by Adam Harshberger
Videogames, like a lot of other media, are about escapism. Wish fulfillment.
When I was young, probably thanks to videogames, I spent a lot of time imagining fantasy worlds and about just waking up one day and being dropped into an epic quest. Escapism.
In the corpse of a gym near my house, once known as Beats Personal Training, I found escapism, once again. It was different than my usual, though: this time it was a Madden tournament.
Unlike me, these men did not dream of dragons when they were young. They dreamt of the grid iron. I have never seen a centaur, but they have probably gripped a football. Their dreams and fantasies were more attainable than mine. Still: I never led an army to war and these tournament entrants never played in the NFL. Probably.
The Madden tournament instantly reminded me of a locker room, especially inside a former gym. The attire, the heart-pumpingly loud hip-hop, the walls lined with mirrors, the strange mix of steely determination and bubbling-over excitement, all of it reminded me of my own short-lived football career.
In eighth grade, I was the sometimes-starting left offensive tackle; I was also shy and awkwardly tall. One of our events was to experience the big high school game up-close-and-personal on the field, and then in the locker room, before and after the big game. All I remember from that experience was the pounding of the bass as I sat there, reflecting on myself in a mirror and waiting desperately to escape the judgemental gazes of my elders.
The winter after my visit to The Big Game, I would attend bi-weekly weightlifting sessions in a room not unlike the one where 50 or so Madden hopefuls will play a succession of their own personal Big Games. If my middle school coaches are to be believed, rooms like these are where Champions Are Made, where you can make your dreams come true.
These dream-seekers, the ones at my Madden tournament, are a varied bunch. Some stand tall and sculpted, like they belong in a gym. But some are slumped and balding. They vary in fashion, donning a spectrum of garments from swagged-out vests to gym shorts.
Many seem to be good friends, greeting each other with elaborate handshakes and hugs, while others chat in small groups. I spy a kind-faced young man chatting with his dad and find myself reminded of sideline blocking tips from my father – “knock him on his ass” – and hope that this father is prepared to offer similar suggestions.
In the NBA, players show off their swag with tattoos and kicks, but here they do it with Xbox 360 controllers: you have to bring your own. A horse-smiling teenager who calls himself “KidGorgeous” – Gamer Tag, not given name – holds a pink controller. Some have their controller customized to match their favorite team or decorated with various kinds of decals; other contestants carry the standard white. Workman-like, I imagine their style: pound-it-up-the-middle, always-punt kind of guys.
The tournament kicks off with the coordinator calling everyone into a circle, to go over some preliminaries: All Madden difficulty, no on-side kicks unless you’re losing in the fourth quarter. At this last, KidGorgeous smiles and says, “I don’t lose.”
At this point, a certain electricity envelops the room. Players stuff earphones in and close their eyes, finding their focus before the first round.
It’s easy to tell which players are the biggest draws. On the left side, a big crowd swells. A middle-aged man informs me that his friend, a seasoned veteran, has them down for $40 on KidGorgeous’ competitor. Amidst the crowd, I struggle to see the action – so I gravitate towards the quieter corner of the room, where two players are getting a late start.
I never catch their names. One, strong and silent, bears a tattoo, “11-16-05”, on his arm. He chooses the Atlanta Falcons. The other, a timid young man, wears Aeropostale and selects the Pittsburgh Steelers. Their game moves swiftly. Tattoo scores first.
I love underdogs, so I find myself rooting for Aeropostale and his Steelers. Which goes against every fiber of my body – I grew up an hour away from Cleveland. At half-time, the score is Falcons 7, Steelers 6. The combatants have said nothing.
Late in the third quarter, Tattoo gets Aero on the ropes. Atlanta is deep in the red zone, poised to score. This is a Big Moment. The combatants stare forward, their faces reflected in the mirrors lining the room.
2 downs go by. Aero is holding strong. On 3rd and goal, I watch Tattoo’s thumbs twitch as he dials in a play. I have often heard athletes say that in The Big Moment, everything fades away and the crowd disappears. I wonder if they know I am here.
The snap. Aeropostale leans in. His blitzer hurdles forward. In an instant, the Atlanta quarterback is brought down. Tattoo shakes his head in disgust. Aeropostale smiles.
Next, a 4th down Atlanta field goal sails through the uprights. 10-6, Tattoo on top. Aeropostale’s smile is gone.
The fourth quarter begins: it’s comeback time. For the moment, I am the Steelers’ biggest fan, riveted and rooting. Aeropostale starts the quarter strong, cutting downfield, but disaster soon strikes.
On a 3rd down, Tattoo sacks Ben Roethlisberger, dropping him 17 yards from the marker. The 4th down long-bomb fails to connect. Aeropostale is left to watch the clock tick down, defeated.
Someone does a running jump behind my seat, excited about something, and slaps the wall, ignorant of the heartbreak I’ve just endured. This infuriates me.
Angry, I head outside to the fresh air and think about the meaning of the tournament.
There was a $1000 prize at stake, but the tournament seems to be much more: the weird validation of dreams unrealized. That father will never see his son win the SuperBowl, but he could watch him win a Madden tournament. Those two things sound hugely different, but they’re not. Not really. I have proof: the way my stomach knotted as I watched two strangers play a computer football simulation. The way I wanted to punch that kid who slapped the wall, for disrespecting the sanctity of both the win and loss. These are the feelings of a sports fans, and on this day, I felt them. The game’s virtuality did not matter.
It’s all escapism. For a few hours a month, these folks leave behind their own sports failings, lives and responsibilities. The importance they place on these games is palpable and infectious, enough to turn this Ohio boy into a temporary Steelers fan.
I decide to leave. This tournament is fascinating, but it’s Saturday. I have my own forms of escapism to chase. Getting in my car, I realize my coaches were right. Places like Beats Personal Training are where you can make dreams come true. But it isn’t the mirrors or the weights: big or small, digital or physical, it is just the playing of the game, ceaselessly Big in the eye of the beholder, that matters in the end.