I jammed that X button with the ferocity one might use to stomp out a cockroach.
Just as a satisfied smile curled at the edge of my lips, I heard a yell and a smashing sound. The guy sitting next to me had just Gronk-spiked his XBOX controller.
It was a mistake to turn in his direction and extend a mocking handshake of “sportsmanship”. It was probably a worse idea to say, “Nice try,” before I felt my chair knocked out from underneath me.
Suddenly he had me backpedalling, my body teetering at about a 45-degree angle. I hit the shaky metal dorm bed with my back and my head rocked backwards on to the thin mattress.
An icy grip curled around my throat. I struggled, but couldn’t shake him off. As the weight on me increased, breathing became harder and I thought to myself: Maybe Madden has gone too far.
About a week after I’d moved in to my dorm at Syracuse University, I tried to turn my XBOX on for the first time. It wouldn’t work. Something about my controllers wouldn’t connect; neither would any I borrowed from friends.
I was irritated. I’m not usually a huge video game guy, but a game of NBA 2K sounded like the perfect Sunday afternoon relaxer. Except now it wouldn’t work.
Wandering around the dorm, I saw one of my friends and we played FIFA in his room.
Not long after, a couple of friends and I devised to have a 16-team FIFA tournament in our floor’s lounge. I got pretty into it, playing warm-up matches and sort of practicing because I wanted to hold my own and at least play a respectable game in front of my peers. As I played more, I approached the precipice of a steep slope.
After it was over – I lost in the semi-finals – I wanted to keep playing games, but FIFA wore on me, so I changed it up.
By this time I had given up on my XBOX, so one day when I had the itch to play I walked into my friend Alex’s room and said, “Madden anybody?”
We ended up playing so much we just set-up a league.
Alex, his roommate Robbie and I were constantly either playing or trash-talking about Madden for about a week. Once, while sitting on Alex’s bed, I condescendingly chided him about a franchise he had created. During his fantasy draft, he selected Carlos Hyde as his starting Running Back and Blake Bortles as his starting Quarterback. (Both are unproven rookies on their NFL teams.)
I said his team was filled with hopeful projects, he saw promising rookies that would collectively ascend to greatness. He also dared me to do better.
I took his challenge. Robbie, who was in the room as well, interjected, saying he could draft a better team than both of us.
To settle the dispute fairly, we established the league.
It had these parameters: Everyone had to pick a team in the same division (so we’d play each other at least twice per year) and we could fantasy draft our teams so that we’d have total control of our destinies.
Leading off the choices, I selected to own the Jacksonville Jaguars of the AFC South. I like reclamation projects. Alex went with the Tennessee Titans and Robbie chose the Indianapolis Colts. To be clear, the other 29 teams were playing, just A.I.-controlled.
One November night, we sat down in front of the television set in Alex and Robbie’s room, which is pretty large for a dorm.
The draft started. We were on the clock.
The first year was rather uneventful.
I had gone defense-first in the draft, taking players like Free Safety Earl Thomas, Defensive Tackle Ndamakoung Suh and DT Nick Fairley. Then I established an offensive line. My skill position players were the furthest thing from impressive with Case Keenum at Quarterback and Jeremy Maclin my top wideout. I also liked using laterally-quick, slashing Running Backs, which made Eddie Lacy not a great scheme fit for my team. (Maybe that’s why I finished third.)
Alex won the division with a team Quarterbacked by Eli Manning, throwing to top-Receiver A.J. Green. His team was young and solid, deep all-around, but dominant nowhere. Still, it made for a successful team.
Robbie finished second, perhaps because his Wide Receivers were headlined by Calvin Johnson and Sammy Watkins while LeSean McCoy handled the rushing. Kirk Cousins could throw a 10-yard slant, so getting the ball to Johnson was good enough to let him do the rest of the work.
In the offseason after the first year, our friend Jack jumped in, assuming control of the struggling Houston Texans, who had finished 2-14 the year previous.
I don’t mean to pin this on Jack, but coincidentally, looking back, this is where everything started to slide down a dangerous hill.
We started playing all the time. With the four of us playing each other twice per year in divisional games, each person had to play six games per season (A.I. games were simulated).
We created a group chat and it blew up regularly with either trash talk, league updates, or someone demanding others in the league to drop homework and come by to play.
As we locked-up players during the re-sign players, fiercely battled one another for free-agents and mercilessly competed during the draft, it began to get serious.
Robbie’s team began to struggle as he would throw a few interceptions with Cousins, then bench him in favor of Terrelle Pryor, his backup, (Robbie loves mobile QBs) which would decrease Cousins confidence. Inevitably, Robbie would toss a few more picks with Pryor and make another switch. The QB carousel continued when he drafted Abraham Meyer, a mobile QB. After four games, Robbie had seen enough. Then, absurdly, Robbie traded Cousins and pennies for the shiny dollar of Peyton Manning.
Jack heard all about Manning from Robbie because Jack had been very vocally critical of Robbie’s strategy of acquiring a Quarterback, then throw a few picks with said QB and bench him,
An intense rivalry developed between the two, cemented by a brutal bidding war over a free agent that became so intense the player not bidding was forced to leave the room because the other worried about spying on the bid.
As we played more league games, we evolved as Madden players, learning the tendencies of one another in certain situations (Jack runs some variant of Cover 2 every defensive play). It made me understand that, since the NFL’s intra-divisional rivals experience the same thing, why the games were such a big deal.
