Rookies Josh Johnson and Dexter Jackson were thrilled to see their alter egos in the latest NFL video game
Editor's Note: The following feature is excerpted from *Buccaneers Review, Volume 3, Issue 4. Buccaneers Review is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' ground-breaking answer to the traditional game program. Sold at every Tampa Bay home game, it includes entirely new material, cover to cover, every issue. The magazine-style publication includes exclusive interviews with Buccaneer players and their opponents; in-depth feature stories; a close look at the opponent and their key players; cheerleader features; columns by Head Coach Jon Gruden and long-time Buc standout Dave Moore; rosters, depth charts and much more. In the last issue, Buccaneers Review took a look at the "alternate football realities" for an NFL player – fantasy football and NFL video games – and how being in the league changes the experience of engaging in those pastimes.*
With 65,000 Buccaneers fans in a frenzy at Raymond James Stadium, tight end Alex Smith assumes his three-point stance at the line of scrimmage, anticipating the snap of the ball. Bursting off the line, he shrugs off a passing linebacker, reads a soft spot in the defense's zone coverage, and does a quick pirouette, anticipating the pass.
Locking in on the sizzling spiral headed his way, Smith reaches out and secures the football before turning back upfield. Seeing some daylight towards the sideline, Smith stiff-arms a woefully under-matched defensive back before outrunning the rest of the defenders for a long touchdown. The Bucs' fourth-year veteran spikes the football in joy, then throws his arms skyward in celebration as he gives his team the lead.
While this scenario could certainly take place on any given Sunday during the NFL season, it happens every day of the week, all year long, in a slightly less realistic scenario – emphasis on slightly.
See, fans of Alex Smith and his Buccaneer teammates can easily fire up their video game consoles and play out their wildest fantasies in games like EA Sports' "Madden 09," football simulations that become more lifelike every year. Video games, along with the national craze that is fantasy football, are two of the NFL's "alternate realities" that give fans – and even some of the Buccaneers themselves – unprecedented control, immersion and connectivity with their favorite teams and players.
For fans, it's a straightforward pastime: Madden and fantasy give them a chance to "get in the game." Many NFL players enjoy one or both of those games, too – Madden, in particular, captivates the younger men in the league – but it's sort of an odd scenario for them. How many other Americans go home and re-live their jobs in a virtual format, for fun, after getting home from a long day's work?
Still, the players play, often controlling their own virtual doppelgangers. They don't spend much time thinking about the strangeness of the situation; rather, it becomes another source of locker-room bragging. Ask around the room whose characters in the game are the best performers and you get a lot of similar answers – mostly, "Me."
But Smith has bragging rights that no other Buccaneer can claim, and it's backed up by hardware. Smith won the 2006 and 2007 Madden Bowls, a yearly tournament held at the Super Bowl where NFL stars square off against one another to prove who has the best Madden skills in the league.
"It was kind of funny," Smith said. "The first year I just kind of got thrown in after a couple no-shows and they just asked me if I wanted to play. I hopped right in and was fortunate enough to come out with a victory. The second year, I had to defend the title, so that was fun. I saw a lot of the same guys and everybody was gunning for me. To come out twice was a fun deal."
Smith's teammates are eager to challenge him. Many of the Bucs say they spend countless hours battling it out on Madden's virtual fields against one another during training camp, on the road, or in their down time.
Take quarterback Josh Johnson and wide receiver Dexter Jackson, for example. Both are 2008 draft picks and rookies on this year's squad, and while they line up on the same side of the ball in practice every day, as neighbors living near each other they often battle head-to-head in some fierce Madden contests.
"It's real competitive," Johnson said. "We're neighbors, so we play whenever. We play on the road, whenever we've got downtime. It gets real competitive. It goes down to the wire a lot of times. I'm leading the series right now, but it's real competitive. It's something fun to do and something you've been doing your whole life."
For these two rookies, this release of this year's version of Madden football was even more exciting than usual. Not only was it a chance to check out the new features and improved graphics over last year's game, it was also the first time their own virtual likenesses were included.
"It's kind of like a dream come true," Jackson said. "In college, you would say to yourself, 'If I have a good senior year, maybe I could get picked up and be playing as myself in Madden next year.' All my friends in college, they text me saying, 'I'm playing with you.' It's kind of good feeling and it lets you know you made it, but you still have to just stay focused."
Added Johnson: "It was crazy. I'd never been in a video game. A lot of guys were in the college game, but my university wasn't on the video game, so it was a different experience to see myself actually in a video game. It was surprising."
Even for veterans like Smith, seeing video-game version of themselves running around on the TV screens – and having an inordinate amount of passes thrown their way, of course – never gets old.
"It's kind of crazy, just to see your stats and everything," Smith said. "It's funny that you always played the game anyways growing up and now you're actually in the game. It's kind of a surreal experience. I like to see myself and try to throw it to myself as much as possible and have me get all the catches in the game. It's fun to get out there and play with whoever, really."
As exciting as it is for many of the Bucs to see themselves in Madden, some aren't quite so lucky. Long-snappers, for instance, are usually overlooked when developers create each year's Madden game, something that Andrew Economos says is a major disservice to those who practice his craft.
