By any measure, the 'Madden NFL' series is a bona fide videogame phenomenon. Since its start on the Apple II way back in 1989, the series has consistently been at or near the top of the year-end videogame sales charts, generating over $2 billion in cumulative sales for publisher EA Sports. The game is a favorite among sports stars and celebrities, who frequently mention it as a favorite time-waster at home and during long road trips.

By any measure, the "Madden NFL" series is a bona fide videogame phenomenon. Since its start on the Apple II way back in 1989, the series has consistently been at or near the top of the year-end videogame sales charts, generating over $2 billion in cumulative sales for publisher EA Sports. The game is a favorite among sports stars and celebrities, who frequently mention it as a favorite time-waster at home and during long road trips.

"Madden's" popularity has spawned the "Madden" Challenge, a nationwide tournament with thousands of "Madden" players competing in 18 cities for a $50,000 top prize, and "Madden Nation," a reality-television competition entering its fifth season on ESPN2 this fall. The "Madden" Curse, an urban myth surrounding the unlucky fate awaiting anyone picked as a Madden cover athlete, has become a household term, and a 2005 deal with the NFL has turned "Madden" into the only officially licensed version of America's most popular sport.

This is a game that is almost impossible to ignore. And yet, for most of my life, I have successfully ignored it.

It might seem odd for a lifelong gamer and full-time videogame journalist to avoid such a large part of the gaming and pop-culture landscape, but it's a lot more common than you might think. Many of the most hardcore gamers, in fact, seem to share a barely contained disdain for sports games in general and "Madden" in particular. "I think sports games are viewed as being a bit outside of the hobby," said Crispy Gamer's resident sports expert Bill Abner. "It's one of the genres that brought in the mainstream player. I think that is why they are looked at a bit differently."

Indeed, disdain for the Madden games often bleeds into disdain for Madden players themselves, who are often caricatured as dumb jocks who only enjoy simplistic, violent, "mainstream" games like "Madden," "Halo" or "Grand Theft Auto." The general stereotype is aptly captured in a recent VG Cats comic featuring over-the-top, "Madden"-loving fratboys crushing beer cans on their heads and screaming at the top of their lungs about how much they love "FOOTBAAAAAAAALL!"

Some characterize the gap between sports gamers and hardcore gamers as simply an extension of the age-old battle between the popular kids and the outcasts. "I think there's this nerd-versus-sporto mentality that's pervasive, and unfortunate," said game journalist and sports-game expert Todd Zuniga about the cultural split. "Like the people who like sports games are going to beat up the RPG lovers, or something." In other words, "Madden" players were on the football team, while hardcore gamers were on the chess team.

While I was definitely on the chess-team side of the divide growing up, I spent my springs and summers growing up playing youth soccer and Ultimate Frisbee and semi-organized camp sports. And while I wasn't a hardcore sports fan, either, my dad did his best to share his love of televised baseball, basketball and football with me.

But my sports fandom was initially held back by my inability to keep up with the day-to-day movements and statistics for dozens of teams and hundreds of players that so fascinated my dad. Eventually I found I was able to enjoy sports from another perspective -- as an extension of my interest in games, and my love for the rules and systems that made for a well-balanced battle between offense and defense. I especially loved the situations at the edges of the rules -- the unpredictable, once-in-a-lifetime plays and bloopers where pure athleticism bumped up against the simple guidelines for what was and was not allowed.

The only "Madden" game I ever played seriously was the 1992 edition, for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. My dad bought it for me, I think as a way to bridge his love of sports and my love of videogames. But while he quickly got frustrated trying to control the virtual players, I became surprisingly engrossed in the game. Back then, of course, "Madden" was a less an accurate football simulation and more a vague approximation of a real football game. The primitive artificial intelligence of the day had some truck-sized holes, which I figured out and exploited to the point that I was shutting out All-Pro teams with nothing but a series of outside halfback sweeps and up-the-middle quarterback sneaks.

