Inside Madden’s evolution from living room pastime to rising esports presence

On a Sunday afternoon in Toronto, eight of Canada’s best Madden players gather inside The Rec Room to compete in the final stage of the Madden 18 NFL Canadian Challenge. The winner will receive $ 8,000. A stage has been set up with a projector screen behind the players as the crowd, which includes curious spectators and the gamers’ family and friends, arrives to take in the action.

Feroz Khan, who goes by the name Mr. Ferozious, is a 33-year-old account manager from Brampton, Ontario. He’s also the No. 1 seed in this tournament after going undefeated during the online qualifying stage. In the first match of the afternoon, Khan, playing as the Seattle Seahawks, is matched up against the Atlanta Falcons and Michael Booth, a 19-year-old from Oakville, Ontario.

Playing five-minute quarters on the Xbox One, Khan falls behind 10-0 in the first quarter and needs a touchdown with less than three minutes left in the fourth quarter to even the score at 21. An interception on the ensuing possession proves costly for Booth, as Khan takes advantage and kicks a game-winning field goal as the clock hits zero. Khan lets out a sigh of relief. He has narrowly escaped an upset.

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While competitive esports gaming is dominated by video game titles like Dota 2, Counter-Strike, League of Legends, Call of Duty, and Overwatch, there's an increased push across professional sports leagues in North America to carve out their own space in esports. The Madden 18 NFL Canadian Challenge serves as a small example of that.

With the launch of the Madden NFL Club Championship, the NFL became the first American sports league to have all of its teams participate in an esports league. In February, the NBA announced a 2K esports league for 2018 which will include 17 teams. Last week, longtime NBA writer Lang Whitaker announced he was joining the Memphis Grizzlies to run their 2K franchise.

(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)

Professional athletes and owners are also pouring their money into the industry. Rodger Saffold, an offensive guard for the Los Angeles Rams, owns Rise Nation, a team that competes globally in Call of Duty and Overwatch. Michael Strahan and Joe Montana are other former NFL players who have invested in esports.

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft has a Boston-based esports team. Former Los Angeles Lakers forward Rick Fox is the owner of the League of Legends team Echo Fox. Shaquille O'Neal and Alex Rodriguez are among the investors in NRG Esports, a team that competes in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Overwatch.

Others who have invested in this space include Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, Golden State Warriors co-owner Peter Guber, and Magic Johnson. Brooklyn Nets guard Jeremy Lin, an avid Dota player, launched his own esports team last year, while Mark Cuban has invested in an esports betting platform. A study by Eilers Research estimates esports wagering will surpass $ 23 billion by 2020.

Sports gaming titles, though, still lag well behind the leaders in esports. According to e-Sports Earnings, Madden was 15th in total prize money across gaming titles this year, with $ 904,000 across four tournaments. These numbers pale in comparison to Dota 2, the leader with $ 35 million in prize money across 126 tournaments.

League of Legends live championship events have sold out arenas like New York’s Madison Square Garden and Toronto’s Air Canada Centre. At the 2014 League of Legends World Championships, more than 40,000 fans watched at the Seoul World Cup Stadium in South Korea.

Viewership online for the championships exceeded 40 million people in 2016. In comparison, when the NFL Network broadcasted the Madden Challenge earlier this year, it drew 91,000 viewers.

(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)

Wim Stocks is the CEO of WorldGaming, a company owned and operated by Cineplex which organized the Madden 18 NFL Canadian Challenge and has been in the competitive gaming space for more than a decade. Stocks has worked on the business side of video gaming for most of his career, starting with GT Interactive Software on titles such as Doom, Quake, and Duke Nukem.

Stocks believes sports titles are a natural fit for where esports is going.

“If you think about it, playing video games is all about competition,” Stocks told theScore. “You want to win, you want to perform well, and that’s what drives a player no matter if it’s traditional sports or esports. It’s a very natural evolution.”

Stocks compares the esports model to the NBA in the 1960s and Major League Soccer 15 years ago, professional leagues that were just starting to figure out how to attract and keep an audience. He envisions leagues – whether it’s Madden or NBA 2K – filled with sponsors and a local fan base that roots for its own franchise.

Stocks believes the demographic that has embraced esports is no different than the traditional sports fan. After all, Madden has been one of the best-selling video game franchises for years.

Another appeal of esports tournaments for Stocks is the presentation aspect. As the gamers compete at The Rec Room, Larry Ridley, a television anchor for SportsNet New York and a voice on the Madden franchise, is providing play-by-play commentary. The stream and his commentary are airing live on Twitch, the go-to video-streaming platform for gamers.

Ridley’s approach to calling esports is the exact same as with traditional sports. “We do it exactly the same way as we would on television,” Ridley said.

