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Madness at the mills 

My day as a pro videogamer

I'm at Concord Mills Mall to see the impossible: early-rising videogame players. The 4th annual Madden Challenge begins at 9am -- practically dawn for gamers -- and even with a trip to Hawaii and $100,000 on the line, it couldn't happen.

As John Madden is my witness, it did happen. The line of gamers at Concord Mills stretches as far as the eye can see -- or from Yeung's Lotus Express to Carolina Pit Barbeque, for those of you who are familiar with the food court's geography. The number of players, 267, is down from last year's when, rumor has it, some gamers were forced into their worst nightmare: being outside in bright sunlight for a prolonged length of time. The line was said to have extended all the way to the parking lot.

"Why are there less people?" I ask Chris Beaver, a pimply faced teen with a patchy goatee.

"Passer vision," he says.

"What's passer vision?"

He furrows his brow and chuckles in disbelief: "Are you kidding?"

Each year Madden updates its football game with new features to keep junkies coming back for more. Passer vision, Chris Beaver tells me, allows the player to more realistically assume the role of quarterback. A scary yellow laser beam comes out of the quarterback's head, allowing the gamer to pinpoint the spot he wants to throw the ball: inside or outside, high or low. Some skilled Madden players have not yet mastered the new feature.

A DJ who bears a strong resemblance to Jay-Z is yapping away on his bullhorn, urging players over 30 to retire: "These kids are online 13, 14 hours a day, while we're out providin'. Go home now." Before the tourney starts, Fake-Z announces the rules: "Two-minute quarters and fair play is on."

"You gotta be kidding me," Chris Beaver says. "That's gay." Two-minute quarters can shake even the steadiest crackerjack. "One fumble and you're done," more than one gamer repeats throughout the day. Fumbles can occur at random; as with whammies, a player is often at the mercy of luck.

My first-round foe is J. Bohanon, a no-baloney pony who looks like he ventures out of his basement for feedings only. "I never lose. I wouldn't want to be you," I tell him, putting on my baby-blue headband and stretching out my fingers. Intimidation is my only hope, I figure. And this wasn't exactly a lie. After all, you can't lose if you've never played, and I'm happy being myself.

Bohanon is unfazed. I catch word he's an ex-champ. In 2003 he won Philadelphia, one of the largest circuits on the tour. In Philly, he bested 500 to 600 players. Here the field is less than half that. He's played in other Madden tournaments but still, he isn't the closest thing resembling a pro.

You want to meet pros? Two clubs, the World Wide Assassins (WWA) and The Firm, have formed in pursuit of the $100,000 grand prize. There are Madden challenges, two per weekend, in each of the 32 NFL cities plus Los Angeles and Las Vegas. WWA and The Firm choose one of the two sites and bring their whole posses. Even members who have already won a circuit (WWA has taken New York, Philly and Cleveland so far) accompany the group every weekend for support. The members fund themselves with winnings from other Madden tournaments or from private cash games.

These entourages of mostly 18-year-olds bring their Xboxes on the road to practice in hotel rooms. They met each other playing online or in smaller tournaments and plan to split profits if one should win the 100 grand. If there's a rivalry between the two clubs, it's friendly. "Madden can get tense, but it's not cutthroat. Not like poker," says Jarvis Thomas, Minnesota's 2005 regional champ.

One of 40 TV terminals opens up and it's time to go. Not quite. Bohanon takes three minutes setting up his audibles and re-ordering his team's depth charts based on match-ups (he knows which of his players will match up better against my specific team's players). In smaller, more intense tournaments, friends will huddle, like in real football, around each player as the player sets up his audibles. It keeps his opponent from sneaking a look.

Advanced gamers reset their audibles, and Bohanon is shaken when I elect not to. On the first play, I hit the spin button and manage to break a run for 25 yards. "I'm so good!" I yell. Now it's time for the "clock-pounding" strategy Chris Beaver keyed me in on. With only two minutes per quarter, it's possible to run out the clock. The game, designed for 15-minute quarters, gives you 40 seconds between plays (again, like in real football), but in the videogame you only need about four seconds. This stalling technique is controversial, because it's not how the game is usually played.

After 20 seconds of clock-pounding, I sense Bohanon is boiling mad. Plus, 40 seconds is a long time to wait, and I get bored. I do a pass and hit a button that causes my quarterback to throw the ball out of bounds. This button proves too tempting to resist all during the game, and I end up losing handily. Bohanon's day ends in a heartbreaking fourth-round loss. He slams his Gatorade bottle on a garbage can in frustration and doesn't reply to my question, "Are you upset you lost?"

Not one woman is in the field, but two beauty queens man the tournament's bracket sheet: Nikki Groat, former Miss North Carolina Teen, and Elizabeth Carty, recently crowned Miss Teen USA. Groat is a classic beauty with small symmetrical features and shiny blonde hair. Carty's a beauty queen after my heart: She's 5'4" and compensates for her height with extra pizzazz.

What's the worst pick-up line you've heard all day?" I ask the girls.

"Some guy stuck his car key into my arm and asked if he was turning me on," says Groat.

"Was he?"

"No."

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