Since I didn't really care about yearly stat and roster updates, and since my friends were more likely to discuss an elegant "Magic: The Gathering" combo than an elegant block, I found no need to upgrade with the annual Madden releases. By the time I realized "Madden" was growing into the mega-phenomenon it is today, I had been out of the game for over a decade, left behind by a series that had been slowly evolving into a completely different beast. When I made a half-hearted attempt to re-engage by picking up a used copy of "Madden 06," I was completely out of my depth. The game had become less of a game and more of a lifestyle. Trying to experience that lifestyle by playing a used copy by myself was like trying to learn about rave culture by installing a strobe light in my basement.

With "Madden NFL 10" marking the series' 20th anniversary this week, I felt it was high time to learn a bit more about this lifestyle. I wanted to see for myself what millions of gamers see in this extremely popular series, and whether it was something I could see, too. More than that, though, I wanted to investigate what makes sports gamers tick. Are they really the stereotypical, mainstream jocks that the gaming community makes them out to be? Could non-sports fans appreciate the "Madden" games purely as games, outside of the context of football fandom? Could the gap between hardcore gamer and sports gamer be bridged?

To find out, I was going to need a guide.

Standing outside the Eat'n Park restaurant in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood, waiting to meet the man who is going to reintroduce me to the world of "Madden," I find myself surprisingly nervous.

At this point my only interaction with Brandon Neufeld, a 20-year-old Penn State business major staying at home in Pittsburgh for the summer, has been his e-mail response to my Craigslist post looking for someone who "has played 'Madden' for years, will be lined up at the store midnight on Aug. 14, and will be able to explain to me what makes the game so appealing to them." Brandon seemed nice enough in his e-mail, and genuinely excited by the opportunity to share his love for "Madden" in a pre-launch-day interview.

In his e-mail Brandon said he'd been a serious "Madden" player for years, even competing in the annual "Madden" Challenge events. But the stereotypes had made their mark deep in my mind. Despite my passing knowledge of football, part of me is afraid Brandon will see me as just another gaming dork, a nerd that isn't equipped with the right experience or mindset to keep up with his love of "FOOTBAAAAAAAAALL!"

Luckily, my fears are unfounded. My natural curiosity and Brandon's ability to wax excitedly about "Madden" for hours at a time mesh well. As we sit over burgers, Brandon details what's made "Madden" so appealing to him since he started playing it with the '97 edition on the original PlayStation.

"Because it's real," he says matter-of-factly. "For example, the statistics, the overall ratings, it's based on how good they are in real life -- their speed, their strength, all this stuff is measured by how they performed on the field and how they did on the combine." Brandon goes on to talk up the little realistic touches outside the game itself: the coach calling up to the booth before challenging a play, the "chain gang" coming out to measure the yardage for a close first down, the full complement of seven referees that will be on the field in this year's game (instead of the five that have been in previous editions). "As a fan, this stuff takes it to the next level, because we care about it. It's just a bonus."

As Brandon goes on to detail the many, many ways the series has evolved during my absence, I realize his attention to detail captures a lot of gameplay nuance that a casual fan might not notice. "In previous games, if there was an idle player that didn't blitz, if there was an opening, he wouldn't rush; he'd just strafe," he tells me. "Now they think for themselves. Even if they have their set playbook and are supposed to do certain things, they improvise during the game." Brandon tells me about previous "Madden" games where quarterbacks would be able to throw perfect passes even while being bumped about by offensive linemen. Now, however, "there might be an errant pass, he might get sacked, he might fumble the ball ... that's a big offensive lineman getting pushed into you!"

Not all these nods to realism are accepted by the community, though. Take Quarterback Vision Control, a new feature in "Madden 06" that used a cone-shaped area to show where on the field a passer was looking for his open receiver. Brandon was in the minority that actually liked the feature because, he said, it reminded him of his experience as a quarterback on the local Allderdice High School football team. "Realistically, when you're on the field and there's 90,000 fans and there's already pressure enough and you have a helmet on that blocks your vision, you can't see a guy on the other side of the field. But (in earlier 'Maddens') they'd still throw a perfect pass (even without looking). A lot of people never played football; they just play the game, so (when they tried QB Vision) they were like 'What is this?' They got the option to turn it off, which was lame."

