000 copies versus 3.6 million for "Madden NFL 08."

Still, the game and its 2004 predecessor, "NFL 2K5," maintain a cult following, in part because gamers have figured out ways to create and share up-to-date pro-football rosters not included on the game discs - the video-game version of do-it-yourself YouTube remixes and musical mash-ups.

Garry Sewell, a 53-year-old former custodian at Youngstown State University, estimates that he spends between three and four months every year creating updated "NFL 2K5" rosters, a painstaking process that includes extensive print and online research, regularly watching ESPN and the NFL Network and updating the names, statistics and appearances - down to uniform, shoe and glove preferences - of about 1,500 professional players.

"Before the NFL Draft, I even research players coming out of college," said Mr. Sewell, whose first football gaming experience was a pen-and-paper board game put out by Sports Illustrated magazine. "It's a one-man operation. I enjoy it. I don't get paid, but it's a labor of love.

"I'm also laid off right now, so I have some extra time."

"Madden" refuseniks share a common grievance: "Madden NFL" is the only professional football video game left on the home-console market. That wasn't always the case: In the 1990s and early 2000s, diverse titles including "NFL 2K," "NFL Blitz," "NFL Gameday" and "Tecmo Super Bowl" made for a range of choices.

In 2004, however, the game maker Take Two Interactive released "NFL 2K5" at an aggressive $19.99 price, forcing rival Electronic Arts to cut the $49.99 price of "Madden NFL 2005" and eating into "Madden's" longtime lead in market share.

Shortly thereafter, Electronic Arts signed an exclusive, $300-million-plus licensing deal with the NFL and the NFL Players Association. Given the league's overwhelming popularity, the move essentially eliminated video-game competition, and unlicensed titles such as "Blitz: The League" have registered mediocre sales.

In 2008, a group of gamers - including District resident Geoffrey Pecover - filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Electronic Arts, alleging that the company has created a "monopoly in the market for interactive football software." A University of Michigan economics professor acting as a plaintiffs' expert witness in the ongoing case estimated that Electronic Arts collectively overcharged "Madden NFL" buyers as much as $926 million between 2006 and 2009.

On the online message board Casual Adult Gamers - a hangout for "NFL 2K" players - the sentiment is less scholarly than raw.

"I hate [Electronic Arts] with a passion," wrote a gamer with the online nickname "X2kfootballg0dX." "I couldn't look myself in the mirror if I knew I gave them a penny."

"There are some guys in the community who see [Electronic Arts] as the evil empire of gaming," said Phil Porter, a 24-year-old Baltimore resident and avid "All-Pro Football 2K8" gamer. "I don't have that level of resentment.

"The NFL is football to everyone, so taking it away [from competitors] makes sense as a business model. But without competition, it hurts 'Madden.' It makes the game stale. I just want a quality game."

Electronic Arts spokesman Anthony Stevenson said "Madden NFL's" designers and programmers at EA Tiburon in Orlando, Fla., are aware of the pockets of resistance to the franchise's march to dominance.

"Our number one priority every year is to make sure that our die-hard fans have a reason to buy the game," Mr. Stevenson said. "They're our bread and butter. But we want to capture those other guys, too. We know we can't win them all over. We're trying."

For his part, Mr. Porter said that maintaining his "Madden NFL" holdout isn't always easy. Not when playing the game is practically a cultural rite of passage for anyone who enjoys football and video games.

"I've had weak moments," he said. "Where I was like, 'Maybe I can get [a copy] of "Madden" used. Maybe I can borrow the game from a friend. 'Those of us not playing, we know we're the black sheep."

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