- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 11, 2002

Chris Samuels looks stunned. It's two plays into the first quarter, and the Washington Redskins tackle has just yielded a bull-rushing, quarterback-crushing sack to Denver's Trevor Pryce an embarrassing faux pas for a Pro Bowl-caliber pass protector.
Of course, there's a reason the 6-foot-5-inch, 303-pound Samuels is struggling.
His thumb aches.
"I'm playing hurt," Samuels says with a laugh, his oversize hands wrapped around a tiny control pad. "I messed it up in practice. But I'm still going to win."
No pain, no gain. Such is life in the National Football League or, in Samuels' case, the virtual NFL. Sitting in the living room of his Ashburn town house, he's locked in a video game battle royale with Redskins wide receiver Reidel Anthony.
At stake? Supremacy in Madden 2002, a best-selling NFL game for Sony's PlayStation 2 console.
"A lot of times, we'll come back from practice and just play for hours," Samuels said. "If sleep is my No. 1 hobby, then PlayStation is No. 2."
In that regard, Samuels and Co. have plenty of company. Lucrative and realistic, sports video games are more popular than ever, particularly among the real-life athletes who star in them:
Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Garnett is an avid gamer, as are Golden State Warrior Antwan Jamison and Portland Trailblazer Rasheed Wallace. Boston Celtic Paul Pierce takes a game console with him on road trips.
A recent ESPN special on sports games featured NFL players Peyton Manning, Matt Hasselbeck, Tim Couch and Ray Mickens, among others.
More than a dozen Redskins, including LaVar Arrington and Champ Bailey, play Madden 2002 regularly.
"There's a bunch of guys who all play," said Redskins receiver Jacquez Green. "We even had a tournament over Christmas."

Big business
It wasn't always this way. A decade ago, the notion of a Redskins' holiday PlayStation tournament would have been laughable, akin to a team Tupperware party.
The reason? Video games were a niche hobby, best left to children, tech-heads and cloistered dweebs.
"Ten years ago, I had to introduce myself to athletes, explain what we did and beg them to take a picture playing our hockey game," said Chip Lange, vice president of marketing for EA Sports, the company that produces Madden 2002. "Guys would look at us and say, 'Who?'"
Times have changed. According to market research firm NPD, the video game market last year was worth $9.4 billion, roughly $1 billion more than Hollywood's box office receipts for the same period. And sports games make up more than a third of the pie.
All four major professional leagues are represented in the virtual world, as are golf, soccer, tennis, auto racing and college sports. One best-selling title, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, even replicates the thrills and spills of professional skateboarding.
During the past three years, the Tony Hawk franchise is reported to have grossed $425 million.
"Sports gaming is a phenomenon," Mr. Lange said. "And the king of that is Madden."
Last year, the John Madden-endorsed game was the top-selling sports title and the second best-selling video game overall, popular enough to make EA Sports the NFL's No. 2 licensee, behind footwear and apparel manufacturer Reebok.
The packaging for Madden 2002 featured Minnesota quarterback Daunte Culpepper, who later ranked his appearance on the game's cover as one of the top five achievements of his athletic career.
"Daunte Culpepper calls us and says, 'I want to be on the cover of Madden. What does it take?,'" Mr. Lange said. "We're a big player in the world of the NFL. We're not in the toy business anymore."
The demographics of the video game audience have shifted accordingly. About 60 percent of Americans some 145 million people play video games regularly, according to the Interactive Digital Software Association, a District-based trade group. The average player's age is 28.
As such, many of the athletes today at least the ones younger than 30 have grown up on games such as Madden, now in its second decade of production.
"I've been playing video games for a long time, since I was 9, 10 years old," Green said. "I went from the Atari to the Colecovision to the XBox, Dreamcast, PS2. I've played them all."