These constant tweaks to achieve just the right balance of realism and playability are old news to series veterans, of course, but many outside observers continue to dismiss the annual "Madden" releases as simple graphical and roster updates. This irritates Brandon. "Are (people who diss 'Madden') sports fans or are they videogame fans?" he asks rhetorically. "There's actually a lot more to it than a lot of people think. ... People will (say) it's just a sports game, and 'Oh, it's just sports, what's so great about sports?' But realistically, you have to have so much prior knowledge and so much experience. I don't go and say that your game is garbage because I don't like it and I don't play it, and I play a lot of games." Brandon says he thinks this kind of "Madden"-hatred is driven by people who don't have the skill to play the game well. "It's immaturity, because lo and behold, not only can I beat (the 'Madden'-haters) at "Madden," but I can probably beat him at his game, too."

It's a shame that some write off "Madden" as not being a serious game. To hear Brandon tell it, high-level "Madden" play has all the depth of a chess match and all the quick-reflex decision-making of a good fighting game. "When you get to the line, good players have already set the audibles and the hot routes before the game," Brandon says. "A lot of people won't do that; they'd just play, (but) I would pick the same play over and over again ... and every time I came to the line I'd change the play, because you have five other plays you could do (as audibles). They'd have no idea, and if they ever caught notice I'd pick a different play and change it. Sometimes I would reset back to that play because I did pick it. And then you set hot routes and you fake 'em out -- you might set five hot routes before a play and then just run the ball, and they'd be like 'What? But he just sent all these guys everywhere!'"

The importance of these feints and reads becomes apparent when I ask Brandon to discuss his finest "Madden" accomplishment. It was a 17-17 overtime game in a late round of a "Madden" Challenge tournament, and Brandon was coming off an accidental intentional grounding penalty (due to a misinterpreted pump fake) for a third-and-long play from deep in his own territory. He details the sequence of events as if they're happening in slow-motion right in front of him:

"I knew he was double-teaming (receiver Randy) Moss on the play because he called zone (defense) and then he switched to man (defense). You can tell, sometimes, when they switch to man -- on defense you can cheat your linemen up for fake blitzing, you can drop 'em back, you can move 'em over and fake the double team, you can do bump-and-run, or play back on the corner, or you can get right in their face, or you can play cushion. It's really intense; you have to recognize these things while you're changing your play and setting up what you're going to do, while keeping an eye on the play clock so you don't get a penalty. I'm used to it at this point; it's nothing for me...

"So I see him playing his zone, but he audibled to man because both of his guys came right up to Moss, and there's no way (Moss) could have gotten the ball, because he had the double team and the safety deep, so I was like 'all right.' He was using the Dolphins; they had a great defense, Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain and all that, whoever else -- Jason Taylor was good, too -- and he had a blitz with the linebackers, so pre-play I decided to put Kelly Campbell in the slot -- you can switch where you want the receivers before the play. All I remember is, I audibled to a running play; he went to man, so I audibled back to a pass. Then I switched Kelly Campbell from going up the sideline to slide in as a slot receiver.

"I snap the ball, he ran an out route. I had other guys going deep; my running back was in a swing for like a screen; he was all by himself, and just as Culpepper gets drilled by Jason Taylor I threw it. And I just remember shaking three guys -- he was 'usering' (taking manual control of) everybody on defense and I just juked. Back then you could juke without juking; you could stop, stutter, jump back really quickly because the physics were crazy. I must have, manually, just with the analog stick, just deked three guys. I broke two tackles with a stiff-arm; I must have shaken off five guys and I got this perfect block from Moss, and he just dove and I jumped over him and into the end zone.

"And everybody was watching the game and everybody was screaming like 'ahhhh,' because I won! There must have been a dozen people watching. I went to the guy and I shook his hand and everything. I was really young ... just a freshman in high school, getting cheered by dozens of spectators..."

Quick, almost unseen strategic maneuvering. Dramatic 80-plus yard passes. Cheering fans. Now this was the "Madden" experience I was looking for!

As I make a mental note to go and check out the "Madden" Challenge this year, I also begin to despair that I'll never be able to personally experience "Madden" at the level Brandon does. Sure, I can follow the action when I'm watching a football game, but I could barely keep up with all the layers of hidden complexity Brandon described in controlling just that one play!

