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Game Changers: How Videogames Trained a Generation of Athletes

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Since 1989, Madden has gone from 8-bit players on a primitive field to 2010's incredibly realistic football sim.

EA Sports

The situation was desperate for the Denver Broncos. On the first Sunday of the National Football League’s 2009 season, with only 28 seconds left in the game, they trailed the Cincinnati Bengals 7-6. The ball was on the 13-yard line — their own 13-yard line. On second down, Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton heaved the ball downfield, only to see a Bengals defender deflect the pass away from the receiver. And then something remarkable, close to miraculous, happened. Instead of falling to the ground, the ball popped into the air and landed in the outstretched arms of Broncos wide receiver Brandon Stokley, who started racing down the field. All across America, in living rooms and basements and sports bars, people broke into cries of wonderment and delight, heartbreak and disbelief.

Then they witnessed something even more startling.

Just before he reached the end zone, with 17 seconds remaining, Stokley cut right at 90 degrees and ran across the field. Six seconds drained off the clock before, at last, he meandered across the goal line to score the winning touchdown. For certain football fans, the excitement of a last-minute comeback now commingled with the shock of the familiar: It’s hard to think of a better example of a professional athlete doing something so obviously inspired by the tactics of videogame football. When I caught up with Stokley by telephone a few weeks later, I asked him point-blank: “Is that something out of a videogame?” “It definitely is,” Stokley said. “I think everybody who’s played those games has done that” — run around the field for a while at the end of the game to shave a few precious seconds off the clock. Stokley said he had performed that maneuver in a videogame “probably hundreds of times” before doing it in a real NFL game. “I don’t know if subconsciously it made me do it or not,” he said.

Today’s football players have an edge that no athletes before them have possessed: They’ve played more football than any cohort in history. Even with the rise of year-round training, full-contact practice time on the field hasn’t increased — in fact, it has actually gone down, as coaches have tried to limit the physical punishment that the game exacts. But videogames, especially the ubiquitous Madden NFL.

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