Gamers in the Game
Sometimes at night, while I sleep, I dream that I am the point guard on Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. Other nights, I bat cleanup for the Chicago White Sox. If that isn’t busy enough, I still often find time to quarterback Jimmy Johnson’s Dallas Cowboys.
The bad thing about my dreams: they end.
By no means am I a professional athlete. Yet almost every night, I watch myself on TV draining three pointers, hitting towering home runs, and throwing sky scraping touchdown passes with the best in the game.
I realize all my sports dreams are make believe. I live for life’s little pleasures.
The tiny light at the end of my tunnel is thanks to today’s digital technology. I can become a professional athlete by creating myself in a video game.
I’m not the only person to do it, or to have ever done it.
Joffrey Lupul is a winger for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. In addition, he is also a featured athlete in EA Sports’ NHL 2004.
“I used to create my own player and try to make it look as much like me as possible,” said Lupul in an interview with John Gaudiosi of ESPN Gamer. “I guess now I won’t have to do that.”
Sports video games have been evolving since “Pong,” a tennis-like game where two players use long bars to defend their end of the screen from what vaguely resembles a ball. It debuted on the Atari game system in 1976. In 2003, the top-selling game of the year was EA Sports’ Madden NFL 2004, which sold over 1.3 million copies in its first week.
Unlike me, many athletes today do not need to create a digital image of themselves to be featured in a game. Today’s popular sports video games have the characteristics of all active players. Professionally licensed games even have players’ accurate height, weight, and hometown. The best games even feature individual trademarks of certain players, like Vince Carter’s classic double-handed sky point after a furious dunk, or Ichiro’s bailout first step as he swings at an inside pitch.
“When I was a little kid, everybody could do the same dunks and lay-ups,” said Jay Williams in an interview with Patrick Hruby of ESPN Gamer. Williams, formerly an NBA point guard, plays video games daily as a diversion from the rigors of rehabilitating his left leg following a 2003 motorcycle accident. “I remember last year, the game version of me was doing the same hand gestures I do.”
The NCAA prohibits endorsement by its amateur athletes, but that doesn’t mean collegiate athletes are less fortunate. All the player attributes are there, only the names are deleted to protect the unpaid.
Jason Colson is a 6’1”, 215 pound, sophomore tailback who proudly wears No. 24 at West Virginia University (WVU). In EA Sports’ NCAA Football 2005, his name has been changed to “HB #24,” but the height, weight, and class rank are all the same. When No. 24 steps into the backfield, the game player knows they are about to hand off to Mr. Colson.
“As a youngster, I never pictured myself being in a video game,” said Colson. “It’s cool playing as yourself.”
Today’s younger athletes have grown up in the video game generation. All of them have memories of playing games as kids and teens. Many still play.
“One of my favorite game players growing up was Terrell Davis in the Madden games,” remembers Kay-Jay Harris, another WVU tailback you can find in NCAA Football ’05, starring as “HB #1.” “[Davis] never looked like he was running that fast, yet no one could catch him. Our running styles are similar.”
Most athletes play video games the way most gamers play: as entertainment, for fun. In WVU’s football player lounge, a PlayStation2 (PS2) is plugged in next to the team TV. Several players take the games they play on the screen as serious as the games they play on the field.
Ray Lewis, whose spastic pre-game dances and primal, near death-causing hits on the field make him one of the most intimidating players in the NFL, is also known to be one of the most competitive video game players in the league. Lewis hates to lose at anything he does. Thanks to his competitiveness on the field and in front of the screen, Lewis became the first defensive player to be chosen as cover man for the 2005 installment of EA’s Madden NFL series in August.
Video game popularity with athletes has soared because of the free time they have in the off-season.
“[Games are] relaxing. It’s pure entertainment. This is the way you kill four, five hours,” Lewis said in an interview with Matt Wong of ESPN Gamer. “You have your boys over, you have your kids over, and you have a big tournament. We might have three TVs going.”
“I played [EA Sports’] MVP Baseball 2004 all summer long, and Rasheed Marshall and I played MarioKart on [Ninetendo] Gamecube for a week straight,” said Harris. “I could play games like that all day, 10 straight.”
Games are clearly the best cure for the off-season blues, but many athletes see the benefits video games have as recruiting tools.
“Video games can be a positive influence for younger kids, who might not have started skating yet,” said Minnesota Wild center Pierre-Marc Bouchard, in an interview with Gaudiosi. “If you get into the realism of the video games, kids might try street hockey and eventually graduate to the rink.”
The National Hockey League has been entrenched in a lockout since Sept. 16. With no end in sight, holding the interest of young fans will be crucial to its future. While it seems possible that the entire 2004-2005 season could be cancelled, fans can still find excitement by turning on their PS2.
“It’s tough to replicate the battles along the boards in video games,” said Eric Staal in an interview with Gaudiosi. Staal plays center for the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes. “But if kids don’t know anything about hockey, are fun to play because it’s up and down action and scoring goals.”
Microsoft’s Xbox, PS2, and GameCube allow sports to be played year round. Fans can get their fix at any time of the year with a simple flip switch. Indeed, they are simulated, but the World Series can go on in the dead of winter, and hockey games can hit the ice in the scorch of summer.
For athletes, video games can help them stay entertained, or distracted, when they aren’t on the field.
For future athletes, gaming consoles provide the ultimate first step to falling in love with a sport.
Video games allow all who play to live outside themselves. Armchair quarterbacks become heroes. On the field quarterbacks get the opportunity to dominate their most hated rivals. Everyone can live out dreams in cyber world they never could on the field.