For Brandon, the kind of deeply ingrained football knowledge he throws out without a thought just became innate over time. "I played it so much that it just sunk in," he explains. "I grew smarter, I played football, I watched football, I played fantasy football, I watched more football, I went to football games, I learned the mentality of it ... it's just patience, just through playing, basically. It comes naturally the more you play it."

Well, then, I guess I'd better start playing it.

When I drive past the Squirrel Hill GameStop at around 11 p.m. on Aug. 13, an hour before "Madden 10's" release, there are only three people loitering outside in a makeshift line. When I get to the Waterworks strip mall in Pittsburgh's Fox Chapel neighborhood around 11:15, there are nearly two dozen people lined up and waiting.

Brandon tells me the Fox Chapel location is a regular hangout for "Madden" fans on release night. He tells me about his history with the "Madden" line, which he's been in every year since 2002. He describes the scene from 2005, the last year of the "PS2 era," when the line swelled with 400 or 500 people, looping past the Joanne Fabrics and turning the corner around the far end of the Walmart. He lays out the disappointing showing in 2007, when "everyone had just transferred to the PS3 and everyone was like, 'Should I wait, should I get it for the PS2?' To each his own... I'm always going to be here."

Brandon introduces me to his friends: Zack Carr, 18, who just got off a double shift working with kids at the zoo and is ready to relax with a new "Madden" game; Alex Demarco, a talkative, spirited 19-year-old who has strong opinions on just about everything; and Martel Brooks, 19, who seems rather reserved and quiet as we wait. The foursome has grown up with "Madden" together over the years, always waiting for the midnight releases together and refining play strategies with each other over the months to come.

I'm no stranger to midnight GameStop campouts for systems like the Nintendo Wii and PlayStation 3, but there's a different vibe to this one. For one thing, there's a snack table out front. That's right, someone's put out a fold-out card table with a few dozen personal-sized bags of chips and some sodas. I only see one desperate patron take anything from it the whole time I'm there, but still, it is there.

For another, it's a slightly more diverse group than the nerdy, early-adopter techie crowd that camps out for a game-system launch. There's a heavyset guy in an Eagles jersey sitting behind us, reading a "Madden 10" guide in preparation and shyly looking up every so often to see if he can cut into the conversation. In front of us, a quartet of pre-teens sits in vinyl travel chairs, chatting about this and that with their heads buried in smartphones. A quintet of kids in colorful hooded sweatshirts holds skateboards against their hips as they wait. Others spill into the empty parking lot and throw a ball around to pass the time. I spot three girls in the line by the time the doors open, two of whom I mentally caricature as somewhat reluctant girlfriends and another whom I assume is the world's nicest mom.

And everyone is talking. Yeah, there was some polite early-morning patter for the PS3 and Wii launches, but there's almost a party atmosphere here. Everybody seems to be having an animated conversation. "It's all about being the first group of people to get the game," Brandon had explained to me the week before. "Everybody comes out ... everybody's got their own opinion, everybody's talking the whole time they're there. It's just really intense ... there's nothing to do except talk to everybody."

And in the 45 minutes we're waiting, the foursome I'm with talks about a wide range of topics. They talk sports, of course. They discuss Michael Vick's just-announced controversial pick-up by the Philadelphia Eagles (which is Martel's team, I'm told, but Martel remains largely silent on the matter). They talk about who will win the AFC championship this year (Zack breaks Pittsburgh orthodoxy by suggesting the Dolphins will "demolish" the Steelers' offensive line). They talk about the Bowl Championship Series and whether or not there's a better way to determine the best team in college football. They talk about the utter boredom they feel watching pro basketball and its cadre of overpaid superstars. They talk about Alex's legendary hatred of Tiger Woods, because the famous golfer apparently said something bad about hockey at one point.

