By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, October 4, 2009
Every August, Redskins fan Brion Summers picks up a new copy of the bestselling Madden football video game. He likes to go up against his friends online as they pit their favorite teams against his version of the Redskins.
But every once in a while, Summers betrays his team and plays as somebody else, like San Diego or Pittsburgh. That's because every now and then, Summers wants to actually win a game.
For long-suffering Redskins fans, the online gaming era has brought a new way to feel the pain that comes with rooting for a struggling team. Sure, nothing was worse than watching last Sunday's defeat by the Detroit Lions -- which had lost 19 straight games -- but going online and playing football as the Redskins on an Xbox 360 is pretty darn close.
"I already get enough abuse being a Redskins fan," said Summers, a 32-year-old who lives in Chesapeake. "Then when I go online to play the game and can't compete on the same level, I get even more harassment."
Playing as the Redskins on Madden isn't recommended for the easily frustrated, fans say. The offensive line is weak, so there's little time to let a running back like Clinton Portis get in position. Jason Campbell's throws are everywhere but there. And everyone seems to fumble.
In other words, "it's very similar to the Redskins," said Summers with a laugh.
For the uninitiated, Madden is the Super Bowl champ of sports video games, largely because EA Sports has the exclusive rights to use NFL teams, stadiums and talent. From their sofas, Madden players can pick a team and face off against the game's software or go online and try their skills against millions of other players. Since the latest version's release, gamers have logged 35 million hours of playtime, according to the company. On the average day, 350,000 people play online.
Pick up a sports video game, and a fan's natural impulse is to play as the team he loves most. For armchair quarterbacks who think they could do a better job than the coach, a video game represents a fan's chance to, perhaps, show off superior skills. Considering some of the play-calling made during the Redskins' recent loss to Detroit, some local fans have begun to joke that head coach Jim Zorn should spend some time with the video game feature where John Madden, the famous announcer, gently prods gamers into picking decent strategies.
If the Redskins continue their poor performance, it's only going to get worse for their video-game-playing fans. EA Sports periodically tweaks the software that controls its virtual athletes. Such updates, based on a player's real-world performance, adjusts the chance a particular player will catch or fumble the ball or even how fast they'll run.
While those tweaks are intended to make the game seem more up-to-date and realistic, this is controversial turf. Some Redskins fans, complaining on EA Sports' Web site and elsewhere, say the game company is biased against the team and is consistently harder on Redskins players than other teams. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall's rating plummeted in the latest version of the game, from a brag-worthy "93" down to a lowly "68," the biggest drop of any player in the latest version of Madden. It was a move that angered the athlete, according to the Official Washington Redskins Blog. At least one football player has threatened to boycott Madden NFL 10 based on his rating in the game.
EA Sports, the game's creator, makes its ratings based on reviews of the same game films that are sent to NFL teams each week, Rob Semsey, a public relations manager for the company, said in an e-mail. "We always see complaints on ratings," he said. "Our guys get it right more times than not."
Semsey said that while EA Sports does not track whether the Redskins have gotten more or less popular this season in online matchups, gamers on the whole gravitate toward using teams that are doing well. On the other hand, there is a strong regional factor for which teams are played the most. Madden fans in Virginia, for example, almost always pick the Redskins as their primary team.
Thanks to the networking capabilities of the latest game consoles, it's possible to chat with your opponents as you play the football video game. Generally, regardless of whether you're playing friends or a stranger, this amounts to a steady stream of mockery and verbal abuse. This is especially true if you're a Redskins fan playing Madden. Especially now.
"There was definitely a lot more trash talk after losing to the Lions," said Richard Yule, a hard-core Madden fan who still plays a match or two as his beloved Redskins every day. As a guy who plays online under a moniker that reveals his leanings -- "xhail2skinsx" is his "gamertag" on the Xbox Live service -- Yule doesn't have any intention of giving up on his team.
But every time the 20-year-old student logs on to play these days, he hears the same thing from his online opponents: "They just keep saying, 'Lions! Lions! Lions! How did you guys lose to the Lions?' "
If, like Yule, a player knows the tricks required to bring the Redskins to a video game win, playing Madden can be cathartic. A few days after the Redskin's humiliating loss to Detroit, an anonymous trash-talking opponent chose the Lions in a match against Yule.
"I won 38 to 3" against Detroit, he said, still savoring the victory. "I wish that's how it went in real life."
David Sauer, a 22-year-old Madden addict who lives in Rockville, said he firmly believes the team would be at least as well off if it turned to the video game for tips, following last Sunday's defeat.
"If Zorn had had the Madden playbook in front of him, he definitely would've called a better game," he said. "I think having a play given to him would work out better than him having to pick one."
Sauer's not much of a Redskins fan anyway, but he especially wouldn't want to play that team on Madden. Anybody still playing as the Redskins is "either looking for a great challenge, or they are a diehard Redskins fan, in which case they would relentlessly get made fun of," he said.
As a result, some gamers opt to play with that voice chat feature turned off. It's easier to hear John Madden's reassuring voice that way anyway.
"Seems like it might be a good time to go with a draw play," urged the electronic announcer on a recent afternoon, as a reporter tried to steer the Redskins to victory against the Vikings. The EA Sports matchmaking software attempts to pair players up against each other according to their experience, so, presumably, there was another beginner or intermediate player on the other end.
The wisdom of John Madden inspired a measure of confidence, but he can't fix everything. Toward the end of the game, the game's camera cut to the crowd, where virtual Redskins fans hung their heads low and trudged to the exits. All they missed was a crushing defeat.
Disappointment. It's in the game.