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It's touchdown, Madden 2005

For its loyal fans, the goal is in sight: The latest version of the NFL video game has taken the field.

August 13, 2004|Jose Antonio Vargas | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Too much football? No such thing for Victor King, 38. He watches it, coaches it, runs his own coed football league. Like other swear-by-the-game, nothing-else-matters fanatics, King plays off the field too: on a video game console on every floor of his three-story house in Dale City, Va.

There's a PlayStation 2 in his bedroom; an Xbox in his "little workstation" where he opens his mail; and another PlayStation 2 in the basement with the 70-inch TV.

So, naturally, this is a big week for the Kings of the country: Madden NFL 2005, the 15th year of the billion-dollar video game franchise, hits the stores, fanning a monthlong frenzy that got a little crazier this week.

Why watch the game on your television when you can play it alone, or with friends, or online? Video games, after all, offer a world of interactivity where King can manage his own football team ("I don't play favorites," he says), pick plays, figure out how much to charge for snacks at the concession stand, even control the personality of his star player.

Nearly 37 million copies of Madden NFL have been sold since 1989, and Madden 2004 was last year's bestselling video game with more than 5 million copies sold. Madden comes out every August, capitalizing on preseason hype -- and, in these past few years, building its own.

Heard of preview Madden NFL parties in cities such as Los Angeles and Washington? Of National Madden Skip Day, giving hard-core fans a reason to skip work and play Madden at home? Of the third annual Madden Challenge, which comes to 32 cities and invites gamers to battle it out for a shot at $50,000?

It has been a mad Madden world since Monday, with the Game Stop and Game Crazy retail chains sending planes to Louisville -- the game's distribution center -- to make sure their stores had it in stock by Monday night. Call Game Crazy in Forestville, Md., and the salesclerk answers: "Thank you for calling Game Crazy, where we have Madden 2005 in stock."

Tawanda Gladden likens this week to Christmas week.

Hollywood has Harry Potter, publishing has Oprah, and "video games got Madden," says Gladden, the store director of Game Crazy at Forestville. "We missed the boat last year, getting the game a day late, so our new president" -- that's Randy Baumberger, head of 652 stores in the United States -- "made sure we were the first to get it," Gladden says. More than 700 reservations were made at the Forestville store, some of them five months ago. By midnight Monday, 548 were sold -- at $49.99 a pop. By 1:30 p.m. Wednesday the number was at 703.

David Riley of the NPD Group, a New York-based market research firm that covers the video game industry, calls Madden a "phenomenon."

"It's brand loyalty, plus brand recognition," says Riley, who owns four of the games himself. "People buy it, year in and year out, for its playability and graphics."

Sports games accounted for $1.2 billion of the $5.8 billion in video game sales last year, according to the NPD Group, and no title touches Madden NFL. Industry analysts say that for many years Madden NFL has redefined realism in sports video games.

The realism is stunning, so detailed in its bone-crunching designs -- Madden 2005 features the Hit Stick, stepping up the games' defensive controls -- that die-hard players such as Jay Bhalodia are left shaking their heads.

"It's kind of scary how real the game is now, the disgusting details you can control. It's insane," says Bhalodia, 24, sitting inside Buffalo Billiards in Washington, waiting for his turn to sample Madden 2005 at a preview party last Saturday. His friends are playing the game on a Game Cube console: Atlanta Falcons 6, Seattle Seahawks 6.

John Madden himself -- the 68-year-old football icon, an Emmy-winning sports commentator -- has been enjoying a renaissance among the younger generation. Mention his name to Delvin Wilson, 23, and Wilson thinks of the video game persona, not the supercharged coach of the Oakland Raiders who won 112 games and the 1977 Super Bowl.

"Oh, yeah. Something like that," Wilson says of the real Madden's off-the-video game record.

Wilson ordered the game last month and has owned every Madden NFL game since 1990. "I grew up playing Madden," he says, brushing off the recent competition: the ESPN NFL 2K5, which sells for about $20.

"I won't play anything else but Madden."

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