"We need to be in there," Economos said with a bit of a grin. "Long-snappers need to be in Madden. We also need to be on the Pro Bowl ballot, but we're the only ones not on there. As a long snapper it gets under your skin. I'm sure all of us feel the same way.
"If I could, I'd talk to the gaming guys – come on, get it together. You guys do all this research and all this work on the game and you can't even put the long-snapper in there? It's not hard. There's only one of us."
So while the video game version of the Buccaneers isn't 100 percent accurate – sorry Andrew – the Madden fans on the team continue to be amazed with how closely the game mirrors their real-life NFL experiences.
"The evolution of video games has gotten crazy," Johnson said. "It's starting to become a lot more realistic. You take some things that you know from playing the quarterback position and it works on the video game. Once you get success with it, nobody will know what you're doing because they don't understand football as much as we understand it."
While many of the Bucs enjoy squaring off in virtual contests, NFL fans across the globe love another "alternate reality" that is tied even more closely to the action on the field – fantasy football.
A poll of the locker room reveals that fantasy football isn't nearly as popular among the Bucs as the Madden video game. Many of the players say they don't have the time, or simply have never gotten into the whole craze.
Or, like Smith, they have an entirely logical reason not to draft a lineup of stars from multiple NFL teams.
"I don't really feel like rooting for anybody else besides my team," he said.
But for linebacker Cato June, it's an obsession. Acting as the commissioner of a league comprised of some friends and family members for the last six years, June says it's merely an extension of the competitive nature – and football knowledge – that has helped him become one of the NFL's best linebackers.
"It's a chance to not only get away from the reality of it, but to be to able to put your professional skills against somebody that thinks they know everything about football," June said. "Everything is a competition."
Unlike in Madden, where a serious injury or a playoff loss can quickly be erased by pressing the "reset" button, fantasy football creates some prickly issues because it is tied to reality.
First of all, there's the idea of having yourself on your fantasy roster. June said he usually tries to draft himself, thus giving him even added incentive to rack up tackles and turnovers on the playing field. This year, he wasn't so lucky.
"I have no superstitions about playing myself," June said. "I always bet on myself. Unfortunately, my brother picked me up this year so I had to come with a different plan. But I told him I'd look out for him and make sure he does good. I told him I'll get him some points for his team."
The other, more touchy subject that comes up is this – what if June had Saints quarterback Drew Brees on his roster, for example? Clearly, Brees is an outstanding fantasy player and routinely racks up loads of points, but what about those two weekends a year that Brees is trying to put up numbers against June and the Bucs defense?
"He's automatically on the bench," June said without the slightest bit of hesitation. "He might even get cut, depending on how I'm feeling. I'll definitely sit him down, at least."
June isn't the only Buccaneer with ties to fantasy football. In fact, you might have spotted running back Earnest Graham starring in a recent television commercial for ESPN's fantasy game.
In the spot, a young businessman is sitting in a tedious office meeting and imagines that Graham is sitting across the table from him. The two discuss this year's fantasy prospects and, after he burst onto the scene in 2007 – both for the Bucs and in the fantasy realm – Graham tells the man he needs to find this year's sleeper pick, or, "this year's Earnest Graham."
"It was fun," Graham said. "They flew me up to New York. I stayed in Manhattan and just had a blast making the commercial. It took about half the day actually, for a 30-second commercial, but I gained respect for what actors do day-in and day-out. It was a good time."
Arguably the best player, in fantasy terms, on the Buccaneers' roster, the former third-stringer said he's been amazed by all the newfound attention he's received.
"I'm on the radar," Graham said. "All the fantasy guys know about me and I've been a couple places where I wouldn't think people would recognize me, but they do from fantasy football. It's a good thing, as far as exposure is concerned."
Echoing many of his teammates, Graham says fantasy football is one of the topics that routinely come up when interacting with fans.
"Most guys last year were saying, 'Hey I picked you up and you helped win my league,'" Graham said. "I got a lot of guys rooting for me and that's always good."
Added Smith: "It's amazing how big fantasy football is. Anywhere you go, somebody is always telling me they have me on their fantasy team. I guess it's just one of those things that comes with the territory. It's always like, 'Have a good game, you're on my fantasy team!' I'm like, well that's the plan anyways. But you just try to go out and be cordial with everybody and say thanks for picking me up."
Serious fantasy football players are required to pay attention to players all around the league, and June said that sort of exposure is a good thing for everyone involved.
"You'd be surprised by how many fans talk about fantasy football," June said. "I didn't realize how big it was to the rest of the world until people started saying it and you started seeing it on ESPN. It's crazy, but it's a good thing for a lot of players that don't normally get noticed and people can see what they can do."
Whether it's a group of fans gathered around a TV set engaged in a tightly-contested Madden duel featuring the Buccaneers or a fan on the other side of the country keeping a close eye on a real-life Bucs game because Earnest Graham is on his fantasy roster, these two outlets provide fans – and even some of the players themselves – an alternate reality that allows them to connect with the NFL game like never before.
"Those games bring people into our world," Graham said. "You get a chance to manage teams, somewhat coach a team, get your favorite players and do certain things with them. It's a different reality for them and it's fun. Rather than watching, you get to be more interactive."