SORE THUMBS: Head-to-Head Video Games

Our fearless critic enters the national Madden Challenge

Matthew Scott Hunter

This is about as close to athleticism as I typically get. I'm in ESPN Zone, surrounded by sports paraphernalia and décor. In front of me, there's a big arcade machine with an Xbox inside and Madden NFL 2006 playing on the screen, and I'm thinking: It's 9 in the morning; we should have seats. It's the Madden Challenge, a competition spanning 32 cities, in search of the one gamer who will bear the title of Madden NFL champion. And Las Vegas is the city to kick off the competition.

As I reach the second floor of ESPN Zone, I find that the usual sports arcade has been converted into a somewhat more cramped EA Sports arcade. The room is already filled with people who all appear to shop in the sportswear department of Men's Big & Tall. It's a regular XXL jersey convention, with several of the Madden hopefuls well into the first quarter. I immediately spot the hulking form of Antoin "Pretty Boy" Williams, the runner-up of last year's competition. Also present are 2004 finalists David "One9" Stepney and Kyle "The Remedy" Cooper, and neither are from Las Vegas.

"We get a lot of people who compete in multiple cities," says Alison Ross, promotions manager for EA Sports and the major force behind the Madden Challenge. "They usually average about six or seven [cities]. But the record is held by a guy who showed up to 17. He actually followed the bus."

With $100,000 at stake, it's not hard to understand the devotion. Personally, I can't take the pressure. Despite being Las Vegas Weekly's resident videogame critic, my Madden skills are lacking. I'm one of those geeks who got into videogames as an alternative to sports, rather than a means of enjoying the experience despite my physical shortcomings. And as such, I sign up for this year's new Rookie Division, where the victor's spoils are something near and dear to my heart: a pile of Electronic Arts' videogames. Not that it matters. I anticipate a loss too humiliating to even be included in the cruelest of sports blooper reels.

But then strange things start to happen. Pretty Boy, the No. 1 contender in the room, loses in the third round against 18-year-old Chris "Can't Be Stopd" Espejo. Across the arcade, there's an even rarer sight. A girl is competing. She's only 13 years old ... and she's winning.

"Girls can beat boys all the time," says Jatna "Gisele" Halili, casually.

At the center of the room, the emcee holds an End Zone Dance contest. And by a vast margin of applause, the winner is the goofy, middle-aged white guy. Suddenly, I realize that my winning Madden wouldn't be all that weird on a day like this ...

And then I start playing. Within five minutes, I'm being tackled in my own end zone. Gisele loses to a suddenly pious and grateful boy. And Can't Be Stopd is, well ... stopd.

"I don't like how a lot of the quarterbacks have really limited vision," Can't Be Stopd complains. "I usually run with the Redskins, but the quarterback vision cone is too small."

I find I'm having the same problem. The single greatest change in this year's Madden is QB vision. Every quarterback now has a cone of sight that must be directed towards your chosen receiver before each pass. The width of the cone varies depending on the stats of the QB. The problem is that it takes a lot of practice to steer the cone intuitively with the thumbstick. If you're not used to it, it's as though your QB is trying to complete a pass while suffering wild neck spasms. And if you take too long to get it under control, you'll find yourself continuously losing yardage, until you're sacked into your own end zone. Like me.

The Hawaiian shirt-clad EA ref behind me snickers, "Safety already?" I grind my teeth. This is the problem with my job—and to be fair, the only one other than living in constant fear of assassination by all the 11-year-olds on my block who wish to replace me. With only a short time to devote to exploring each title, a videogame critic is still expected to be a master of every game. You think your friends really dish out the trash talk? You should hear what happens when I get fragged in Halo multiplayer.

So I suck it up. My opponent, David Chavez (rookies don't get nicknames), and I spend the next 20 minutes migrating from one 10-yard line to the other and back again. By the end, no one scores, and David wins 2-0, courtesy of that initial safety ... and the fact that he's much better than I am. He hopes to go for the money next year, and I wish him luck.

"So what do you think of all this?" Ross asks me. I tell her it's a lot of fun, and that I wish there were competitions like this for many other videogame franchises.

"I would kick ass at a Dr. Mario Challenge," I say.

"You'll have to talk to Nintendo," she laughs.

Yeah, she laughs ... but I would kick ass.

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