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Video games aren’t just a guilty pleasure for NFL players, they’re big business

Video games aren’t just a guilty pleasure for NFL players, they’re big business
Rams star Todd Gurley participates in the "Call of Duty: Black Ops 4" community reveal event in Hawthorne on May 17, 2018. (Charley Gallay / Getty Images for Activision)

Dalton Schultz learned to design video games at Stanford. He has an old YouTube channel that streams highlights of him shooting his way through “Call of Duty: Black Ops II,” building a “Minecraft” mansion, and hunting dragons on “Titanfall.” Some of his closest friends are fellow gamers, the disembodied voices he met in virtual worlds.

He is also a 6-foot-5, 260-pound tight end for the Dallas Cowboys.

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“I’m not as much of a unicorn as you think I might be,” he said. “People who are interested in that are usually kind of introverted, myself included. So that’s the space where we like to go out in the world, the game environment.”

Video-game obsessions are not unusual in the NFL, where the sounds of “Fortnite” and “Call of Duty” echo through the hallways of team headquarters. And the involvement goes beyond playing.

Rodger Saffold, starting guard for the Super Bowl-bound Rams, owns Rise Nation, a team that competes for tens of thousands of dollars in video game tournaments.

“It’s crazy, almost like a hidden community because they have so many viewers,” Saffold said. “In some of these leagues you’ll have like 200,000 people watching online. It’s incredible.”

The Rams aren’t the only Los Angeles team Stan Kroenke owns; he’s also got the L.A. Gladiators, an esports team in the Overwatch League. Other NFL owners are heavily invested, too, among them Jerry Jones of the Cowboys and Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots. JuJu Smith-Schuster, a former USC standout who is a Pro Bowl receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers, has said he might play video games professionally once his football career is done.

“When you’re an athlete, competing is kind of ingrained in your system,” said Schultz, 22, who just finished his rookie season. “You love that feeling of satisfaction after you get that win. That’s why I think a lot of people play ‘Fortnite’ these days. There’s nothing that makes your heart race in the video game world like being in the final circle with, like, three people alive. It’s just you, and you’ve got to put on for your squad.”

Recognizing the popularity, NFL teams have outfitted their players lounges with ultramodern gaming stations to make it a more appealing home away from home.

“You have a generation that grew up on video games,” said Rich McKay, president of the Atlanta Falcons. “They’re much more comfortable in that whole world. It’s definitely different, but I think you’re going to see a lot of them involved in that industry.”

In the New Orleans Saints’ locker room, on the Monday before they played the Rams in the NFC championship game, five players sprawled across couches in front of a massive TV covering an entire wall. They were transfixed by “Super Smash Bros.,” a classic fighting game, clobbering cartoonish characters while jabbing each other with playful barbs.

“It’s a way to decompress a little bit,” safety Chris Banjo said, grasping a controller and never allowing his eyes to stray from the screen. “But at the same time, we continue to remind ourselves what the ultimate goal is, and I think in some weird way, this has kind of helped us.”

Quarterback Drew Brees watched, bemused, from his locker. He would turn 40 the next day. “I don’t play,” he said. “Although my kids are getting into it, and they always want me to sit down and play with them. But we limit it. I’d rather them be outside playing.”

However, he also sees value in anything that’s a team activity. “I think more than anything there’s a camaraderie element,” he said. “Those guys, you can just sit here and listen to them and be entertained.”

Even the $14-billion-per-year NFL is dwarfed by the U.S. video game industry, which generated a record $43.8 billion in revenue in 2018, according to the Entertainment Software Assn. and the NPD Group. That’s an 18% increase from 2017.

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Rams defensive end Matt Longacre sees nothing unusual in world-class athletes who have dedicated their lives to physical activity unwinding by watching someone else play a video game.

“It’s cool watching anybody that’s at the top of whatever sport that they do, and in this case it happens to be gaming,” Longacre said. “It’s the games that you play, and you want to watch the best of the best.”

It’s not uncommon for the Cowboys, when they’re not studying game film, to meet up online and battle each other.

“The Wi-Fi on the plane isn’t good enough to have full-fledged online matches,” said Schultz, a science, technology and society major at Stanford. “But if anybody’s got a Nintendo Switch, those little hand-held consoles, we’ll all wake up and play together on the plane.”

He said his roommate on the road, rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, brought a console on every trip and logged into a “Fortnite” game as soon as he got to the hotel.

“There were a couple times when he’d get a win and be the last guy standing, get a few kills, and he’d freak out and be like, ‘Let’s go!’” Schultz said. “I’d say, ‘Well, you know what that means: You’re playing well tomorrow.’ And sure enough, both times that he won ‘Fortnite’ games the night before, he got interceptions in the game the next day.”

Wade Phillips, 71, defensive coordinator of the Rams, got a rise out of his players last summer when he showed up wearing a T-shirt that read “Fortnite Legend.” He had never played the game, but it’s a favorite of his 6-year-old grandson.

“My grandson was playing it and of course I was watching him,” Phillips told reporters. “But, I don’t know if I could play. … I would have a pretty good squad, I think, if I played. I don’t know if I could save the world or not, but I might win the battle royale.”

Sports-related games are still enormously popular, too. Electronic Arts’ “Madden NFL 19” was No. 4 on NPD’s list of bestselling games in 2018, and as of August the franchise had sold 130-million units since arriving on the scene as an MS-DOS game in 1988.

When Hall of Fame coach John Madden was first approached about the game in the mid-1980s, when it was a seven-on-seven version, he wasn’t interested because it didn’t look like real football to him. Designers worked on an 11-on-11 game and it took them the better part of three years to take it to market.

Over time, the playbook and graphics were improved and a ratings system was created to make some digital players better than others. Occasionally, Madden would pick up a controller and give it a try.

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“I’m not very good,” he told The Times in 2005. “I don’t play well enough to really test the game for a gamer. I get more out of watching other people play, and then where I can watch a game like I’m watching on television.”

A generation recognizes Madden not as the former coach of the Raiders or a popular TV broadcaster, but as the background voice for a video game. “Some people will just call me Madden,” he said. ‘“Hey, Madden! Hey! Hey!’ That’s the game.”

The game is realistic enough that lots of current NFL players first learned the nuances of football by playing “Madden.” But not as many reach for the controller anymore.

“I rarely play it,” said Richard Sherman, star cornerback for the San Francisco 49ers who was featured on the cover of “Madden 15.” “I live, eat and breathe football throughout the season. So the last thing I want to do is come home and trying to relax and let my hair down, and still be playing football.”

Like Sherman, Mark Ingram of the Saints prefers “Call of Duty,” which he plays every day. Typically, he’s competing online against people who have no idea it’s a star NFL running back and Heisman Trophy winner behind the controls.

“I don’t think the teams that I’m playing against know it’s me, but my team, they know me,” Ingram said.

“The kids be on there talking noise. They’re talking crazy.”

When he’s had enough, there’s always this retort in reserve:

“Go do some homework or something.”

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