Take the strategy of chess, the all-in attitude of World Series of Poker, and the trash talk of Rucker Park and you have all the ingredients of the Madden Challenge, the most competitive and in-your-face video game tournament on the planet.
These are the elite of the elite Madden gamers. The guys who find the glitches that change the game within hours of it shipping to stores. The guys who found the bug in the Tampa offense where you can directly snap it to a receiver out wide and run down the field before anyone knows what happened. The guys who found the way to block every field goal by moving the defensive linemen around in a certain order that allows one of them to shoot free to swat the rock. The guys who figured out that this year's game was all about two plays: The fullback dive and the curl route.
When it comes to the Madden Challenge, these finalists prepare by playing the game up to ten hours a day (a process they call labbin') and the results not only pay off in bragging rights, they pay off in cash as the best of the best can truly make a living doing nothing other than playing Madden. Some players in the tournament even bragged about their ability to make over $100,000 a year playing in tournaments and betting in high-stakes games of virtual football around the country.
In fact, the winner of the 2009 Madden Challenge received a $25,000 dollar check and a $25,000 Best Buy gift card to help pimp out their game room.
But in order to take that cash, contestants first had to qualify for the finals by winning either a local tournament held in one of 18 cities that spanned three countries, or one of the official EA Sports online tournaments held over Xbox Live.
The finalists then headed to the sand and sun of Beaches Turks & Caicos Resort for what proved to be one of the most unpredictable tournaments in the seven year history of the Challenge.
One thing you need to learn is that all of the contestants have nicknames and constantly call each other by these aliases Almost like a rapper or a wrestler who adopts this new persona, you don't hear people talk about the defense of Eric, they talk about the defense of "Problem" or "Young Nephew" or "Prodigy".
And when you ask around before the tournament about the gamers with the flashy names and who has the most skill, everyone talked about the same two players as the favorites to win it all: Eric "Problem" Wright and Len "Dynasty" Green.
Problem won both the 2008 Madden Challenge and Madden Nation on ESPN, and understands the pressure that goes along with playing in these types of big-money games. He even gets paid to tutor other players at Madden as a side gig.
"I've been the favorite in pretty much every tournament I've played in since 2007," Problem says before the first round gets underway. "But this year might be different. The way they made Madden 09, I think everybody has a chance to win. They made the playing field a lot easier for people, but at the same time, a lot of these guys aren't used to the pressure that is at the Madden Challenge. Those people who aren't as experienced, I think they will end up falling short. In the end, the winner will be someone with experience, and the winner will most certainly be playing as the Cowboys."
That's right, the Dallas Cowboys might not have made the playoffs in real life, but in the world of Madden, they are the unquestioned polygonal gods of the game. Look around the tournament and all you see are games of Dallas versus Dallas with maybe the occasional San Diego, Jacksonville, New York Giants, or Oakland Raiders thrown in by those who wanted to be different (and lose).
"Everyone pretty much plays the same way," explains Madden vet Ryan "RG" Glick. "Run the ball with your fullback, throw the curl route to the big receiver, throw the screen. Offense is real basic. The key is who is going to play the best defense. The winner is the guy who is going to make that one stop when the game is on the line."
And that guy who played the best D early on was also the player who became the biggest story of the tournament. His name is John "The Captain" Lacapitaine. He was one of the online winners and one of the only players who never played at a live Madden Challenge before the finals.
"I rely on the running game," Captain says. "If I need to pass, I'll pass, but I don't think anyone can stop my run. I run Twin Tight End with Marion Barber as my fullback and Felix Jones as my halfback. I run my tight end in motion, then I lead block with him and try to crush block for a big hole after I pitch the ball to Jones. Then I switch to the fullback dive and try to do the same thing by pounding it with Barber. You add a pass out of that same formation and it's pretty unstoppable.
"The Cowboys are just unstoppable overall. I hate the Cowboys in real life, but they have everything you need in the game. They have the big defenders who can stop the rocket catch and knock the ball loose, and for your offense you have a mobile quarterback, Terrell Owens who is one of the best receivers in the game, Witten who is just a beast, and Martellus Bennett who is just like a glitch in the game because when you use him for a rocket catch, that guy can jump out of the world."
But as the Madden Challenge unfolded, one thing was brutally clear. It was one thing to say you're going to win. It's another thing to actually do it in front of a group of the best gamers in the world, many of whom are talking trash within inches of your ear as you try to play the game.
The non-stop trash talk between competitors and guests in attendance (each player could bring one person) got so fierce that during one of Captain's games, a frustrated guest of one of his opponents was yelling at him with so much venom (and at such close proximity), you could actually see the spit accumulate on the back of Captain's neck from all the yappin' going on behind him.
At one point, representatives from EA Sports even had to step in and try to squash all the junk being talked as it looked like things might turn ugly.
"This is way more intense than I thought it was going to be," admitted a wide-eyed Matt Cassel who watched from up close in the player's pit. "I thought there was going to be a fight at one point. I guess that's what happens when there is this much money at stake."
And as the tournament progressed, the trash talk and chest bumping continued. At most times, there were four games being played simultaneously, and you could hear the shouts from across the room as the upsets started happening.
For the first time ever, an international player beat someone from the United States. Then some of the biggest names from the Madden community started dropping at a furious rate. Out went Problem. Out went the legendary Young Nephew, Prodigy, and Jet Steele, huge names in the Madden community.
Instead, it was the newcomer, The Captain, who rose up against all the trash talk, wiped off the spit on his neck, and ran through all comers on his way to the finals. He was such an unlikely winner that he was one of only a couple of players who didn't have his own personalized jersey with his Madden name on the back. But after his performance on the island, he will never be underestimated in a tournament like this again. And no question about it, everyone will know his name.
Captain's opponent in the finals? The only big name who didn't succumb to the pressure, Len "Dynasty" Green.
"What separates me from these other guys is I like to look outside of the box," says Dynasty before the game. "I like to have my own style. I run the ball and really like to milk the clock to the point where I don't want him to ever see the ball. If you pound the rock, it makes your opponent respect the run, so then you're able to open it up with the pass. That's my strategy right there. Then once my opponent does finally get the ball, he is already down seven, so he's forced to pass the ball, and I use the Dallas defense to bring a lot of pressure with DeMarcus Ware.
"I'm an Eagles fan and I can't stand the Cowboys, but I have to use them if I want to win the tournament."
And with 50K on the line, Dynasty did just that, beating The Captain in a hotly-contested finals of Cowboys versus Cowboys, 10-6.
Captain actually had the ball in scoring position with just over a minute left in the game, but on 4th and 8, he threw a screen pass that was stuffed by the Cowboys D to end it.
"No disrespect to him, but I thought that was a really stupid play call," Dynasty says after the game. "I was expecting the curl route, I think everyone was expecting the curl route, and I know I never would've thrown a screen with $50,000 riding on it," he says shaking his head.
Adds Dynasty: "In the first half, I tried to run the ball and run the clock, but it wasn't really affecting him like I thought. So I made the adjustment in the second half to switch it up and pass the ball. I started airing it out and I was able to score fast and win the game."
And what does Dynasty plan to do with his winnings?
"I'm buying a new laptop and a plasma for every room," he says with a laugh.
Just then the NFL players in attendance and the rest of the Madden Challenge competitors mob him with words of congratulations.
"Forget Dynasty, his new name is Destiny's Child," screams Prodigy.
Dynasty nods back: "I guess it was just meant to be ... even if I did have to use the Cowboys."