The SOCOM headset works only with the SEAL game, and while I could send text messages to my opponents during a Madden contest, my thumbs weren't fast enough for a conversation.
Otherwise, Madden NFL 2003 was almost as smooth as SOCOM. In Madden's league, you hang out in a virtual room where you can challenge others or wait to be challenged. By setting up a user profile - for example, choosing the "rookie" level of expertise and asking for three-minute quarters - players can match up with those of similar skill and interests.
On the football field, the game play was no different than the stand-alone Madden. I noted slight hiccups - brief frozen frames - when using a dialup connection, compared to brief slowdowns over broadband. But they weren't bothersome.
A trip to Sega's arena to play NFL 2K3 was disappointing. Despite using my broadband connection, I saw far more slowdowns here than on any other game. Referees and players ran in slow motion during and between plays.
My Xbox Live beta experience was far better than any on the PS 2. Xbox games look better than PS 2 games, and that carries over into the online world.
Moreover, I loved the ease of communication between opponents - thanks to a headset Microsoft provides that can work with many different games. Microsoft promises voice communication with all of its games.
Xbox Live's NFL Fever was more prone to freeze-ups than Madden - in part because it's still in test mode - but far less so than NFL 2K3. Xbox Live experienced multiple freeze-ups when I had two opponents (they would be sitting in the same living room, each with a controller plugged into the game). Also, I could hear an echo when I spoke into the headset - about two seconds after I finished talking - something that Microsoft says it's trying to eliminate.
Once on Microsoft's network, challenging someone to play ensured I had a game within three minutes - whether I logged on at 3 p.m. on a Saturday or 4 a.m. on a Tuesday. A handy feature is a "friends" list, made up of people you've played or who might be on line, that you can use to start a game.
The games, all exhibitions in these early days of beta testing, looked, sounded and played much like the single-player version.
Although Microsoft sent out a list of "trash talking" terms for the uninitiated, no one talked trash to me during a game. The gamers, in fact, were unusually polite, becoming upset only when a virtual player seemed to defy reality with actions that wouldn't occur on a real gridiron.
Which says that it may be on line, but it's still a game.