- Associated Press - Sunday, June 4, 2017

CLAREMORE, Okla. (AP) - Off Oklahoma Highway 88, down a long gravel driveway, sits a house with a porch almost covered in cats.

The house looks like just another home you would find on the side of an Oklahoma highway - except one of its residents, decked out in athletic gear and standing among the cats, is a world champion.

Michael Skimbo, 25, took home $150,000 playing a video game and is the 2017 Madden NFL World Champion. The football game is one of the world’s top-selling video games each year, and the Madden Championship is essentially the Super Bowl of the sports gamer world.

Skimbo took home a massive wrestling-championship-type belt and his share of $500,000 in prize money on May 14 after playing against 32 competitors for two weeks in Burbank, California.

Skimbo plans to save his money but might make a trip to “some beach” with his old college roommate in July because “I got all the time in the world,” he told the Tulsa World (https://bit.ly/2r8rIzx ).

In June 2016, Electronic Arts, the publisher of Madden, announced that top competitors in the four-tournament Madden series would have the opportunity to win a portion of a million dollars. That’s when Skimbo decided to take a year off work and play Madden full time.

“I know it’s a video game, and I know how people look at it, because I was the same way in high school. I didn’t play video games,” said Skimbo, who was a talented athlete at Claremore High School. “But somehow I became the best in the world.”

Skimbo encountered a few failures on his way to becoming the best - three to be exact. In the tournaments leading up to the championship, Skimbo came in ninth in the Madden Classic, third in the Madden Bowl and second in the Madden challenge.

“I think if I wasn’t so strong mentally, I would have gave up,” he said. “But just knowing how hungry I am to be the best at Madden drove me to keep making these deep runs in every tournament.”

Professional Madden gamers may spend 10 to 15 years practicing and becoming familiar with the game; Skimbo did it in four, a feat he said some have called “remarkable.”

When Skimbo says it took him four years to perfect his skills, he isn’t exaggerating.

Skimbo didn’t play video games or football in high school. Baseball and basketball were his sports of choice until he was introduced to Madden in college.

Andres Acosta, a friend Skimbo met his freshman year at the University of the Ozarks, takes credit for putting the clay in Skimbo’s hands.

Acosta and Skimbo were both on the baseball team in college and would fill their time between classes playing Madden.

When Acosta returned for his sophomore year of college a year later and saw Skimbo play, he thought, “He’s going to do something with this,” he said. Acosta’s prediction was confirmed when Skimbo started traveling to small, non-EA-affiliated Madden tournaments in Atlanta, Las Vegas and New Jersey a few years later.

Sneaking into friends’ dorm rooms at night has been widely proclaimed as Skimbo’s secret to success. To perfect his Madden skills, he would play on a friend’s Xbox all night because “I don’t like losing at anything I do,” he said.

Skimbo’s love for Madden was kept secret from his parents until he took the last year off to prepare for the four-part Madden tournament. His dad has always been supportive of his choice to pursue professional gaming, but his mom didn’t fully jump on board until a few months ago, he said.

Both of Skimbo’s parents teach and coach. His mom, Valerie Skimbo, said she is old-fashioned and wanted her son to get a 9-to-5 job.

“I’ve been teaching for 35 years, and to me, playing video games were going nowhere,” she said.

It took some words of encouragement from a friend of Valerie’s to change her mind.

“My best friend said, ‘This is a new day, this is a new time. He’s not married, he doesn’t have any children, and you need to let him try it. You need to be his biggest fan and support him, and he needs to know his mother has got his back,’” she said.

Now, Skimbo said, his mother is “honestly my biggest fan.”

Life after Skimbo’s big win has consisted of coaching a summer junior high baseball team in Oologah and waiting around his parents’ house until Madden NFL ‘18 comes out in three months.

As for returning to the competition next year, Skimbo is all in.

“I am the best in the world right now at this game, and if you’re the best in the world at something, it’s really hard to give it up,” he said. “I think I would be dumb if I didn’t try to play again next year.”

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Information from: Tulsa World, https://www.tulsaworld.com

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