Although many aspects of the traditional gaming experience can be replicated, if Madden and NBA 2K want to make a permanent dent in the esports space, they’ll need one thing: star players.

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(Photo courtesy: Cineplex)

Khan’s semifinal opponent is Robert Chirwa, better known as Rob Gambino. Chirwa is the most charismatic player at the event, with a charming smile and relaxed demeanor that exude confidence. He has a day job working in sales and runs a photography company.

He started playing Madden competitively for cash prizes in 2008 and hasn’t played a game for fun since. “My skill level is too high for fun,” Chirwa told theScore. “When my friends ask me to play, I’ll be like, at least put $ 20 on it. I’m not getting on the sticks unless we’re playing for money.”

He has thought about quitting his job. “I see people making $ 25,000 or $ 50,000 in a single tournament, and of course I think about it,” he said, laughing. He said he spends at least 60 hours a week playing Madden, but knows that number has to go up if he wants to compete with the best in the world.

“The higher-ranked guys are on another level,” Chirwa added. “If I really wanted to do this, I would have to put in like 12 hours a day to get to their level.”

Ridley has seen the Madden esports boom in the U.S. One example he points to is Eric Wright, better known as “Problem,” a 29-year-old based in West Covina, Calif., who started playing Madden competitively in 2005 and has won three Madden Challenges and two Madden National Championships, earning more than six figures in prize money.

“These guys are putting time into their craft and they’re becoming stars in their own right,” Ridley said. “Just like LeBron James or Tom Brady, these players are the best in the world at what they do. They’re putting in work, developing a following and making a name for themselves.”

Khan views the Madden Canadian Challenge as a stepping stone, and even though he doesn’t disagree when I suggest he might be the best Madden player in Canada, he’s hesitant about doing this full-time. “There are opportunities,” he said, “but it’s about the commitment level you want to put in. It takes commitment and a lot of sacrifice. Your financial situation has to be stable because you might not win every time. It’s tough.”

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The matchup between Khan and Chirwa turns out to be anti-climatic. Khan is dominant from the start and leads 24-0 in the third quarter, when Ridley wonders whether there’s a Madden mercy rule in Canada (apparently, it’s 32 points). Khan breezes to the finals with a 24-6 victory. There’s some consolation for Chirwa, though. The night before the tournament, he officially signed with SetToDestroyX, a professional esports team.

(Photo courtesy: Cineplex)

Before the finals, Brandon Marshall, a wide receiver for the New York Giants who’s out for the year after season-ending ankle surgery, arrives to catch the action at The Rec Room. Marshall, like many other NFL players, is a serious Madden gamer who played with Elvis Dumervil after every practice when they were teammates on the Denver Broncos.

As he watched the gamers compete on stage, Marshall remarked, “When you understand coverage, you’re light-years ahead of everyone else in Madden.”

Khan proves Marshall’s point in the finals. Facing Nemanja Tepavcevic, a 34-year-old from Niagara Falls, Khan’s defense is dominant and he’s in complete control of his play calls. He wraps up the tournament win with a 13-0 victory. Afterward, Khan is thrilled.

“I wanted to put my name out there,” Khan said, “and let everybody know that Canada is here to compete.”

In addition to the $ 8,000 cash prize, he earned himself a spot in another Madden Challenge, which will run from late November to early December with 288 players competing for eight spots in the finals with $ 150,000 in total cash prizes available.

If esports continues to grow and professional sports leagues continue to make a dent in the industry, we might one day be rooting for gamers like Khan and Chirwa the same way we do our favorite athletes. We might even be watching them at a basketball arena or football stadium.

For now, Khan is satisfied with his cash prize and excited to spend it on a honeymoon with his newlywed wife. After snapping photos with friends and spectators, it was time to head home, get some sleep, and prepare to go back to his day job the next morning.

Alex Wong is an NBA freelance writer whose work has appeared in GQ, The New Yorker, Sports on Earth, and Complex, among other publications.

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Report: Knicks shopping Kuzminskas to create room for Noah

The New York Knicks need to make a roster move this week, which could be good news for one disgruntled player.

New York recently reached out to teams to gauge interest in Mindaugas Kuzminskas, opposing executives told ESPN’s Ian Begley.

The report comes just days after the Lithuanian forward expressed disappointment in his reduced role and rumors swirled that his reps are gauging trade interest in him.

As it stands, the Knicks have a full roster and need to trim it to 14 to accommodate Joakim Noah, who'll return Monday against the Cleveland Cavaliers. He hasn't played since February, and will be active after serving a 20-game suspension for violating the league's anti-drug policy.

Begley described interest in Kuzminskas as "unclear," and if New York fails to swing a deal for him in the next few days, veteran point guard Ramon Sessions is regarded as the likely candidate to be waived.