But mainly they talk about "Madden." Zack, the only one of the group who's played the demo for the new game, starts preparing his friends for the changes facing them this year. You can't control the lead blocker any more, for one, because apparently that was too complicated ("If you graduated high school, you know when to hit circle," Zack says derisively. "It's not physics.") The game has been significantly slowed down from last year and the AI still has its issues. This discussion somehow leads to an epic argument between Zack and Brandon about the QB Vision cone, which still angers Zack despite being long gone from the series. The NFL Street and NFL Blitz series come up, and the group discusses how those simplified versions of football compare to "Madden." I can't help but join in the discussion as the line starts moving and Zack and Brandon have moved on to arguing over whether the PlayStation 2 or the original Xbox was the better system of the last generation.

When the GameStop doors finally open at midnight, there are 50 or so people in line. Brandon says it's a short line overall, but one of the longest of the "PS3 era." By 12:05 three copies of the game have been acquired (Martel, lacking a PS3, will be relying on friends for his "Madden" fix). By 12:07 we're at the Wendy's drive-through, where half the group grabs some quick protein for the night ahead. By 12:20 we've made it back to Brandon's parents' house, where he's staying for the summer break.

You'd think the rush would be on, at this point, to get straight to the TV and get playing, but that's not exactly how things work out. First we're greeted by Brandon's siblings: Cody, 11, who's a bit aloof, and Kayley, 12, who bounces around like a pinball and repeatedly directs us to the array of chips, dip and sodas that have been laid out in preparation for our arrival. "Where's this 'Madden' game?" Kayley asks. When Brandon shows her, she gets even more excited, if that's possible. "Why's the Steelers on it? 'Cause they went to the Super Bowl?" Brandon urges her to be quiet so as not to awaken his sleeping parents. "Jeez... It's one in the morning and people are acting like it's one in the afternoon!"

We head upstairs to Brandon's room to start the festivities, but it seems there's a lack of charged PS3 controllers handy (and no one wants to play tethered to a short USB cord). So while Alex heads down the street to grab his controllers, we head back downstairs to wait by the chips. The Disney channel show Kayley is watching provides an odd backdrop as Zack and Brandon discuss some fantasy football strategy that goes way, way over my head.

When Alex finally returns, it's already 12:45, but even now the group isn't quite ready to actually play. First, they have to go through the stats. I should have been prepared for this -- back at the Eat'n Park, Brandon told me "the first thing we do is look at all the teams, check out all the rosters, and we think in our minds -- pick like three or five teams that we think are really good." But I'm still not really prepared for the level of obsessive attention they pay to the numbers, 1 through 100, that determine the specific strengths and weaknesses of all 1,696 NFL players. My eyes are glazing over after five minutes, but the four of them excitedly sort and move through the rankings for 40 minutes.


I have it all on video: the pointing, the shuffling, the animated discussions over who got robbed and who got pumped up for the rankings. They don't just look at the starters, but the depth for each team and who's going to be strong. The Steelers look good, of course, but the Patriots, the Broncos and the Eagles also have decent lineups that the players think they can do something with.

By the time Martel's Broncos kick off against Zack's Eagles, it's been nearly an hour and a half since the GameStop doors opened. House rules get discussed soon after: Brandon asks if they should "play hardcore" and always go for it on fourth down. Zack says he usually only does that if it's three yards or less. "Even if it's fourth-and-2 at your own 15?" Brandon asks, supposing a situation where not punting the ball away would be exceedingly risky. "I don't care; it's just a game," answers Zack, getting a bit philosophical about virtual competition.

A house rule to always go for fourth-down conversions in the fourth quarter is established, but it's quickly forgotten and ignored for the rest of the night.

What seems like the first score of the night, a 34-yard field goal by Zack's Eagles, is called back on a holding penalty. This will be a common theme for the night, and a common complaint from the players about just how frequently holding seems to get called during field-goal attempts. The worst part, it's agreed, is that there's nothing to be done about it. There's nothing a player can do to prevent a holding call -- it's just a random programming fluke, and something they'll have to live with until "Madden 11," or, hopefully, a downloadable patch.

The actual first score comes when Martel absolutely demolishes Zack's returner as soon as he catches a punt, leading to a fumble and excited screams of "GET IT, GET IT, GET IT" from the spectators. After Martel recovers the ball and walks it in for a touchdown, Zack makes what will be the first of many self-deprecating comments about his special team skills. He's perfectly fine at both offense and defense, but whenever he has to return a kick or prevent someone else from doing the same, for some reason he just falls apart.

