No bye week in Baltimore for these gritty gamers



September 26, 2005|By DAVID STEELE

As 16 pairs of players worked their well-developed video-game muscles and dozens of already-vanquished competitors whooped and hollered around them, Marshon Floyd leaned over to an onlooker and shouted, "This is the real Sunday football right here!"

It sure looked that way. If the fact that the local NFL team was off yesterday bothered any of the nearly 350 participants in the Baltimore Madden Challenge qualifier, none of them showed it. They packed into a tent set up at the Inner Harbor and kept it packed from the first matches just after 10 a.m. until the championship game, which ended just before 6 p.m.

To get as good at the Madden '06 video game (released last month to the usual retail-store chaos) as most of yesterday's players were, you must spend a lot of time in front of your TV, but not watching real teams on Sundays. So forgive these kids - and there weren't many older than 25, and some were as young as 11 - for not spending the Ravens' bye week at home watching the network doubleheader.

Cheering for Ray Lewis or Donovan McNabb or Michael Vick might be gratifying, but it won't get you to Hawaii in February, the week of the Pro Bowl, or give you a chance to win $100,000. Those are the site, date and grand prize of the Madden Challenge finals. (This, by the way, is not to be confused with the Madden Bowl, which includes NFL players and celebrities at the Super Bowl every year. Numerous players, Ravens included, have carried their passion for Madden from childhood right into the NFL.)

As for yesterday's players, "This isn't just a game for them," said Floyd, one of the many organizers of the local tournament working for EA Sports, creators of the Madden game back in the early 1990s.

Madden '06 is such serious business, in fact, that sentiment for the local team is looked upon as a bad business decision. Thus, a sea of Ravens purple and black washed across the plaza, yet very few of the competitors bothered playing as the Ravens. Loyalty is one thing, the consensus said, but a hundred grand is another.

Even the young players got that, as 14-year-old Matt J. Hirsch of Lutherville proved when he beat out a field of 30 in the rookie division to win a full set of EA 2006 games. Ask Matt if he is a Ravens fan and he immediately answers yes. He goes to as many games as he can. But the team he played with to win his division yesterday was the Seahawks.

"I noticed that," said his father, Jim. "Lots of Ravens jerseys, but nobody was playing with them." He shrugged.

Still, except on the 32 sets of screens, there was a strong Baltimore presence, an encouraging sign to the organizers, who were welcoming the 4-year-old tournament here for the first time. This year, every NFL city plus Los Angeles and Las Vegas hosts a qualifier. One of the two emcees, who walked through the crowd hyping and commenting on individual matches and directing traffic between games and rounds, was city native Michael Anthony Taylor (aka Curly Top). Taylor had become famous by winning underground competitions around the area and for talking NFL-level trash while doing it.

Michael Brown, an East Baltimore native and EA local organizer, got Taylor onto the Madden Challenge national tour, where he does his act in every city.

"Back when we were bootstrapping around, we never knew it was something that could be done nationally," Brown said.

Taylor was able to leave his accounting job to do what he's doing now, and yesterday he was getting requests from players and fans about emceeing on future tours. "I got to see the world by playing a video game," he said. "And now that we're here, I can say there's no place like home."

Taylor, Brown and the rest played host to 315 official competitors in the professional division; this was the first year the tournament was divided by skill level. Many of the same players move around the region - often in groups of friends and family - trying to punch a ticket to Hawaii, thus creating an atmosphere that's both congenial and cutthroat.

Yesterday produced the first brother duo of winners this year, with 19-year-old Shayan Tariq of Bergen, N.J., joining his younger brother, Ayan, who won two weeks earlier in Boston. They join a pair of cousins from south Jersey who won on consecutive days last weekend in New York and Philadelphia.

No, Baltimore wasn't represented past the round of 16; the last survivor was 24-year-old James Lowe, a student at a college in Delaware. And no, his team wasn't the Ravens, it was the Falcons.

"Man, I'm not even a Ravens fan; I'm a Steelers fan," he said.

Fitting, because most (if not all) of the 314 non-winners yesterday have the same plan: next week's regional and their next chance at the trip to Hawaii. It's in Pittsburgh.

"Oh yeah, I'm going," Lowe said.

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