The Insight: Was I The George Plimpton of Madden Football?

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In which an ardent, young writer channels the ghost of George Plimpton, co-founder of the The Paris Review and legendary participatory journalist. Here’s what he learned.

by Jason Tabrys

I discovered one thing quickly. Eric “Problem” Wright, Zach Farley and Steve Gibbons clearly have a lot of fun when they play Madden Football, a game that they’ve each been playing since the mid ’90s version of the game premiered on the Sega Genesis. But while they love the franchise, playing it nearly everyday is serious business, a part of their jobs. Wright is a champion pro-gamer and Farley and Gibbons literally write the book (the Prima guide) on Madden Football every year.

Wright’s pursuit of playing Madden professionally started in high school when he stepped away from playing real sports like football and basketball after being introduced to the existence of The Madden Challenge. The sight of a winner holding a check for $50,000 didn’t hurt either.

“I knew I wasn’t going to make it to the NFL; that’s unrealistic. You see the numbers of the people who make it there, so why not try Madden?”

Though Wright, 26, wasn’t an immediate success, he soon found ultimate glory as the winner of ESPN’s Madden Nation (which brought him his own big check for $100,000). Victory in the Madden Challenge followed in 2008, 2010 and 2013. Wright tells me that if there were a Madden 2015 tournament next week, he’d be ready.

Employed full time in an unrelated field, Wright’s part time job as a pro gamer has taken him on 18-hour drives from West Covina, California to Denver and to Dallas. His supportive mother served as his carpool partner on early road trips.

Wright is focused on maintaining his edge for competition while playing against a group of friends who also play on the circuit (and the occasional random opponent online). But it’s Farley’s and Gibbons’ job to make everyday Madden gamers into better players.

To do this, the two 28 year old friends who have been playing Madden together since college to refine their skills and write their guide book while occupying a Boston office 11 months out of the year. They also run MaddenTips.com, a site where they sell a bundle of their offensive and defensive playbooks (and Eric “Problem” Wright’s playbook) to those seeking an advantage over the competition. The pair also posts tips and top plays on the Prima Games YouTube channel.

It’s also their responsibility, in their role as a part of EA Sports’ Gamechangers program, to help make a better game by traveling to EA Tiburon. There, they advise the Madden developers and get their first hands-on with the game. That’s where that 12th month goes.

“We always try to get 1,000 hours of play time in before the game comes out. That requires around a month of living in Orlando, Florida so we can play the newest builds and talk with the people who actually make the game on site. This means being away during the summer when our friends are at the beach getting a tan. The only tan we get is from the brightness of the TV screen.”

Isn’t being away difficult? “Sure, you are excited to get home after long trips. But Madden is not only our job but our passion, and it’s great when those two things overlap.”

These guys clearly put in the time and they clearly have no shortage of passion. But how good are they at the actual game? I mean, really? I mean, I felt I was pretty good, too. And I love Madden a lot. I decided to find out first hand in an online match versus Zach Farley.

How did our adventurer fare in his match? Find out on the next page…

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