The New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons will go head-to-head Sunday in Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium in Houston, but before the big game another major football event will take place nearby on Friday: the 2017 Madden Bowl.
The Madden Bowl is the video game equivalent of the Super Bowl, and $250,000 will be on the line as the best players from around the world have been competing this past week for a spot in the semifinals and finals in Houston.
It has been a long road for Electronic Arts' wildly popular football simulation, originally released in 1988 on the Apple II as a football instruction manual of sorts. The game exploded over the years with basements, living rooms and dorm rooms hosting family and friends fighting it out late into the night, game after game.
With the rise of esports, Madden, too, has ascended beyond its humble couch-bound beginnings. Now there are yearlong online tournaments, professional players and serious money on the line.
"The National Football League will tell you that there's been no greater tool to consistently make young football fans than Madden," Electronic Arts chief competition officer Peter Moore said in an interview with ESPN.
EA is trying to grow Madden into a more viewable and competitive esport. There might be a level of skepticism as to why or even how a football video game can stack up to the real thing, but unbeknownst to many older football fans, there's a deep meta game taking place and simulation football brings a unique dynamic not possible in the actual sport.
The main game mode being featured at the 2017 Madden Bowl will be Ultimate Team. In this mode, players pick their own roster to create the best mix of chemistry and talent from the historic well of football players both past and present. It's done via a card system to ensure balance, but it means that Madden competitors can also create teams with legendary athletes from seasons past.
Think of Ultimate Team as the true realization of fantasy football. Players strategize and plan out the best players, with actual playbooks and can draft impossible versions of the Patriots.
"They're wearing Patriots gear. They're not Patriots. And that's fascinating as an NFL fan who understands how our individual top players put their lineups together," Moore said.
For football fans who argue how which year's Patriots team would have fared with which season's quarterbacks, that debate can finally be put to rest in Madden. It's what makes the game so compelling for fans, but it's also something EA has to communicate with people skeptical of watching other people play the game.
"I used to enjoy Ed McCaffrey as a player, and it's great to see him back on the field again, and in fact it was brilliant to see him back on the field again. And I think that ability to reintroduce players of the past and swap them into teams right now is the uniqueness of Madden," Moore said.
Madden has become a treasure chest of statistics and profiles of some of the greats from years past, especially for parents who want to introduce their kids to the history of football.
"For NFL fans who are not as old as me, who don't recall these players, I think it's a phenomenal way to learn about the great players of the past who've become the platform for the National Football League," Moore said.
A majority of esports fans gravitate toward fantasy games or shooters like League of Legends or Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. For many, Madden or FIFA are not on their radar. But this doesn't mean that traditional sports video games are undeserving of attention. Right now, the team at EA is trying to change that perception and is working with the community to make Madden and FIFA viewership just as compelling for fans watching as it is playing the game.
"We're nine months in," Moore said. To compare a relatively new Madden and FIFA competitive scene to League or CS:GO would be premature. But Moore is optimistic: "With the constant exposure it's gonna get from traditional media companies like ESPN, as well as the Facebook lives and the Twitches of this world, I think it's going to be a building year for us, and I think we're gonna come out of it with some pretty significant numbers, and I'm excited to see how all that develops."
Regardless of whatever preconceived notions people might have, esports teams are already paying close attention to some of the best in Madden and FIFA.
Last year, multigame esports organization Luminosity picked up Madden player Eric "Problem" Wright, arguably the best player in the world right now. Even soccer clubs have taken FIFA players under their wing, such as Benedikt "SaLz0r" Saltzer of VfL Wolfsburg or Francisco "Quinzas" Cruz of Sporting Lisbon.
Considering the current group of NFL players grew up on Madden on their PlayStation 2s and Xbox's in the early 2000s, it's hard to find any NFL player who wasn't influenced by Madden in some way.
"I guarantee, you go to any locker room, Madden is being played," Moore said.
Even though Madden might not get League of Legends numbers yet, Moore does take solace in the fact that pretty much any football fan can see a game of Madden and instantly understand what's going on.
That's something that neither League of Legends nor CS:GO can claim.