Football’s greatest screen play
MY head is bumping. The speakers are shaking, the beat is pounding in the darkness. Immediately, almost imperceptibly, my head starts bobbing the way your head involuntarily does whenever you're suddenly bombarded by any music funkier than the theme from "Knight Rider."
Ducking through the door the first impression is that this feels just like a school dance.
But no. This is something even greater. No, I am at the EA Sports "Madden Challenge" national championship video-game tournament Friday in Waikiki. The Pro Bowl of the video-football world.
I walk into a wall of sound. There's a DJ over there, but not only that. There is shouting and yelling and handshakes and hugs. You know the No. 1 thing shouted in the midst of all this? Can you guess? It is this: "Oh!!!!!!!"
My head is bumping. The place is jumping.
The DJ seamlessly switches beats, and the volume hits 11. There is an MC, a guy perching behind the action yelling things like, "Mic check! Mic check!" He is roaming, sprinting around the room yelling out updates. An interception! Someone scored! He is screaming like Stephen A. Smith after 35 cups of coffee.
This is incredible.
These are the 32 top "Madden" video-game guys in the country, having arrived here after winning "American Idol"-style regional competitions. The winner will walk away with a grand prize of $100,000. Big-screens are set up in a circle in the crowded, dark, pulsating space, game consoles attached to each. They're already going at it, picking plays and formations and audibles and punching 14 buttons in 2.5 seconds or less. People behind them pound them on the back, or jump, or whoop, or shake hands with each other in appreciation of the latest video breakaway run.
All the guys are wearing black NFL jerseys with the "Madden Challenge" logo on the front, their nicknames on the back. Over here, "Young Dogg" is playing "Ill Spins." There, "Da Secret" matches up with "Fool."
Wandering through all this, offering encouragement and consolation, somehow, is a guy in a suit and tie.
The contestants are made up of two types of people: young men, and younger men. No girls. Not one. Girls have better things to do. Girls would never be this interested in -- well, not just football, but fake football, video-game football. Girls would never do anything this stupid. No, women prefer pursuits much more suited to helping society at large. Like buying shoes.
"And now the reality kicks in!" the announcer screams.
I set out to find the oldest competitor here, and am pointed to the aforementioned Mr. Spins. It turns out he is 29, but declines the title. "It's T-Fonk," Spins says. "He has me beat by at least 7 months."
The youngest guy is 14, about the same age Ill Spins -- real name Robert Wright -- was when he lived in Mililani for a time, when his stepdad was in the military. You'd think Ill would be at a disadvantage here: He's a grown man, has a full-time job, only plays about an hour a day.
"Some of these guys play 12, 10 hours a day," he says.
The MC confirms it: "When you guys were out having a good time this week Tommie Hill wasn't associatin' with none of y'all," he screams, "and now you see why!" Yes, after holing up in his hotel room hours at a time to practice, the 21-year-old Grambling senior had just scored again.
"Where's the action!?" the announcer shouts, circling the big screens in search of the next big news.
The guys are the only ones unaffected by it all. They play in trances, occasionally leaping, sometimes pumping fists. But mostly their concentration is unbroken. There is no trash talking (that's left to the guy with the mic). Too much mutual respect. They know how serious this is.
The announcement comes that Ed Reed of the Baltimore Ravens has to leave. Maybe he was Suit Guy.
A spectator is doing play-by-play into a cell phone. Another races to another game where the action has picked up, cutting in front of active players, almost tripping over their joystick cords. Families lean in nervously.
It looks like some of these guys might have girlfriends.
OK, sisters maybe.
(I kid. I kid.)
I find my head bobbing, my ears bleeding, my adrenaline rising. In front of me, a guy wins in overtime, and we all jump, grabbing the shoulders of random people next to us. It is Young Jarvis, and he would eventually go on to win the whole thing, $100,000, beating Haaruwn Brown -- "House Shoe" -- in the finals.
(The 18-year-old Jarvis was already a rising legend in "Madden" circles. This, from his official easports.com bio: "Jarvis Thomas drove 19 hours with five guys cramped in a four-seat car from Upper Marlboro, MD, to Minneapolis [for the regional tournament]. Meanwhile, a broken window switch forced 'Young Jarvis' and his friends to travel with the driver's window down the whole trip in winter temperatures. Add to this one of the drivers falling asleep and hitting a deer ...")
This is too much. I leave them, Cory Top and Giz and Big Gene and Problem Child and Nephew and Nine Lives and Big Games James. Outside, here come some members of the All-American Cheer and Dance Team, also here for the Pro Bowl. "This hasn't started yet, has it?" one asks eagerly. All three are bright-eyed.
Oh, boy. High-school girls. Teenage guys. I keep walking. I don't look back.