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Gaming

'Madden' players scramble for glory

Virtual-football game gets tougher once you leave your living room, hundreds discover at tournament. Photos: 'Madden Challenge' hits S.F.

SAN FRANCISCO--On his home turf, DeAnte Brown is just about invincible when it comes to the hit football video game series "Madden NFL."

"I don't play as much as I used to, now that I'm in college, but I still play every day, and I win almost all the time," the 18-year-old Oakland student said. "My cousin is the only dude who can flat-out beat me."

Sunday was a different matter, however, as Brown joined more than 700 "Madden" fans from around Northern California to compete in the San Francisco stop of the "Madden Challenge."

Started by game publisher Electronic Arts three years ago to give the best "Madden" players in the country a chance to strut their stuff, this year's challenge includes qualifying tournaments in 32 U.S. cities, ending in Sunday's event at SBC Park, home of the San Francisco Giants.

The top regional players go to Las Vegas for the finals Dec. 10 to 12, with $50,000 and major bragging rights on the line.

Brown won't be among them. He washed out in the first round of Sunday's competition, in which he discovered it's one thing to be master of the gridiron in your living room and quite another to take your game on the road.

"It's a whole different level here," he said. "When you play your friends, you've got an idea (of) what kind of plays they're going to run. Coming into this, you've got no idea what you're up against."

EA charges players a $10 entry fee to play in the tournament, which helps weed out some of the wannabes and defray the cost of schlepping dozens of TV set/PlayStation 2 kiosks around the country.

The Challenge is mainly a promotional opportunity for EA, which counts on "Madden NFL" as a top perennial moneymaker. The company has faced some fresh challenges this year, however, with Sega cutting the price on its competing "ESPN NFL" game to $20 and grabbing 2 million in sales in its first three months on the market. EA responded early in November by dropping the price of "Madden NFL" from $50 to $30.

Early in the season, EA also had to deal with a pack of angry "Madden" fans who discovered glitches in online play.

Millions of "Madden NFL" fans remain loyal to the game, however. Among them is 21-year-old Michael Villas of Concord, Calif., who was participating in his second "Madden Challenge" Sunday after having learning a few things from the previous year.

"You have to train and really know football," he said. "I practiced the whole playbook all year, and when I got here, I had to switch to a totally different set of plays than what I usually use."

All of which earned Villas and buddy Alfredo Bautista, 23, of Bay Point, Calif., a swift exit from the tournament after going down in the first round.

"We mainly do it for fun," Bautista shrugged. "I know there are guys who make a career out of playing 'Madden,' but we just want to test our skills."