Simulations were uncontrollable, but go 6-0 in your division and you significantly increase your chances of capturing the division crown. But mostly I wanted to win because I didn’t want to go to the dining hall that night, only to hear about how much I sucked in Madden from the guy I had just lost to.
Jack had inherited a depleted Texans squad, and he was new, so he finished 2-14 for the second-straight year while the order of the standings remained unchanged in our second year: Alex, Robbie, me.
Inexplicably the next season, Manning retired and Robbie, vowing never to play a game with Pryor at Quarterback, drafted some auto-generated guy named Tiger Landry. He wasn’t great at throwing a long bomb or scrambling.
It took two games for Robbie to trade for a new QB, this time Andrew Luck.
Three seasons in, our league had developed some tendencies outside of the virtual game.
We trash-talked constantly, especially when one league member had other plans which prevented from everyone drafting or signing free agents.
(Oh, side note: I won a free-agent bidding war with Robbie, signing free-agent QB A.J. McCarron headed into our third season. Attention NFL: Apparently McCarron will be a 90 overall by 2017. Ditto to Alex’s Ryan Nassib.)
Squabbling between Robbie and Jack increased, as well as everyone’s frustration with one another.
We each had a different way of sitting in our chair during games that spoke about our demeanor to the game. Alex sat crisscross applesauce and calmly looked at the screen while (usually) winning, until he’d slam the controller and yell if he played poorly, but only if the problems were extreme. Robbie hunched over, resting his elbows on his knees, shoulders arched and leaning in towards the TV, ready to curse out his Quarterback the minute a deep pass didn’t work. Jack stretched his legs until he’d be leaning back in the chair and his legs were straight while his hands calmly lay in his lap, holding the controller; when things went wrong he just sort of threw up his arms in disgust. I sort of did the same thing as Robbie, but sometimes I’d sit back and just let the action unfold. Loud, boisterous, bragging was how I was when I won, but I’d get sulky and silent when things didn’t go my way, which was often.
A few times even, the conflicts got physical between Robbie and someone else (usually me) because, well, one shove would lead to another and then we were tackling one another in the small confines of the dorm room.
There’s some analogy there about two NFL linemen living in a glass broom cupboard.
My team experienced a reversal of fortune by the league’s fourth season, suddenly winning consistently. I finished 5-1 in the division, toppling Alex’s reign of terror and ending his bid for a four-peat.
Playing the last, division-clinching game I beat Robbie and that’s when I said, patronizingly, “Nice try” and he knocked me out of my seat.
Do I realistically think he was going to strangle me? No, of course not. Did it scare the hell out of me to get choked out? Uh, yes. It was enough to think to myself, Maybe this has gone too far.
The league had petered on the edge of being too intense, feeling too much like it made me dislike my friends as it brought out the worst in all of us. I’d lose, become irate and curse out my players, walking from the room saying, “I hate Madden! I’ll never play again!” until 20 minutes later when someone knocked on my door and challenged me.
I was teetering on the edge of telling the guys I wanted out of the league; we were spending too much time playing, scheduling our work on finals around it. The level of intensity had ramped up to a level I couldn’t enjoy, or even handle.
I seethed at Robbie as he let the play clock wind down.
I had a commanding lead in our game, we were both under stress to play Madden and complete finals work and I wasn’t letting up. Ahead by more than three touchdowns, I still threw the ball and, in a spiteful way, tried to run-up the score. Robbie would go into punt block, allowing me to score by removing all defenders from the passing game, and try to get the ball back because he would simply make me wait every excruciating second to run a play.
Once he figured out he could take penalties and the game clock wouldn’t start at all, he began to do that. We were, quite literally, stuck in time. With a Syracuse game in the Carrier Dome just minutes away from starting, I began to yell at Robbie to snap the ball, which he belligerently refused to do.
Eventually, disgusted, I left the room and heard sounds of Alex and Robbie grappling, trying to wrest control of Robbie’s controller to end the game. Eventually Alex ran out the clock and the game was recorded. Final score: 70-21. But it didn’t matter because everyone was so angry afterwards (including me) because the game was bringing out the worst in us.
Robbie was pissed I ran up the score; I was equally angry at him for not losing with grace.
Then, if our league was at the edge of a very steep drop, this was the moment it fell over it.
One night while 24-hour quiet hours were imposed, I got into a yelling match with Robbie about a trade we had shaken hands on of which he was now backing out. The players involved don’t matter. Who was right and who was wrong doesn’t matter. I only remember Robbie saying he wouldn’t follow through with the deal and I turned redder than a steamed lobster.
I walked out of Robbie and Alex’s room, into my own and said I was done with the league.
Everyone agreed that there was no sense to push the situation. The league disbanded. That’s how it ended. We left for Christmas break on Dec. 11.
Rather, that was the way it was supposed to end.
We got back to school yesterday, Jan. 11. I went to next door to visit Alex and Robbie in their room. They came back to mine and somehow Jack ended up in there and, as we all stood around, I asked if everyone was really done with the league.
We all looked around, saying nothing but judging reactions.
“I never said I was done,” Alex said.
And that was all that needed to be said.
Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York as a freshman at Syracuse University. He likes baseball, crunchy peanut butter and using the word “wicked” as an adjective. He’s not a fan of purposefully misspelt business names (“Kathy’s Kut & Kurl”) or grammatical error’s. You can read him here every Monday, follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.