The philosophy of the game comes up again near the end of regulation time, when Brandon starts deriding Martel for some lax clock management. Instead of running the ball up the middle to tick off as much time as possible and secure his lead, Martel simply plays with a normal mix of runs and passes, stopping the clock frequently and giving Zack a chance to get back in it. Martel says he feels bad winning by running safe, unspectacular plays and just watching the clock tick down. Alex argues that he shouldn't be ashamed to win any way he can, that "it's all about the W." Zack counters that "it's all about playing the game!" Toying with the clock is antithetical to this ideal.

Of course, Zack might be a little biased, because Martel's bad clock management has given him the ball and a last-minute chance to pull out a W of his own. The game comes down to the last play, as I'm told it always does when Martel and Zack play. After working the ball down the field with incredible speed, Zack's hurry-up offense has left his Eagles with two yards to the end zone and two seconds left on the clock. He could kick an easy field goal to send it into overtime, but Brandon goads him into going for the touchdown: "one final play, you win or you lose."

Zack hikes the ball and gives it to Westbrook for a quick inside run. He struggles through the pile for a few feet, then gets lost in the scrum. It's close. The on-screen referees confer at the goal line ... he didn't make it. "No!" Zack screams as he throws his controller down in frustration. The room explodes into exclamations of incredulity that it could come down to something like that. The replay confirms it ... the ball didn't break the plane of the end zone. Everyone celebrates over a great game to kick off the new title.

With the first game done, Brandon and Zack get into another argument about the effect of this year's changes. "It's a more running-oriented game," Zack says. "You can't just have shootouts; you need to run the ball a little bit." "Which is more realistic," adds Brandon, obviously appreciative of this nod to offensive balance.

"This is definitely the most realistic 'Madden,'" says Zack. "I'm not saying that's a good thing." Zack complains that the new realism has slowed the game down, making it too sluggish. Brandon says the new pace "gives you time to think." Zack says he doesn't want time to think!

In general, whether the changes are good or bad, they both agree that they'll get used to them. "We're rusty now, but by the end of the night we'll be scoring five touchdowns easy," Brandon says. And Zack, despite his frustrations with the new timing, insists that you "give me a weekend and I'll be good." After finishing out an offensive slugfest with Martel for the night's second game, Alex says he's crashing and decides to head home to bed around 3:30 a.m. At some point, the remaining players ask me what I think of the game. I say it's interesting, but I admit I'm having trouble understanding what exactly the players are doing just from watching. It's at this point they insist I actually play a game with one of them to get a feel for Madden.

After the displays of football prowess I've just witnessed, I'm pretty down on my chances here, but Brandon tells me I've "got to have a mindset (that) you're going to win." I get to play as the superior Patriots while Zack gets the merely decent Packers. "This could be ugly, or you might find it easy," Brandon says, hedging his encouragement a bit.

Before we get going, Zack and Brandon give me a crash course on how to play. I just ask for "the basics," but the pair immediately launch into a detailed discussion of some of the game's finer control points. Some stuff I remember from my long-fallow "Madden" experience, like diving tackles and using buttons to identify receivers and dashing with the R2 button. But then they're telling me about how to call hot routes and pump fakes, and juking, and the truck stick (for massive hits), and stiff-arms, and spinning ("Think of a circle button like spinning a circle," Brandon says) and jumping ("Triangle is jump; think of it as coming to a point, like going up.") I nod and give noncommittal grunts of understanding, but I think they can tell I'm a bit overwhelmed. "Maybe it's just better if you just play," Brandon says at one point.

Maybe it's not. My very first play is a high, arcing pass that almost gets picked off by three separate defenders. Apparently I didn't press the pass button hard enough, meaning the pass sailed high instead of traveling laser-straight to the receiver. So, apparently, not only do I have to pay attention to what button I press, but how I press it as well. Given the 50 million other unfamiliar things I'm trying to pay attention to, I am definitely in over my head.

