Opening Day of the Madden Club Championship, an esports tournament held this year at Electronic Arts’ Silicon Valley headquarters, was a far cry from the scene at a qualifying “Madden” tournament in Jacksonville last August, when a gunman killed two competitors before taking his own life. According to several witnesses, and lawsuits, that venue — a “video game bar” — had no such security measures in place.
For players who experienced the shooting and were close friends with victims Taylor “SpotmePlzzz” Robertson, 28, and Elijah “Trueboy” Clayton, 22, the events in Jacksonville are still very much present, even as the competitive “Madden NFL” esports community attempted to move on at its signature annual event.
“Losing two of our brothers, that was obviously traumatizing, but it brought us together," said this year’s tournament runner-up Ryan “ibestrafing” Danczak, 27. "When you’re in the room when something like that happens, it bonds you for life.
“I didn’t want to play ‘Madden’ ever again after that day. … It was tough even going out in public and really functioning,” he said.
Danczak credited this closeness among the elite cadre of “Madden” competitors on the major tournament circuit for helping him heal, reminding him of his love for the video game and competition.
“If I didn’t start playing again, I don’t think I’d be where I need to be,” Danczak said. “We support each other; we talk about everyday stuff now; these people have impacted my life so much. When we get back together, it’s like a big reunion."
As the competitive “Madden” scene emerges from the worst tragedy to ever hit esports, EA, which makes the game, retains hopes to build it into a more popular and acclaimed circuit through increasing mainstream TV exposure as well as innovative formats. The first part of that process was moving beyond the tragic events of August.
“We had our moment and for now it’s about moving on, as we had planned in the past, to really celebrate our stars,” said Matt Marcou, EA’s “Madden” competitive gaming commissioner.
This growth strategy comes amid questions as to whether a larger “Madden” audience exists, and whether the NFL will play a larger role in the scene going forward. Last season, the NBA launched a league-backed endeavor around the “NBA 2K” game franchise.
Despite its status as an iconic video game franchise that dates back more than two decades, has billions of dollars in sales, and is referenced in dozens of rap songs, “Madden” is not considered by the gaming community to be a major esport on the level of “League of Legends” or “Overwatch.” This is largely based on the comparative size of its elite competitive community, viewership numbers, as well as prize pool size.
Last year’s Madden Club Championship drew an average of about 7,800 viewers with a total watch time of more than 178,000 hours across social media. Last year’s League of Legends World Championship, a top-tier esports event, drew an average of more than 46 million viewers and a total of 6.2 billion hours watched, according to industry analytics agency Esports Charts. The “League of Legends” figures are from 133 hours of broadcast time, compared with “Madden’s” 23 hours.
“Madden” also uses an open tournament format, as opposed to league play, as in “League of Legends” and “Overwatch.” The upshot is that anyone who buys the game has the ability to challenge for tournament titles; however players are not salaried and the qualification structure makes it more difficult to establish, and market, star players — a central strategy in established traditional sports leagues.
The commitment of resources is also a question. Riot, which makes “League of Legend," spends “way over $100 million [on] global esports,” wrote Riot’s Head of Global Esports Events, Derrick “FearGorm” Asiedu, in a Reddit thread. EA has committed $1,255,000 in prize money to all of its tournaments this year, in addition to production costs around the events EA hosts.
A more apt comparison for “Madden” might be “NBA 2K,” another esports scene built around a traditional sports game, seen as more accessible to potential viewers because they’re based on real-world sports. The NBA has partnered with Take-Two Interactive in the NBA 2K League, which provides players with contracts, salaries, standard employment benefits and access to team facilities. But even with this advantages, NBA 2K League’s viewership is more commensurate with “Madden” than “League of Legends,” with more than 278,000 hours of footage watched by a concurrent viewer average of 20,880 for 13 hours of broadcast time during its playoffs last year on live-streaming site Twitch. (Twitch is owned by Amazon. Amazon’s chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)
EA’s strategy includes trying find an audience for this new endeavor on an old medium. An ESPN network will broadcast the “Madden” tourney’s finals, which follows a special that aired earlier this year on the CW Network. A reality series on ESPN, called “Madden Nation," aired for four seasons beginning in 2008.
Besides exposure, another challenge facing EA has been finding the ideal format for the broadcast, which must bridge the gap between the core audience, mainly younger-skewing “Madden” players, and everyone else that is used to a traditional sports game show.
“I thought it was a natural that it would be “[NFL] RedZone,” short attention span theater and just kind of bang it out. ... This community wanted to watch the full game; people are watching to learn,” said Joe Lynch, head of broadcast for EA.
Lynch and EA, unlike the NBA 2K League and other esports leagues, must also contend with a revolving cast of characters, since players have to qualify for each tournament, making it harder to grow fans of players. One beloved competitor, Michael Skimbo, failed to qualify for the Club Championship this year. EA brought him in as a broadcaster.
For now, few players can afford to see playing “Madden” as a full-time job. Though top players can earn more than $100,000, most see it as a hobby and additional income stream — something they believe the NFL could change. EA, with its market capitalization of close to $28 billion, could also help in that regard.
“I hope the NFL gets involved, salaries are in there, and that we can represent for the NFL. That would be the ultimate goal,” said last year’s champion, Hassan “Goss” Spall.
On the strength of the exciting outcomes of the games, Danczak thinks “Madden” can break through.
“It’s relatable to what a lot of Americans enjoy every Sunday,” Danczak said.
More from The Post:
Analysis: The 10 best Super Bowl commercials