Mad about Madden
By Tonya Jameson
Knight Ridder Newspapers
Smoke hangs in the north Charlotte, N.C., apartment like bus fumes on a humid day. Two men argue over money; a fight seems imminent. Two other guys discuss defense. Jeremy DeBerry doesn't notice any of it. His Atlanta Falcons are tied 42-42 with the Green Bay Packers with less than five minutes.
DeBerry has $60 and his reputation riding on this game. On the 19-inch TV screen, Brett Favre launches a pass. DeBerry's fingers dance across his PlayStation 2 controller, like Dr. Dre working a beat machine, as his Atlanta defender tries to stop the football.
The ball bounces off the defender's fingertips to fall incomplete. DeBerry groans.
DeBerry is playing on one of two PS2s connected to televisions in the room. He's surrounded by guys who have been drinking, smoking and playing the "Madden NFL 2004" all day.
A pile of $20 bills lies on the floor. Two guys stop discussing defense to join those gathered behind the tattered sofa where DeBerry sits. They act as if it's the real Falcons and Packers, not two gamers controlling computer simulations on a TV screen.
That's because DeBerry, 20, is one of the best "Madden" players in Charlotte. After winning tournaments throughout the country, he's earned the nickname "Champ."
Today, though, he is struggling to beat some 37-year-old scrub. The guys in the room smell an upset.
Says one onlooker, "The Champ's shook up."
A nation of gamers
The scene in this apartment plays out nationwide. Even as you read this, husbands, children, fraternity brothers, teenage girls and college students are huddled around televisions playing "Madden" or other video games.
With complex story lines, amazing graphics and club-thumping soundtracks, video games compete with music, television and movies for Americans' attention. In a couple of years, video-game consoles -- Sony PlayStation 2, Nintendo GameCube, Microsoft Xbox -- will be as common as VCRs in American homes.
The video-game industry, which includes consoles and games, generated an estimated $13 billion in sales in the United States last year, up from $9 billion in 2001.
On average, Americans spend nine hours a week playing "Madden," "Pokemon," "Zelda" and more. Movie scripts are often written with games in mind; some artists release songs on games before their albums come out; and MTV has a show called "Making the Game," which goes behind the scenes of new projects.
"As we continue ahead in this century, interactive entertainment, particularly video games, will become the entertainment of choice for people of all ages," said Douglas Perry, an editor at Ign.com, an entertainment site.
Earlier in the day, DeBerry easily beat another gamer. That game started close, but by the second half, DeBerry was easily beating DeShaun Foster. The Panthers running back was surprised: In the locker room, he's king of "Madden" football.
"I wanted to see how I compare to those guys," said Foster, who agreed to be interviewed as long as we didn't print his game score.
DeBerry spends most of his free time playing video games and has been playing since age 7.
His first game system was a Nintendo, which came out in 1986. He is one of the thousands of young men who spend more or as much time playing video games as watching television.
Two years ago, after constantly beating friends, DeBerry and friend Jason Mangum, 19, entered a "Madden" tournament called Players' Bowl. The cocky teens expected to split the $5,000 grand prize for first place.
They lost badly. The tournament made them realize three things: They weren't as good as they thought, people took "Madden" really seriously, and they could make money playing games.
2 million copies
"Madden" was the best-selling video game last year. In its first three weeks on store shelves, it sold 2 million copies at $50 a pop.
"Madden 2004" is the 14th version. It's named after popular football announcer and former Raiders coach John Madden, one of the voices for the game's play-by-play analysis. The soundtrack includes popular contemporary artists, such as rapper Bone Crusher.
Players can get hurt just like in real life, and they strut and brag. The game uses data from the previous NFL season to create statistically realistic teams. For example, DeShaun Foster was hurt in 2002, so in the latest "Madden," he has a low rating. That should improve on "Madden 2005," along with the entire Panthers team.
After losing in the Charlotte tournament two years ago, DeBerry and Mangum took "Madden" more seriously. They often gathered at the Matthews home DeBerry shares with his parents to compete. They entered tournaments up and down the East Coast and played a few in California. Their gaming travels connected them with fellow Charlottean Josh Bohanon, 19, whose "Madden" winnings supplement his income as a carpet cleaner.
In January, the three competed in the EA Sports Madden Challenge in Las Vegas. Charlotte was the only city to send three players to the national tournament. Bohanon and Mangum lost in the final eight. DeBerry made it to the final four.
On Super Bowl weekend, however, DeBerry and Bohanon won more than $700 in cash and prizes at a Virginia tournament. Late this month, the three will fly back to Las Vegas for the Mega Bowl II Madden tournament, which has a $10,000 first prize.
The interaction attraction
Game companies struggle to keep up with a maturing population that wants to do more than "save the princess." Some experts talk about games in terms of interactive and passive entertainment, such as movies and television.
"Video games are the only form of entertainment and will remain the only form of entertainment that gives the consumer the ability to interact and control the outcome of their experience," said Douglas Lowenstein, president of Washington-based Entertainment Software Association.
Defenders keep coming
It's fun and competitive inside the small apartment off North Tryon Street. DeBerry's two friends root him on while five others pull for the challenger.
All eyes are fixed on the Xs and squares moving above the players' heads. Atlanta has the ball on Green Bay's 20-yard line with six seconds left. It's 49-49. DeBerry must score to avoid overtime.
"Take your time, Champ," his friend Bohanon says.
Atlanta's Michael Vick takes the snap. Peerless Price sprints for the end zone. Green Bay's defensive line charges after the elusive quarterback, who drops back to the 25, the 30. Defenders keep coming. Vick rolls left. He rifles a pass to Price in the end zone. Touchdown.
Jeremy DeBerry grabs his money off the floor. The Champ survives -- barely.