Noah reportedly also remains on the trading block, but the Knicks have struggled to find a team willing to take on the 32-year-old center's albatross of a contract, which has three years and about $ 56 million remaining.

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Report: Bulls locker room backs Portis after Mirotic’s ultimatum

Nikola Mirotic fractured multiple bones in his face during practice, he suffered a concussion, he’s been thoroughly embarrassed in the press, and now he’s lost the support of his teammates.

Mirotic issued a “me-or-him” ultimatum after having his jaw restructured by the fist of Bulls teammate Bobby Portis, and is ducking the practice facilities at times when Portis is around. Given what happened, Mirotic understandably wanted him gone, but his demands may have backfired.

The Bulls locker room has evidently chosen to stand behind Portis, two anonymous Bulls players told Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times. One player even said “It’s Niko’s problem” as to what he wants to do going forward.

Mirotic had just won the starting spot over Portis before he was sidelined for at least six weeks with facial fractures. The two apparently had problems going back three seasons, and things finally boiled over in a scrimmage on the eve of the season when Mirotic challenged Portis one too many times.

Portis has since reached out to Mirotic to apologize, but hasn’t heard anything in the three weeks that have passed by.

Chicago’s front office has tried to stand behind both players, but it looks as if Mirotic will be the odd man out. Contract negotiations stalled all summer before the two sides reached a compromise on a two-year deal with a team option for 2018-19. But since Mirotic re-signed as a restricted free agent, the Bulls will not be able to trade him until mid-January. He may be a tough sell coming off an injury while holding a $ 12.5-million price tag.

Portis, meanwhile, endeared himself to the team Tuesday by scoring 21 points, grabbing 13 rebounds, and dishing out four assists in his season debut following the team-issued, eight-game suspension.

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Report: Ramsey screamed at Bengals in locker room, restrained by security

Tempers reportedly did not cool after A.J. Green and Jalen Ramsey were ejected from the Cincinnati BengalsJacksonville Jaguars game on Sunday.

Following their ejections for fighting, Ramsey had to be restrained from entering the Bengals' locker room by Jaguars personnel and stadium security as players left the field at halftime, sources told ESPN's Katherine Terrell and Michael DiRocco.

Ramsey was heard yelling at Bengals players, looking for Green, but did not enter the room.

After the game, Green regretted his decision and apologized to his teammates, but Ramsey had other thoughts.

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Patriots’ Hogan taken to locker room with apparent shoulder injury

New England Patriots wide receiver Chris Hogan was taken to the locker room during Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Chargers with an apparent shoulder injury.

The pass-catcher suffered the

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Eagles’ Peters carted to locker room vs. Redskins with leg in air cast

Philadelphia Eagles left tackle Jason Peters was carted to the locker room during Monday's game against the Washington Redskins with a knee injury.

Peters was down for several minutes and was met by the entire Eagles team when placed on the cart. The Eagles’ medical staff also placed an air cast on his injured leg.

It would be a devastating loss for the Eagles' offense if Peters missed significant time. The 35-year-old is a nine-time Pro Bowler and has been named a first-team All-Pro three times.

Halapoulivaati Vaitai will likely replace Peters in the starting lineup.

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Report: Butler told security not to let Rubio into Timberwolves’ locker room

One of the newest members of the Minnesota Timberwolves wasn’t exactly welcoming to a former member.

Jimmy Butler instructed authorities following Friday’s game against the Utah Jazz to prevent Ricky Rubio from entering the Timberwolves’ locker room if he attempted to visit, reports the Star Tribune’s Jerry Zgoda.

Minnesota acquired Butler via a draft-day trade with the Chicago Bulls and dealt Rubio to Utah a week later. The Spaniard endeared himself to fans during his time with the T-Wolves, averaging 10.4 points, 8.5 dimes, 4.3 rebounds, and 2.1 steals over seven years with the club.

Rubio put up 19 points, 10 assists, five boards, and two steals in his return to Target Center, but the Jazz fell 100-97.

Following Butler's departure from the Windy City, the All-NBA small forward has been labeled a "bad locker room guy" and a bad leader by retired players.

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Cutler taken to locker room with chest injury

Miami Dolphins quarterback Jay Cutler was taken to the locker room during Sunday's game against the New York Jets after taking a big hit from linebacker Jordan Jenkins.

Cutler is questionable to return with a chest injury.

Backup Matt Moore replaced him on the field.

The veteran pivot was in the midst of one of his better performances this season, completing 12-of-16 for 138 yards with two touchdowns to one interception.

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Bad News After What Was Just Found On Shooter’s Hotel Room Video And Who He Was Caught Paying

Details surrounding the Las Vegas shooter have been shrouded in secrecy over the last two days. The country has been waiting for answers as to how a seemingly average older man, who blended into society, died in infamy Sunday night after committing the largest shooting our country has ever seen. He wasn’t known for having […]
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