R.J. Warren admits he doesnāt have a lot going on right now. Heās 18 and out of high school, but he isnāt going to college and doesnāt know if he will. Heās not looking for work, either, and doesnāt know if he will.
He got fired from his last job, working at a video-game store. He says he deserved to be canned. He lives at home and spends his life playing one of the games he used to vend.
And only one.
āI play Madden all day,ā says Warren.
Heās made slackerdom pay off. A lot of folks play EAās Madden NFL Footballāitās the top-selling video game of all time, with more than 5 million units of the 2007 version sold at a suggested price of $49.99. Warren, a resident of District Heights, can make a claim as the best in the area.
This fall, he starred in the second season of Madden Nation, a reality series on ESPN2 in which a horde of premier gamers travel the country by bus, taking on the best Maddeneers in the land. He beat out 499 other competitors to win the D.C. regional of the national EA Madden Challenge tournament in October.
So this week heāll be leaving home to go to Hawaii, all expenses paid, to face 31 other regional winners in the finals. The champ will get $100,000.
āThatās all Iām thinking about right now,ā he says.
Warren says the strength of his game is his thumbs, and his biggest weakness is his head.
āIām fast, but Iām dumb,ā he says of his joystick technique.
By winning the D.C. regional, Warren dethroned reigning champ Justin Chow of Great Falls. Chow also has quite a reputation on the digital gridiron. He was a member of the Madden Nation cast for the showās 2005 inaugural season.
In addition, Chow had a spot in a pay-per-view special aimed at fellow Madden obsessives, in which masters of the game advised viewers about so-called āglitchesā theyād found. Glitches are flaws in the gameās design that give those in the know an overwhelming advantage. (An example of a glitch players discovered was a particular Michael Vick quarterback sneak that no defense could stop.)
Chowās plate is a lot fuller than Warrenās. But his obsession is just as strong. So heās had to let schoolwork, for example, slide a bit. āIām a year behind now, all because of Madden,ā says Chow, a 21-year-old computer science student at Radford University. Some former pastimes, such as playing poker or other video games for kicks or petty cash, have fallen by the wayside as heās tried to keep up with the less busy Maddeneers.
āI grew up loving video games,ā he says. āI got that from my dad, who was obsessed with Pac-Man when I was born. But this Madden thing, and the ability to make money on it, that has ruined me for other games. Iād just feel like I was wasting my time. These kids who are coming up now, they live at home, they donāt drive, they donāt have anything else to do but play Madden. Now, if Iām playing another video game, itās only because I think playing it will help me improve my movement on the stick for Madden. And I canāt even play Madden against friends or anybody on campus, even though kids try to play me for $20 just because they know my reputation. But itās not worth it. It was a sad day when I realized that I canāt play games for fun anymore.ā
The loss in D.C. also cost him a lot of money, and not just the $1,000 that goes to the regional champ. Chow didnāt take the defeat sitting down. Instead, he got out the national tournament schedule and planned trips near and far to other regionals in hopes of getting an invite back to Hawaii.
He came up short in Baltimore. And again in Philadelphia. Then in Los Angeles. But a trip to Oakland finally made the miles and money pay off: He won that regional. So heāll be back in Hawaii as the Bay Citiesā representative.
āBeing there once, you just feel like you have to get back,ā Chow says.
Warren can relate. He, too, has traveled far from District Heights to get to Hawaii. While this year provided his first D.C. championship, heāll be making his third trip to the finals. In 2004, he was the Philadelphia representative. Last year, he was the best Phoenix had to offer. Heās showed up at as many as nine regionals in a single year.
And there are a lot of road warriors like them out there.
āYou donāt have to be from [the respective region] to be in a regional,ā says Roy Stigall, associate manager of sports lifestyle marketing for EA. āAnd weāve found that every regional has become a place for players from all over. Guys like Chow, these guys have been in the Madden community for a while. Itās become a lifestyle and a whole culture for them. They want to show their peers that theyāre good at Madden. We even had people following the Madden Nation bus from city to city. Now thereās guys all over the country traveling for this, trying to find a way to get in and win.ā
Despite their vagabond ways, both Chow and Warren claim theyāve earned more money playing Madden in sanctioned tournaments or one-on-one matches for cash than theyāve spent on travel.
Players can choose digital versions of any NFL roster in Hawaii. Neither of the local entrants will go with the Washington Redskins. Warren, who lives a few miles from FedExField, says heāll use the Baltimore Ravens in the finals. Chow says the Falcons give him the best chance to take the championship.
Both agree thereās no point in picking the Skins.
āYou canāt run an offense with Brunell in Madden, so nobody uses the Redskins,ā Chow says. āHe just canāt do things. He canāt compete, not at all.ā
Maybe the video game really is close to the real thing.