While the rest of the room seems to have every team's playbook memorized, and know immediately exactly what each situation calls for, I find myself taking the full 30 seconds to sift through and look for the right play to call. On passes, no matter how open the guy seems when I throw it, he's always deep in coverage by the time the ball gets there, leading to a host of interceptions. My running game is consistently stopped at or near the line of scrimmage, no matter how much I jam on the spin and jump buttons (I've completely forgotten about stiff-arms and juking by this point). I can get off relatively safe screen passes, but they don't earn many yards. Even when I string together a few decent plays and get decent field position, I'm a bundle of nerves and shank my field-goal attempt wide right.

My defense is even worse somehow. I'm told I'm calling decent formations in reaction to the situation on the field, which is nice to hear, but not enough to stop Zack from running freely all over the field. It seems that whichever player I've taken control of on any play is the one that's somehow out of position and leaving an open man for a big pass. When I try to make the kind of diving tackles I'm used to from playing "NFL Blitz," they end up as slow, awkward flops that leave the player flat on his face. I feel like my dad must have felt years ago, fumbling with the controller in "Madden 92," wondering if he wouldn't be better off just letting the computer take control of things. It's like playing chess against a grandmaster -- I can understand the moves after the fact, but he can see them coming a mile away.

I do get pretty good at punting, though, putting up some good height and distance on each kick. So that's one bright spot.

I eventually score on a fluke fumble and runback at the end of the game, but the final score of 38-7 tells the tale. The group asks me what I think of "Madden," and I'm forced to admit that it's a bit too much for me at this point. I have trouble keeping track of the position of all three or four downfield receivers while also watching out for my quarterback -- just tracking on receiver is almost too much. Brandon commiserates, and says it just takes practice and instinct to figure it out. Martel tells me the only way to get good is endless practice against the All-"Madden" computer opponents. He should know: He tells me he's played through the 30-year franchise mode four complete times, completing nearly 500 distinct games against the computer.

FIVE. HUNDRED. GAMES. That's a lot of practice!

Of course, it doesn't feel like practice if you love what you're doing. But while I can enjoy the game-like parts of football -- the set of rules, the balance between offense and defense -- I don't think I'll ever be able to muster up the passion for the game that leads Brandon and his friends, and millions of other "Madden" players, to buy the game year after year. I'll never pore over the stats of all the players for 40 minutes. I'll never bother to set five audibles so that I can react to whatever sort of defense my opponent throws out there. I'll never have enough love of football to guide my team through 120 years of cumulative virtual play just to see what would happen if I was the coach. I'm afraid that kind of all-consuming passion has to develop when you're young, and it might be too late for me already.

Of course, maybe that deep commitment isn't completely necessary to enjoy the game. Maybe I've been diving into the deep end before even learning how to doggie-paddle. Maybe if I slowed down and truly took the time and energy to learn about football from the ground up, I'd become as engrossed with the sport as most "Madden" fans already are.

Based on my one night with "Madden," though, I don't think that's the case. For me, trying to get into "Madden" would be like trying to learn Swahili just so I can read a translation of "The Cat in the Hat" -- why bother, when I can get essentially the same enjoyment from other games without nearly as much work? Even for casual football fans like me, the "Madden" franchise seems to have grown into something too complex and bloated to just casually wade into. At this point, it's a simulation so full of statistics and strategies that you need the mind of an NFL coach just to appreciate it. If you haven't already been playing "Madden" for years, it's not going to get any easier to start now.

The same thing that happens in other gaming genres, of course. From fighting games and shoot-'em-ups to dancing games and real-time strategy, I've seen plenty of series start simple and get slowly more complex, and more focused on pleasing existing fans, until they reach a point where it can be hard for a casual interloper to catch up.

Just because non-sports gamers have been left behind by the advance of "Madden" doesn't mean there's nothing to it. What's become apparent, in staying up until 7 a.m. doing nothing but watching and playing "Madden 10," is that "Madden" has much more strategy and depth than most non-players give it credit for. What's become apparent, in sharing a launch night with these serious sports gamers, is that they have the same obsessive attention to detail, the same passionate love for competition, that all gamers do.

What's also become apparent is that sports games and other games are like two parallel paths. There may be a wide, impassable gulf between those two paths, but in the end, they both point in the same direction.

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