It?s in the Game: Warren?s traveled the country for a shot at Madden?s top prize.
It?s in the Game: Warren?s traveled the country for a shot at Madden?s top prize. Credit: (Photograph by Charles Steck)

R.J. Warren admits he doesn’t have a lot going on right now. He’s 18 and out of high school, but he isn’t going to college and doesn’t know if he will. He’s not looking for work, either, and doesn’t know if he will.

He got fired from his last job, working at a video-game store. He says he deserved to be canned. He lives at home and spends his life playing one of the games he used to vend.

And only one.

“I play Madden all day,” says Warren.

He’s made slackerdom pay off. A lot of folks play EA’s Madden NFL Football—it’s the top-selling video game of all time, with more than 5 million units of the 2007 version sold at a suggested price of $49.99. Warren, a resident of District Heights, can make a claim as the best in the area.

This fall, he starred in the second season of Madden Nation, a reality series on ESPN2 in which a horde of premier gamers travel the country by bus, taking on the best Maddeneers in the land. He beat out 499 other competitors to win the D.C. regional of the national EA Madden Challenge tournament in October.

So this week he’ll be leaving home to go to Hawaii, all expenses paid, to face 31 other regional winners in the finals. The champ will get $100,000.

“That’s all I’m thinking about right now,” he says.

Warren says the strength of his game is his thumbs, and his biggest weakness is his head.

“I’m fast, but I’m dumb,” he says of his joystick technique.

By winning the D.C. regional, Warren dethroned reigning champ Justin Chow of Great Falls. Chow also has quite a reputation on the digital gridiron. He was a member of the Madden Nation cast for the show’s 2005 inaugural season.

In addition, Chow had a spot in a pay-per-view special aimed at fellow Madden obsessives, in which masters of the game advised viewers about so-called “glitches” they’d found. Glitches are flaws in the game’s design that give those in the know an overwhelming advantage. (An example of a glitch players discovered was a particular Michael Vick quarterback sneak that no defense could stop.)

Chow’s plate is a lot fuller than Warren’s. But his obsession is just as strong. So he’s had to let schoolwork, for example, slide a bit. “I’m a year behind now, all because of Madden,” says Chow, a 21-year-old computer science student at Radford University. Some former pastimes, such as playing poker or other video games for kicks or petty cash, have fallen by the wayside as he’s tried to keep up with the less busy Maddeneers.

“I grew up loving video games,” he says. “I got that from my dad, who was obsessed with Pac-Man when I was born. But this Madden thing, and the ability to make money on it, that has ruined me for other games. I’d just feel like I was wasting my time. These kids who are coming up now, they live at home, they don’t drive, they don’t have anything else to do but play Madden. Now, if I’m playing another video game, it’s only because I think playing it will help me improve my movement on the stick for Madden. And I can’t even play Madden against friends or anybody on campus, even though kids try to play me for $20 just because they know my reputation. But it’s not worth it. It was a sad day when I realized that I can’t play games for fun anymore.”

The loss in D.C. also cost him a lot of money, and not just the $1,000 that goes to the regional champ. Chow didn’t take the defeat sitting down. Instead, he got out the national tournament schedule and planned trips near and far to other regionals in hopes of getting an invite back to Hawaii.

He came up short in Baltimore. And again in Philadelphia. Then in Los Angeles. But a trip to Oakland finally made the miles and money pay off: He won that regional. So he’ll be back in Hawaii as the Bay Cities’ representative.

“Being there once, you just feel like you have to get back,” Chow says.

Warren can relate. He, too, has traveled far from District Heights to get to Hawaii. While this year provided his first D.C. championship, he’ll be making his third trip to the finals. In 2004, he was the Philadelphia representative. Last year, he was the best Phoenix had to offer. He’s showed up at as many as nine regionals in a single year.

And there are a lot of road warriors like them out there.

“You don’t have to be from [the respective region] to be in a regional,” says Roy Stigall, associate manager of sports lifestyle marketing for EA. “And we’ve found that every regional has become a place for players from all over. Guys like Chow, these guys have been in the Madden community for a while. It’s become a lifestyle and a whole culture for them. They want to show their peers that they’re good at Madden. We even had people following the Madden Nation bus from city to city. Now there’s guys all over the country traveling for this, trying to find a way to get in and win.”

Despite their vagabond ways, both Chow and Warren claim they’ve earned more money playing Madden in sanctioned tournaments or one-on-one matches for cash than they’ve spent on travel.

Players can choose digital versions of any NFL roster in Hawaii. Neither of the local entrants will go with the Washington Redskins. Warren, who lives a few miles from FedExField, says he’ll use the Baltimore Ravens in the finals. Chow says the Falcons give him the best chance to take the championship.

Both agree there’s no point in picking the Skins.

“You can’t run an offense with Brunell in Madden, so nobody uses the Redskins,” Chow says. “He just can’t do things. He can’t compete, not at all.”

Maybe the video game really is close to the real thing.