It’s a cold Monday night. The score is Falcons 28, Ravens 21. It’s the fourth quarter, third down with 10 yards to go. The Falcons take their positions on offense, their muscles straining against their crimson jerseys, the Atlanta fans roaring appreciation for the home team. Just as quarterback Michael Vick is about to take the snap and zap the pigskin to wide receiver Dez White, he realizes his go-to guy has been cornered by Ravens defensive powerhouse Ray Lewis. So Vick fakes out cornerback Chris McAlister to his left, and then cornerback Deion Sanders to the right, and decides to do the only thing that makes sense for a 24-year-old QB with blazing speed still holding the ball: make a run for the goal line.

But this football action is not going down at the Georgia Dome; though it’s playing out on a screen, it’s not being televised on ABC or ESPN. And the great fakes can’t be attributed just to the quarterback. The glory goes to a long, lean young man sitting in a high-backed office chair deep inside Baltimore County’s Towson Town Center. He goes by the name Big Game James.

Not only is James not running or passing or blocking, he barely moves, except for the calculated movements his fingers and thumbs make over a video-game controller. He doesn’t cheer. He doesn’t even seem as if he’s having that much fun. But he is so sure of himself that he knows that in this particular situation, if he pushes a certain button on the controller, his on-screen proxy will rush the remaining yards to a touchdown and victory. So he does something any player of any game should never do—he turns his face away from the play in front of him and looks at a console next to his, where a girl plays a game called Katamari Damacy. “Now that’s a cool game,” he says.

When the on-screen dust settles, Vick gets the touchdown, just as Big Game James knew he would. “I’ve done that play a million times,” he says with aplomb. “You know when you do certain things you’re going to score.”

The game Big Game James knows and plays so well is Madden NFL. Originally released in 1989, the hyperrealistic game took its name from former coach and current TV commentator John Madden and featured the likenesses and playing styles of real-life National Football League players and teams. Since 1997, EA Sports has released a new, ever more elaborate version of Madden every year. The most recent version, Madden NFL 2005, has sold more than 4 million copies since its release in August.

But more than a popular diversion, Madden has become something of a way of life for a network of enthusiasts who around here call themselves “ballers.” The name comes, in part, from the name of the club many of them belong to—the Baltimore Metropolitan Ballers—but it also refers to the way the lives of these gamers mirror those of the football players they spend so much time studying and, via the game, being. The ballers tour other cities playing Madden, they trash-talk, they note their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses, they intimidate and psych out their competition, and they often bring home big money, although instead of being paid by the NFL, they are paid by anyone who recognizes their game.

Big Game James’ game gets recognized big time. A lanky 23-year-old from Pittsburgh known to his parents as James Lowe, he is the reigning champ of the Madden World Syndicate (MWS), an organization of Madden fanatics from all across the country. This past July, James won $3,000 and bragging rights at the MWS tournament in Miami. “There were over 300 people there, but I only had to win 11 games,” he says cavalierly.

Until about a month ago, James worked at Bank of America in downtown Baltimore; before long, he’s supposed to go to work at his stepfather’s Baltimore accounting firm. But today he’s working a controller at Video Gaming Association (VGA), a store and hangout across from the Rainforest Cafe in the Towson mall. James says he spends about 20 hours a week playing Madden, logging many of those hours at VGA. The practice pays off, literally. He recently won $1,000 in a tournament in Charlotte, N.C., and he picks up cash here and there from people who like to bet on the games. While he won’t let on exactly how much he makes playing Madden, James says it’s “enough to pay for an apartment and a car,” though he doesn’t have many bills, because he lives with his folks.

Still, he has to budget wisely. His reputation precedes him. “I can go a month at a time where people won’t play me [for money],” he says.

As Charles Wang, the 27-year-old owner of VGA, points out, “There are Web sites out there dedicated to ways to beat Big Game James.”

To give something back to the faithful, Madden distributor EA Sports sponsors the Madden Challenge, a nationwide tour where EA gives Madden fans in 32 cities the chance to play for a coveted spot as one of the finalists who will face off to win $50,000 in a tournament held in Las Vegas on Dec. 11. The tour recently made a stop at D.C.’s Union Station, and despite the fact that he is one of 512 players from around the Mid-Atlantic vying for that trip to Vegas and the finals, James seems more lighthearted here, amid a field of competitors, than when playing a no-stakes game in his usual Towson hangout.

“It takes a lot of luck and a lot of skill,” he says of his prowess and success, with a half-smile. “You need the breaks to go your way.”

But Big Game James leaves less to chance in Madden than he lets on. For example, he always plays with either the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Atlanta Falcons; he knows the Madden strengths and weaknesses of these two teams inside and out. He spends Sundays and many Monday nights at home watching NFL games, analyzing new plays and building on his knowledge of football to further his Madden game. He’s more than just a student of actual gridiron action; he says he plans to try out as a wide receiver/cornerback when minor-league arena football starts back up in February.

“I love football so much,” he says with something that resembles excitement. Excitement is not his usual mode when Madden is involved.

Over the course of five hours at the Madden Challenge, most of it spent in front of a game console, James shows very little emotion, despite the fact that during most games he blows away his opponents by tens of points. His demeanor is sullen, almost icy. At 6-foot-4 and built more like a hoops star than a football player, he towers over many of the other players. He usually dresses in a sports jersey of some sort, often in muted tones, which seem to echo the his unfazed game play. He speaks in monosyllabic answers, with the weariness of a star athlete being stalked by paparazzi. But there are no paparazzi here. When asked if he feels uncomfortable being interviewed, he says, “That’s just the way I talk.”

Big Game James cannot fathom how many games he has won at Madden. “A lot,” he says. He has been playing the game since he was 12 years old, professionally for the last three years. He says he has learned quite a bit during his time competing, much of which can be summed up in four words: Emotion is the enemy.

“Being high-strung is a waste of energy,” he says. “Makes me lose focus.”

As James battles his way through opponents (he eventually makes it as far as the final four before being eliminated), Mike Brown takes a moment to reminisce. He was in the Baltimore Metropolitan Ballers when Big Game James was still battling puberty. In fact, Brown founded the club in 1998, back when the members met at clothing store called So Phat in downtown Baltimore. Then, in 2002, the Baltimore Metropolitan Ballers Clubhouse was born at the northwestern edge of the city, at Northern Parkway and Liberty Heights Avenue.

At 31, Baltimore Metropolitan Ballers “Commissioner” Brown has seen the culture surrounding Madden boom, not to mention the business. Back when the Ballers started out in their own space, about 30 people spent their weekends crowded around 15 or 16 televisions and PlayStations in a 250-square-foot space lined with wood paneling, beige carpet, and NFL posters. The clubhouse opened weekdays and weekends alike at 10 a.m. and would stay open until whenever—sometimes gamers kept going into, and through, the night. Brown says the Ballers’ weekly $5 membership dues were enough to keep up rent, utilities, and necessities. During tournaments—Brown says he tried to organize about three per year—more than 150 competitors paid a $25 entrance fee for a chance to win first, second, or third place, with purses of $3,000, $1,000, and $500, respectively, though skilled ballers could make even more on the side bets that are common to the game. Brown says he put together some tournaments where the overall winner walked away with $5,000 in prize money, but even on regular weekends one or two top players might take home $500 apiece.

Brown says he understands why Madden players devote themselves to the game, and it’s not just the money. “The game has a lot of realism to it,” he says. “It’s in the way the players move, the graphics. It’s probably the most realistic video football game that’s out,” he says, adding that competitors such as ESPN Football don’t even come close. Also, like another game that involves wagering, poker, Madden adds another element to what’s happening in the actual game. “It’s reading your opponent’s [game],” he says, “trying to understand what he’s trying to accomplish.”

Brown and the Ballers found others like them in Philadelphia and Virginia, and the gamers began traveling to each other’s tournaments. In 1998, a national organization of Madden gamers sprang up in the MWS, founded by Israel “Swammi” Charles. Swammi developed a national standard of rules for play by which all ballers in the MWS abide; he now serves as the league’s commissioner.

A teacher at Dillard School of the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Swammi has been playing Madden since 1991. He says his organization comprises men of all backgrounds and ethnicities. The MWS hasn’t had a female baller join yet, although, Swammi notes, “We’re waiting for that moment.”

The same sort of technologies that provide for Madden’s realism and complexity have made the national league easier to build and maintain. Not only do ballers travel to play each other in person, they can log into dedicated Web sites and face each other down over the ’Net. “I put the first known PlayStation Web site, aside from EA Sports, on the Internet back in 1991,” Swammi says. “People started finding out about it from across the country. And when they found out that there are some other Madden junkies out there that had the same disease that they had, it just flourished.

“This game is very addictive,” Swammi continues. “Men love to compete. And the adrenaline that you get from winning is a rush.”

Men love to compete so much that it has helped make video games a major industry. Overall U.S. video-game sales topped $10 billion in 2003; by comparison, movie-ticket sales brought in $9.5 billion domestically last year. According to market-research firm DFC Intelligence, U.S. video-game sales are expected to near $17 billion in 2008.

Madden maker EA Sports is raking in a sizable portion of those billions. According to EA’s Web site, the company made $2.5 billion for fiscal 2003. Madden NFL 2004 was named Game of the Year at the 2003 Spike TV Video Game Awards, beating out epochal and wildly successful titles such as Tony Hawk’s Underground and the controversial Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.

The big business that is video games, and Madden in particular, has trickled down to the faithful. Brown eventually shut down the Ballers Clubhouse in June so he could take a job as a zone coordinator for the EA Sports Madden Challenge, running events such as the one at Union Station.

As he chats, a loud clamor erupts from the other side of the station as the 32 semifinalists from the morning’s games are announced. Only one of them will advance to the finals in Las Vegas, but caught up in their winning moment, they have circled a fountain on the other side of the station to repeat the chant Raven Ray Lewis made famous—“What time is it? Game time!”—at the top of their lungs while jumping up and down.

When he started the Baltimore Metropolitan Ballers, Brown is asked later, did he have any idea that Madden would take off the way it did?

“Never in a million years,” he says, sounding genuinely surprised.

Big Game James took his nickname from former basketball star James Worthy, the low-temperature, big-results standout of the Los Angeles Lakers teams of the ’80s. Michael Taylor took a different but entirely appropriate tack for his game name. He was already known to friends as Curly Top for a long, triangular wedge of hair that used to adorn his head before, he says, his barber “tricked me into cutting it off.” He combined his existing handle with that of Nostradamus, the 16th-century French physician and astrologer whose predictions of the future are still widely pondered today. Thus, Toppadomis.

Walking into VGA in Towson, Toppadomis struts like Jay-Z starring in his very own video. In fact, the 6-foot-4 Toppadomis bears a striking resemblance to the rapper, though he is just a little lighter-complected. He commands the room, as if sending the subliminal message I am here—let the games begin.

Toppadomis sports mirrored sunglasses that go right along with his flashy clothes and gregarious personality, including plenty of trash-talking and jokes to go around. The contrast with introverted, insulated Big Game James could not be more stark. But later Toppadomis admits he’s wearing the shades in part to hide dark circles under his eyes. He was up the night before until 4 a.m. playing Madden.

At 33, West Baltimore native Toppadomis has nearly 10 years on Big Game James. Though his conversation consists of a near-endless stream of cracks and jokes, he’s the first to acknowledge that not everything in his life has been a laugh riot.

“People wouldn’t know it when I’m talking trash with these guys, and trading ‘your Mama’ jokes, but I lost my mother, my father, and my grandma at a young age,” he says. Stone-serious for a second, he adds, “I just probably blocked all of that out.”

While his late grandmother raised him until he was in his 20s, she wasn’t able to keep Toppadomis from getting into trouble. He prefers not to go into details, though he does refer to Madden as a more positive outlet for his energy.

Toppadomis says he has been playing and betting on Madden NFL since 1990. “We bet on anything,” he says. “We bet on whether or not the guy we’re playing can get a first down, or a field goal, or sometimes who will win the coin toss at the beginning of the game.” Toppadomis has worked as a loan officer at a collections agency and as a retail-store manager, but notes, “I have made more money off of this game than I have in my career. And I don’t seek out the money games. They just come to me.”

Toppadomis has been a Baltimore Metropolitan Baller since the So Phat days. “Either me, or one of my buddies, was winning all of the tournaments at the clubhouse,” he boasts. As the Ballers spread out onto the regional, then national scene, he went on to win 69 tournaments all over the country.

Toppadomis has the trophies to show for it, including a crystal football that he won at a tournament in Washington in 2002 where he beat out 200 or so competitors and brought home $4,500. One of the smaller trophies in his collection actually belongs to actor Morris Chestnut (Confidence, Ladder 49), who often plays in Madden tournaments.

“Chestnut won this one, but the last time we played he was so mad with me that he forgot his trophy,” Toppadomis laughs.

Toppadomis’ emotional competitive style can upset opponents, especially those who lose. When he bested a competitor, he used to add insult to injury. “There’s nothing more degrading than to take a man’s controller,” he says, laughing. “And what I would do is get into an SUV, run over my opponent’s controller over and over again, and keep the remnants.”

Of course, Toppadomis has lost a few himself—defeats sting enough that he remembers the number of tournaments from which he’s been eliminated: 15.

“I’m a much better loser than I used to be,” he says. “I didn’t use to lose well at all.” He pauses. “Actually, I still don’t lose well,” he says with a laugh.

When Toppadomis shows up at VGA, he and Big Game James eyeball each other. They have known each other for many years, but they greet each other by trading simple, pleasant “Wassup?”s and get down to business.

James is the favorite to win, being the Madden World Syndicate reigning champ and all, but Toppadomis is still likely to make him sweat. Though Toppadomis has never won such a lofty title, he says it’s coming. “Oh, it’s a matter of time,” he states flatly. “I went out in the final four in one [MWS] tournament in 2002, and final eight in 2001. So Big Game has got to watch his back.”

Toppadomis plays with the Ravens and Big Game James with the Falcons. Their game is peppered with outbursts from Toppadomis when his Ravens can’t hold on defense. He shouts out, “Come on, McAlister,” and, “Pro Bowlers, come on!” But Big Game James remains ice-cold.

By the time James’ Falcons are up 14 points, Toppadomis has had enough. In the second quarter, Toppadomis gets Jamal Lewis to run for a touchdown to make the score 14-7. Toppadomis’ defense holds tight long enough for him to make a touchdown in the third, and then they trade touchdowns until time expires with the score tied at 21. Big Game James wins the overtime coin toss, elects to receive, and proceeds downfield to get that final touchdown—delivered by Michael Vick—to win.

“Ever get the feeling the computer is trying to beat you out?” Toppadomis laments, frustrated with the game. “When you have two hands on the ball with a Pro Bowl corner[back], and he drops it, you think, It’s man against the machine.”

Toppadomis does not use his typical trash-talking on James, however. He says later that he knows Big Game is accustomed to that type of behavior. So Toppadomis takes another approach—reminding Big Game James of his former weakness.

“I remember tears coming out of this man’s eyes for nothing,” Toppadomis says, remembering his now-frosty opponent as a 19-year-old newcomer. “Every time I’d turn around, he was about to fight his best friend over a game.”

Though his face clouds slightly at the remark, Big Game counters quickly with the story of the time Toppadomis cried in the parking lot of the MWS Championship in Los Angeles in 2003 after he was eliminated. “The worst thing about losing is you have to wait for everyone else to lose before going home,” Toppadomis acknowledges.

James pushes back harder. Turns out, unbeknownst to Toppadomis at the time, his tears were captured for posterity.

“They’ve got you crying on DVD,” Big Game taunts.

“And there weren’t just tears,” Toppadomis says with a laugh, compelled to tell the embarrassing truth. “I was actually making sounds.”

It’s noon, and Big Game has taken Toppadomis for one game; after a few quarters of a game using European players (a bizarre Madden option) they lose interest in finishing the second and quit with James ahead. There’s a tournament coming up at VGA the following Saturday, but Big Game says he has to attend an out-of-town funeral and won’t be there. Talking after his opponent steps away to grab lunch at Chick-fil-A, Toppadomis contends that when he was playing James, he was holding back some of his latest moves.

“He’s told me this before. I don’t believe he’s going to a funeral. He’s going to be at that tournament on Saturday,” Toppadomis says. “So I’m not going to play my best game.”

Since he was laid off from his collection-agency job in September, Toppadomis’ only source of income has been Madden. And aside from the time he spends with his fiancée, Nikia Barbour, 28, and three children, playing Madden is all he does. Right now he plays about 40 hours a week.

“When I play, it’s hard to keep track of time, because it’s like being in a time warp. You play, and time just slips away,” he says. “I played for three hours today and I got nothing done.”

Most of the time Toppadomis plays at home—either online or against others in the Baltimore Metropolitan Ballers crew. In the back room of his apartment near western Baltimore’s Security Square Mall, where most folks might put a dining-room table, sits a computer with a wireless connection. A 63-inch big-screen television hooked up to a PlayStation looms in the living room.

Whereas video-game equipment dominates his living space, Toppadomis is aware of the dangers of letting Madden dominate his life. He tells the story of a guy who lived in Chicago whose Madden name was Renegade X. Last year Renegade X was trying to sell a “controllerment,” a tiny customized plastic box that would identify and protect competitors’ controllers in the confusion of a big tournament, to EA Sports. But Renegade X lost all of his money traveling from city to city trying to win the EA Challenge and peddle his product. When his wife took his son and left, he committed suicide.

“For me it was eye-opening, and it put things in perspective,” Toppadomis says. “I didn’t know Renegade X well, but when I found out that he killed himself because he didn’t win the challenge and his wife and son left, I just went upstairs, got into bed with my fiancée, and I just cuddled.”

Realizing what he has just said, he adds, “in a thugged-out kind of way.”

“A lot of guys have lost their wives and girlfriends behind [Madden],” Toppadomis acknowledges. But, he continues, “What women have to understand is: You know where your man is. He’s there in front of the TV screen, not fornicating or trying to get high on crack.”

Big Game James may show little emotion in his game, but it leaks out when he takes a quick break from battling Toppadomis to take a call from his girlfriend, Keisha Parker, a 21-year-old student at Goucher College. “I love you,” he says into his cell before hanging up. He says he and Parker are on what they call a “three-year plan” for getting married; they are now about a year and a half in.

When James is playing PlayStation at VGA or at a tournament, Parker can be found either playing a fighting video game, such as Mortal Kombat, or reading a book for class. She says that even at home, James spends hours going over plays. But what if Big Game had to make a decision? Would he choose Madden over her?

“He probably would choose me,” she says. “But I wouldn’t want to make him choose.”

Big Game James is enough of a Madden eminence that younger players look up to him. One of those younger players is 15-year-old Gino Tomko. They both favor the Atlanta Falcons, they use some of the same tricks, and they like the same go-to guy, Michael Vick. But James says Tomko already had game: “I didn’t have to teach him that much.”

Tomko says he failed his freshman year at Timonium’s Dulaney High School largely because of playing Madden. He was banned from the game for a while, although his father lets him play now, with restrictions. “I don’t play as much as I used to anymore,” he says. “I used to play about 40 hours a week. Now I play about 15.”

During another visit to Towson’s VGA, Tomko is in the heat of a tough game with a guy who goes by Antman. The challenger pushes Tomko to exhibit some nervous tics—his left foot, crossed over his right knee, shakes relentlessly. But as Big Game James looks on and offers encouragement, Tomko battles on. Antman ties it up in the fourth quarter, and Tomko’s foot starts jiggling at a frenzied pace. But one of the Falcons’ offensive linemen rushes to a touchdown, and Tomko smiles, says “Good job” to Antman, and collects his $20 bet. (VGA owner Wang says he doesn’t encourage betting in his store, but as the bill changes hands mere feet from his station behind the counter, he doesn’t seem to discourage it very much, either.)

In the three years that Tomko has been playing Madden, the last of which he has played competitively, he says he has only lost three games. That means a lot of bets collected, small and large. Nodding at a fellow Dulaney High student, Tomko says, “His mother thinks I’m a drug dealer, because I always have money.” Tomko is able to travel to Madden tournaments because he can fund all of the trips himself. Plus, he says, “My dad trusts me, and I don’t do anything stupid.”

Tomko recently traveled to Philadelphia for a Madden Challenge tournament, and although he didn’t make the playoffs in Vegas, he won enough games to surprise a lot of people. Or, maybe more to the point, the fact that he surprises people won him a lot of games.

“Everybody was looking at me like [I was] a church boy,” he says. “People think that because I’m a white guy and I dress preppy that I can’t play. Then they’re shocked when I win.”

A few Madden players who were being followed around by an MTV camera crew for a series called True Life also underestimated Tomko, according to Wang: “Gino kind of embarrassed them” by beating the show’s stars. Tomko pulls out an MTV executive’s card and brandishes it as if it were his ticket to superstardom.

On the morning of the VGA tournament, funeral or otherwise, Big Game James is nowhere to be found. But there are plenty of other Madden maniacs to take his place. The grand prize today is $2,500, and Toppadomis starts the day feeling pretty optimistic.

By 3 p.m., though, things aren’t looking so sunny. Although Toppadomis finishes in the final four, he does not take home the prize. Tomko wins. It’s all part of his will to power, to be the next Madden champ. Part of his prize money today will go toward that goal.

“I have to win a city, because I want to go to Vegas,” he says. “I’m going to Kansas City on Nov. 15, and if I don’t win there I’m going to California.” He knows all of this is contingent upon getting at least C’s in school—otherwise his father will shut him and his money-earning Madden mania down. “I used to fool around in school, and I used to be a class clown,” he says. “But now I’ve got to focus. It’s all about the game.”

About a week after the VGA tournament, Toppadomis is dealt another blow. He finds out from a third party that Big Game James is dumping the Baltimore Metropolitan Ballers and going to the Manhattan World-Wide Assassins. Toppadomis is pissed.

“He’s such a turncoat,” he snaps. “This is nothing new. We have been dealing with Big Game’s shenanigans for so long. We’ve voted him out of the camp before. Or we’ll get to a tournament and not really know if he’s even with us.” He even says that James has been known to offer his Ballers brothers a ride to tournaments only to leave them stranded at home while he faces less competition.

Big Game James is in Charlotte, N.C., winning another $1,000 tournament when tracked down to confirm that he has left the Ballers for the Assassins. He says it’s not personal. “I didn’t really leave them,” he says. “I just don’t talk to [the Ballers] much anymore.”

Pressed for a reason, he cites his ambitions to make money on Madden: “The Ballers don’t really travel to tournaments that much anymore,” James says. Told of Toppadomis’ charges that he is out for himself, he says simply, “That’s just one opinion.”

While James’ defection is a blow, “I’ve got a whole new fire because of what Big Game did,” Toppadomis says. “He’s a great player with the gimmicks he uses, but truth be told, he’s had that same style for the last three or four years. He runs a gimmick game—the gimmick is Michael Vick.”

MWS Commissioner Swammi has seen it all before. “This is how close friendships develop, through going to these tournaments and supporting each other,” he says. And this is how rivalries begin, or intensify. Next time the Assassins face the Ballers, “if [Toppadomis] is not playing in the game, he’ll be ringleading the rest of the [Ballers] crew” in jeering and taunting Big Game and his team. “It’s like home-field advantage.”CP

This story first appeared in the Nov. 3 edition of the Baltimore City Paper.

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Uli Loskot and Jefferson Jackson Steele.