Too much football? No such thing for Victor King. The 38-year-old watches it, coaches it, runs his own coed football league. Like other swear-by-the-game, nothing-else-matters fanatics, King plays off the field, too: on a video game console on every floor of his three-story house in Dale City.
There's a PlayStation 2 in his bedroom; an Xbox in his "little workstation" where he opens his mail; and another PlayStation 2 in the basement with the 70-inch TV.
So, naturally, this is a big week for the Kings of the country: Madden NFL 2005, the 15th year of the billion-dollar video game franchise, will be in all stores today -- the game's publisher, Electronic Arts, guarantees that -- fanning off a month-long frenzy that got a little crazier this week.
Why watch the game on your television when you can play it alone, or with friends, or online? Video games, after all, offer a world of interactivity where King can manage his own football team ("I don't play favorites," he says), pick plays, figure out how much to charge for snacks at the concession stand, even control the personality of his star player.
Nearly 37 million units of Madden NFL have been sold since 1989, and Madden 2004 was last year's best-selling video game -- smashing competitors Zelda: The Wind Waker, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Mario Kart: Double Dash, among other titles -- with more than 5 million copies sold. Madden comes out every August, capitalizing on the hype before the actual NFL season officially begins next month -- and, in these past few years, building its own hype.
Heard of preview Madden NFL parties in cities such as Los Angeles and Washington? Of National Madden Skip Day, giving hard-core fans a reason to skip work and play Madden at home? Of the third annual Madden Challenge, which comes to 32 cities -- it's Sept. 25 at Union Station -- and invites gamers to battle it out for a shot at $50,000?
It has been a mad Madden world since Monday, with the Game Stop and Game Crazy retail chains sending planes to Louisville -- the game's distribution center -- to make sure their stores had it in stock by Monday night. Call Game Crazy in Forestville and the salesclerk answers: "Thank you for calling Game Crazy, where we have Madden 2005 in stock."
Tawanda Gladden likens this week to Christmas week.
Hollywood has Harry Potter, publishing has Oprah, and "video games got Madden," says Gladden, the store director of Game Crazy at Forestville. "We missed the boat last year, getting the game a day late, so our new president" -- that's Randy Baumberger, head of 652 stores in the United States, 40 of them in the Washington area -- "made sure we were the first to get it," Gladden says. More than 700 reservations were made at the Forestville store, some of them five months ago. By midnight Monday, 548 were sold -- at $49.99 a pop. By 1:30 p.m. yesterday the number was at 703.
David Riley of the NPD Group, a New York-based market research firm that covers the video game industry, calls Madden a "phenomenon."
"It's brand loyalty, plus brand recognition," says Riley, who owns four of the games himself. "People buy it, year in and year out, for its playability and graphics."
Sports games accounted for $1.2 billion of the $5.8 billion in video game sales last year, according to the NPD Group, and no title touches Madden NFL. Industry analysts say that for many years Madden NFL has redefined realism in sports video games. What would Tony Hawk Underground look like without Madden's example? The realism is stunning, so detailed in its bone-crunching designs -- Madden 2005 features the Hit Stick, stepping up the games' defensive controls -- that die-hard players such as Jay Bhalodia are left shaking their heads.
"Look at it," says Bhalodia, 24, sitting inside Buffalo Billiards in Dupont Circle, drinking Sam Adams and waiting for his turn to sample Madden 2005 at a preview party last Saturday. His friends are playing the game on a Game Cube console: Atlanta Falcons 6, Seattle Seahawks 6.
"It's kind of scary how real the game is now, the disgusting details you can control. It's insane," Bhalodia says, laughing.
John Madden himself -- the 68-year-old football icon, an Emmy-winning sports commentator -- has been enjoying a renaissance among the younger generation. Mention his name to 23-year-old Delvin Wilson and Wilson thinks of the video game persona, not the supercharged coach of the Oakland Raiders who won 112 games and a Super Bowl in the 1976 season.
"Oh, yeah. Something like that," Wilson says of the real Madden's off-the-video game record.
Wilson's on his break from his sales job at Foot Locker in Pentagon City, waiting in line -- it's 8:30 p.m., an hour before closing, and there's still a line -- at EB Games. He ordered the game last month and has owned every Madden NFL game since 1990. "I grew up playing Madden," he says, brushing off the recent competition: the ESPN NFL 2K5, which sells for about $20.
"I won't play anything else but Madden."
Neither will Victor King.
King, like Wilson, grew up on Madden NFL -- he has owned each game since 1989. He came up with an idea (he's an event planner) while vacationing in Las Vegas. How about a Madden League? Thirty players each paying $150 will each own a team and play 16 regular weeks every Tuesday night in four bars around Washington -- the first two bars play host to the league Sept. 7, the other two Sept. 14.
"It's perfect!" says King, the father of 9-year-old Chelsea and 4-month-old Cameron. He has advertised the league in On Tap magazine and on CraigsList.org. He has gotten more than 200 e-mails.
"You have to understand, Madden is big if you're a football fan. Folks talk about Madden in the gym, in the barbershop, in bars. Everyone has a group of friends they play Madden with." Too much football? Please.