Virtually real
The games, much like the industry, have evolved. Far removed from the flickering, monochromatic blobs of yore, sports simulations today look, sound and play like the real thing.
The effect can be downright eerie.
In Sega Sports' NFL 2K2, players engage in pre-snap trash talk across the line of scrimmage. In the company's NBA game, the digital Allen Iverson sports cornrows, tattoos and a wicked yo-yo crossover dribble, same as the real-life answer.
Madden features the digital mugs of actual NFL coaches. In the current version of the game, a square-jawed, polygonal Marty Schottenheimer paces the Washington sideline; in the newest title, a bevisored Steve Spurrier will take his place.
Then there's Sega Sports' World Series Baseball, which may be the first game to include virtual hecklers. Step into the box with crouching Houston slugger Jeff Bagwell, and a fan taunts, "Hey Bagwell! You look like you're sitting on the throne!"
"I remember the football game where you cut on the switch and the whole table vibrates," Samuels said. "Those little guys would just go around and around. [Games have] come a long ways."
Some details border on the gratuitous. Microsoft's upcoming NFL Fever 2003 allows players to download from the Internet real-time stadium weather conditions. Madden offers a "franchise mode" in which Charley Casserly wanna-bes can manage a team's front office over the course of several seasons.
"There are salary caps," Green said. "And guys will hold out for more money."
Of course, extreme realism doesn't come cheap. According to Mr. Lange, the production budget for a blockbuster sports game can exceed $10 million.
At EA Sports' Florida-based Tiburon studios, more than 40 people are working on the upcoming edition of Madden.
"Six or seven years ago, you could do this with one programmer, one artist and one part-time sound person," said Steve Chiang, an executive producer at Tiburon. "Now it's 12 programmers and 15 artists. It's a huge effort."
Game makers spend countless hours poring over real-world game film, the better to mimic things such as zone blitzes and neutral zone traps. Virtual players receive numerical ratings in skills such as speed and pass accuracy, ensuring that digital Ryan Leafs play as lousy as the real ones.
Though the numbers are drawn from actual scouting services and complex statistical formulas, Mr. Chiang said complaints are common, mostly from irate athletes who believe their ratings are too low.
"They gave me low awareness, and that shocks me," Samuels said. "I'm pretty smart. I was robbed."
Many pros work directly on the games that feature them. Tiger Woods had his swing and his signature fist pump digitally captured for an EA Sports golf game. Heisman Memorial Trophy winner Eric Crouch recorded snap counts and helped design playbooks for an upcoming Sega Sports college football title.
Green, an avid Madden player, met with the game's producers last summer. After going over playbooks and pass routes, he sat down with the newest version of the title.
"He was testing all the bugs in the game," Mr. Chiang said. "He had found pretty much every one in the old game and wanted to see if they were in the new one. Luckily, we had fixed them. The guy is good."

Game players
Is he ever. The NFL's de facto Madden champion, Green owns back-to-back victories in the Madden Bowl, a pros-only tournament set up by EA Sports.
Held during Super Bowl week, the annual event has taken on a life of its own. Boxer Evander Holyfield showed up to watch this year's iteration, which featured an eight-man field.
Among the competitors: St. Louis cornerback Dre' Bly, who later played in the actual Super Bowl.
"These guys all have a million party invites, a million people to hang out with," Mr. Lange said. "But they all show up to the Madden Bowl for bragging rights. They're competitive young men. Madden is a form of pickup hoops."
And from the National Hockey League to the National Basketball Association, the play's the thing. Seattle guard Gary Payton is a regular gamer, as is Detroit winger Darren McCarty. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban installed game consoles in his club's locker room.
Samuels owns a pair of PlayStation 2s one a gift from team owner Daniel Snyder and a Microsoft XBox. He even has a console in his sport utility vehicle, should the mood strike.
And Samuels isn't alone: NBA players Chris Mills and Elton Brand also take their games on the road.
"You can't play when you're driving," Samuels said. "But on long trips, it makes the time pass so much quicker."
Some athletes use games as scouting tools. Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Luis Gonzalez told MSNBC he analyzed opposing pitchers with the help of his PlayStation. Former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Davey Johnson is reported to have tinkered with batting lineups using a Sony baseball game.
"We've heard stories of college football players scouting upcoming opponents by playing against that team in our game," Mr. Chiang said.
But game playing also can hinder performance mostly when athletes spend too much time on the virtual field and not enough time on the real one.
Golden State's Jamison told ESPN that he sometimes plays for 10 hours straight. Former Seattle shortstop Rey Quinones once was unavailable to pinch-hit because he was in the clubhouse playing Nintendo.
Texas A&M;'s football team recently banned video games on road trips. The reason? Players were sluggish after all-night play sessions.
"When the new game comes out, it's consuming," Green said. "Next thing you know, four to five hours have passed. If I don't have anything to do the next day, I might play until five in the morning."
Back at Samuels' place, that much is evident. After thumping Anthony and Redskins receiver Derrius Thompson in tournament play, Green and Samuels are set to square off for the Redskins' unofficial Madden championship.
The competition is fierce starting with a pre-game coin toss. After four contentious flips, Green and Samuels argue over ground rules:
"You gotta punt if it's fourth and more than five," Green says. "Unless you're inside the 40, or it's the fourth quarter."
"It's my team," Samuels replies. "I'm coaching."
"Then you're a bad coach," Green cracks. "You're Marty Schottenheimer."
Both players lean toward the screen, controllers in hand. The game is tight from start to finish, and Samuels ekes out a 25-24 victory with a last-minute, drive-killing interception.
Needless to say, a rematch is inevitable.
"You can never master [video games]," Green says, attempting to explain his hobby. "There's always someone who's better than you."
Green pauses, searching for the right analogy. After a moment, he settles on pro athletes' other favorite activity.
"It's like golf," he says.



Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide