When Ty Lenhart first picked up an Xbox controller, no older than seven, he was more focused on mashing buttons than what was really happening on the screen.
Madden, EA Sports' hallmark NFL video game, is the first game Lenhart remembers playing. He started by mastering the basic controls: "B" for a spin move, "Y" to jump, right trigger for "Turbo." It was all instinctual, and winning came easy.
But as he learned more about football, and as each version of Madden became more realistic, Lenhart started to incorporate strategy into his gameplay. There were routes that always earned a first down. There were defensive zone schemes that seemed to cover the whole field. And as he became a quarterback at DeMatha High in Hyattsville, Md., his understanding of Madden — and, at the same time, football — became a lot more nuanced.
"I've had coaches say, 'Go play Madden, go try things on there,' " Lenhart said. "When you run concepts with your team, and then in Madden you see the same concepts but you see different tweaks and stuff, I think it really helps you understand the point of the play and the goal of it."
Football is changing, and some critics point to decreased physicality and less practice time as reasons for the game going soft. But a wave of technology, the annual release of Madden included, has improved the football intelligence among the sport's young players. They come to high school with a better understanding of terminology, passing concepts and defensive schemes. They are visual learners who can really think the game.
Lenhart, a 17-year-old senior who plays quarterback for the Stags, is part of a generation of lifelong Madden players. The game was first released in 1988 when John Madden, the Hall of Fame coach, wanted a video game that could also serve as an educational tool. Almost three decades later, it is a high-level football simulation built with the input of NFL players and coaches and stocked with real-life playbooks.
Couple that with Hudl, an app that allows football players to access film, broken down by game situation and play type, on their phones. Then add in video systems on high school sidelines that give coaches the ability to break down the play that just happened, like, 30 seconds ago. None of this technology can improve a player's 40-yard dash time or chances of knocking an opponent over come Friday night. But it all contributes to subtle cognitive advantages, with Madden functioning as extra homework or late-night studying — if extra homework or late-night studying were fun.
When Lenhart calls a typical "Smash" play against a Cover 2 defense in Madden, with one receiver running a short hitch and the other a corner route, he fixes his eyes on the virtual cornerback trying to cover two players at once. If the cornerback drops back, he goes with the hitch. If the cornerback moves forward, he hits the corner route. The same passing concept is in DeMatha's playbook.
"They all play, and I think it's really benefiting the high school level because kids are smarter," said Matt Bowen, a former NFL defensive back who is now an ESPN analyst and assistant high school coach in the Chicago area. "Madden can't teach you to play through a sprained ankle. But it can teach you the little nuances of the game, and I think kids are more prepared now, from a mental standpoint, to go into higher levels of football."
'Don't you play Madden?'
Now that Chris Grier has a wife and kids, there isn't much time for video games.
But a few months back, the 35-year-old head coach of Sherwood High in Sandy Spring, Md., sneaked into his basement and turned on his PlayStation 3. Grier's first football video game was Madden 95, and he later gravitated toward EA Sports' NCAA Football games, which are no longer being made. When he started playing again, he saw all the passing concepts that now show up in Sherwood's playbook.
Smash. Flood. Spot. Y Cross. Shallow Cross. Sherwood's favorite passing play this season is taken directly from a video game and has the exact same name. Grier, a typical football coach, did not share what it was.
"I use the same names because players know it or have seen it before, so we're already one step ahead when I introduce it," said Grier. "That comes from playing Madden from a young age. I have learned a lot from those games as a coach, and I know my guys have, too."
Rex Dickson, Madden's gameplay producer, is constantly molding the game into a mirror of what fans see on Sundays. He and co-workers go to coaching clinics to pick up on new plays and trends. They sit for hours with the league's Madden-crazed players, a group that includes former Patriots and Texans defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, Chiefs safety Eric Berry and Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.
"The number one thing I've heard is probably reading coverages and understanding play concepts," Dickson said of what parts of Madden football players find most educational. "Just by nature of playing the game, I think you're going to get a pretty good handle on those things."
When Grier first started coaching at Sherwood, the same thought popped into his head whenever a player did not understand a play or scheme. Sometimes that thought also popped out of his mouth, and it soon became a running joke on his coaching staff.
"My dude, don't you play video games?" Grier would ask the player. "Don't you play Madden?"
Grier laughed. "And if he said no, I knew why he was confused."
'They are thinking the game'
Michael Mbony faces a conundrum every time he sits down to play Madden: He has to play with Kirk Cousins, but the Redskins quarterback is too slow.
Mbony, a senior at Sherwood, is a dual-threat quarterback who likes to scramble — both on the field and virtually. He also prescribes to the rule of playing with his hometown team, which leaves him trying to escape the pocket with Cousins, whose speed is rated 79 out of 100 in the game.
"Ah man, with Kirk that just means a lot of checkdowns, because he can't get away from people," Mbony joked. "But really, I like playing Madden similarly to how I play football because I think it gives me an extra chance to work on some things."
Now that football season is in full swing, high school players have less time for video games. But they frequently squared off at the end of summer, whether it was between two-a-day training camp practices or in group gatherings on off days. In August, junior quarterback Kam Snell of Good Counsel High in Olney, Md., said, "If we're not here, we're probably all at someone's house playing Madden."
Snell uses Madden to do things he doesn't always get to in games, such as going through multiple passing reads or making pre-snap audibles. Jaden Faulkner, the senior quarterback of Eleanor Roosevelt High in Greenbelt, Md., uses the game to feel how much time he has to get a throw off against a blitzing defense. Defensive backs, such as the ones Bowen coaches in Chicago, can look at a Madden formation before the snap and analyze what routes the receivers may run.
"It's all positive, because they are thinking the game and they are having fun," said Good Counsel Coach Andy Stefanelli. "A downside is that kids now are less likely to go out and play pickup like they used to, so the football instincts aren't always there. But the level of football understanding is definitely higher and they are great visual learners, and I think that is because of the video games. Almost all of these kids have been playing it their whole lives."
Like Mbony, Lenhart tends to play Madden like he plays in real life. Lenhart is a pro-style quarterback with an offer from Cornell and interest from a few major programs, and he thrives while scanning the field from within the pocket.
But his Madden team is the Steelers, and the controller in his hand expands the possibilities. He can sidestep rushers with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and chuck the ball more than 50 yards. He can hurdle defenders with running back Le'Veon Bell. He can throw the ball anywhere near wide receiver Antonio Brown and expect him to go get it. These players are stars in real life, but in the video game they are nearly unstoppable.
And so, for however long the game lasts, Lenhart is unstoppable, too.
"Once in a while I do some fluke stuff that you can do in Madden that I probably can't do in real life," Lenhart said. "Because it's a little different when you're in pads and you have defensive linemen running at you."