Eric "The Problem" Wright is a grand champion of video games, a Hercules of the thumbs. Wright handles a video controller the way Willie Mosconi romanced a pool cue, the way Ben Hogan swung a butter knife.
Wright, 26, is so dominant at Madden NFL that he's been banned from some tournaments. He hustled a trash-talking NFL superstar out of $20,000 during an impromptu video faceoff a couple of years ago.
"Did he realize you were a ringer?"
"You don't go into a card room announcing who you are," the West Covina native explains with a smile.
Some new voodoo always seems to be afflicting our children: dreadful music, binge drinking, video games, Miley Cyrus. But as the 15th version of Madden comes out Aug. 26, maybe it's good to know that a devoted gamer like The Problem seems to be doing just fine, thank you.
In fact, he's made a few hundred grand playing video games, primarily Madden. He holds a 9-to-5 job, helps support his mom, works out on weekends, is engaged to be married next year in Hawaii, all the things you'd hope of a member of the millennial generation, which often can't get traction in life.
Polite and well-spoken, Wright is a good reason parents worried about their son's voracious appetite for sports-related video games can take a breath. That's not to say compulsions can't be harmful. That's just to say: Relax a little.
Computer gaming took off on the pop culture scene in 2000 or so, led by America's thirst for sports. Before long, Madden became a staple of slumber parties and dorm rooms across the country. In the last five years, it's just exploded, with tournaments that draw thousands of teens and twentysomethings to watch the top gunslingers face off.
Today, 10 million fans play Madden every day. Wright has beaten the very best of them, winning its Super Bowl three times (no one else has won it even twice). Yet his lucrative little hobby started as a way to kick it with his buddies.
"I was really good in school," he says. "I always got decent grades. I was free to play. I'd get off basketball practice and would play from 5 till 10 after school.
So his parents backed off, let him huddle up on weekends for long stints with the video controller. As long as he did his homework, as long as he kept active with football and basketball at Los Altos High, he was good to go.
Early on, The Problem earned his nickname when an opponent, watching him destroy the competition in a non-Madden game, said he would be "a problem" for the rest of the tourney.
"I can see what the game maker is trying to do," Wright says in explaining his edge. "I see things other guys don't."
At 15, Wright started entering local tourneys in bars and hotel banquet halls. He didn't make any money till the end of the first year, when he made $500.
And then he was off. A problem? Not to his mother, whom he helped financially with his winnings after his father's death.
In Madden, participants select plays, choose coverages, then make tackles or execute passes. Not only is it a blast, it helps fans appreciate the strategies and tendencies of the game.
Madden is one of the monsters in the competitive and lucrative video world. Video games have become so much a part of youth culture that Robert Morris University in Illinois recently set aside $450,000 for 30 gamer scholarships.
Even network telecasts have been affected by the craze. Last season, NBC mimicked Madden's flyover visuals by using digital cameras in a rapid-fire sequence around the red zones.
The sky's the limit on where it all goes. This being America, the gaming phenomenon will be vastly over-exploited, then settle into something more sensible.
In the meantime, Wright grinds away at his day job with a firm that that cleans and inspects aeronautical parts, then moonlights as a strategist-author for Prima Games, which produces guides on how to excel at Madden football.
On weekends, there is an occasional tournament, then time with his fiancee, Belinda Sanchez, who must be a gamer too, right?
"No," says The Problem. "She likes to read."