Gamers and Playmates and Heroes! Oh my!


This year is the 20th anniversary of John Madden football and to commemorate this historic occasion, the folks at EA Sports are holding a "MaddenPalooza" event in Los Angeles. Deadspin has dispatched Michael Tunison to cover some of the sights, sounds, and overall geekiness. If you have any suggestions for what he can do tonight or tomorrow while trapped in fantastic LA, send him an email. This is his first dispatch from the opening night party. Enjoy.

It's a curious choice that Electronic Arts would hold its 20th anniversary Madden release hoopla in Los Angeles, given a number of factors, the most obvious being the city's reputation for not being the most receptive to professional football. Another salient one is the proximity to the movie and television industry, which many pundits will tell you is just years away from being throughly outstripped by the video game bidness. So to see the publicity machine of traditional broadcast media backing - or at least latching onto - a video game is a very interesting sight to behold and one I got to observe in various degrees of intoxication during a recent trip to the Left Coast for Maddenpalooza.

Because it's L.A., the Palooza was split into two events: a launch party at the Rose Bowl on Monday and a pre-launch party at a trendy steakhouse in West Hollywood last Thursday. Still waiting on that after-launch party.

Gamers and Playmates and Heroes! Oh my!

Having not shed all of my print journalism punctuality, I arrived early even for the media check-in on Thursday, watching the marketing and PR people flit about the red carpet/take-my-picture-in-front-of-the-big-placard area. I will say the one thing I miss about my days at WaPo was the way PR people fell over themselves trying to accommodate you because you worked for Big Nationally Known Publication. Online writers might as well be staggering in from the muck, like there's anything wrong with the muck.

I waited around for an hour, just long enough for my legs to get tired and my stomach to press for free food. But I was awarded, for then the stars did come out. Let's see: there was some hot coquettish girl who's apparently on Nip/Tuck, this dude from some reality show, an actor who I think was one of Eric's friends on Boy Meets World and, hey, Masa Oki. Molto celestial.

A huge bus bearing the Cowboys logo stopped in front of the restaurant momentarily and things start to look up. Dallas holds camp in California. Some Cowboys could be here. Better yet, some Cowboys cheerleaders could be here. I could be on Hard Knocks! Sadly, no Wade or Jerry or T.O. or anyone with boobie tassles emerges. The bus takes off, to be followed by the arrival of a guy who looks like Al Snow pulling up in a Lamborghini. This does not bode well.

A young fat Samoan guy in a Tar Heels hat nearby cracks a joke and finally I've found someone else who doesn't give a shit about this pre-party rigmarole. The Samoan guy is the first person I've talked to at the event who's genuinely excited about trying the game for the first time. So too am I, unlike the assorted PR folk who can't conceal a snicker when you tell you them you're looking forward to playing a video game. Also, somehow he's a Steelers fan. Yup, we're cool.

Mr. Samoa, who writes game reviews for a local newspaper and runs a not-very frequently updated gaming blog on their web site, is none too impressed with the shitshow. "Talk to any of these celebrities tonight and all of them will tell you 'Oh man, I love video games' but they're just paying lip service to this subculture they don't respect, but don't want to alienate because it's so large. These people still have no idea about who gamers are." You mean to tell me there are phonies in L.A.? WHY DIDN'T ANYONE TELL ME!?

Sure, the yearly release of the Madden game has become a legit event in the pop culture calendar. This doesn't mean its fans aren't above some needed mocking, which you'd know if you've ever played against some of the mouthbreathers on Xbox Live. Or seen any of the untold personal Madden highlights that very sad people post on YouTube. The game has become something of a symbol for unproductive male lunkheadedness, which was further pointed out to me when fellow KSK and With Leather writer Matt Ufford accidentally sent me this e-mail intended for his girlfriend:

"Hey hon, just looking around for another story after finishing the recap. Should be kind of a tough day for me, as Mike's off in LA for the Madden '09 release party. That's right, he flew across the country to get an early look at a video game. When you think about how awesome I am, be sure to include the fact that I don't play video games."

See that gamers? Even bloggers are making fun of you. And they get pushed around by pussy journalists. Think about that.

Anyway, Samoan guy (not intentionally leaving out his name, I forgot it) and I decide we've had enough of the faint glitz and head in, camping in front of one of the 13 42-inch flatscreens set up around the interior. I also start down the perilous road of whiskey orders.

The game's graphics are breathtaking, an appreciable step up from last year's installment. The stadium and the players look more crisp, the motions more fluid, the atmosphere more game-like. Considering a good deal of the people at the party are content to fiddle with the game for a few minutes, it's not hard to get some time to give it a test drive. The gameplay is essentially the same from last year and so too are some of my main gripes. For instance, it's still fucking impossible to run the ball between the tackles. And running outside them is feast or famine, a three-yard loss or a skate to the house. For a guy who only plays with the Steelers, this is a critical point. Sure, the early '90s editions of Madden where you could run countless 8-yard gains up the gut with Barry Foster on halfback leads was nice, but if I want to be chucking the ball from four- and five-wide sets all day, I'll pick up the next Blitz game.

One new bell for this year's game is the Replay feature, which gives each player the chance to take a mulligan on one play every game, be a sack, a 95-yard pass play, whatever. Of course, I accidentally trigger this unspeakably retarded feature for the first time after I intercept a Tarvaris Jackson pass when down 14-10 in the 3rd quarter (Samoan guy is forced to be the Vikings because I'm an insufferable asshole who refuses not to be the Steelers). Two plays later, I get burned for a score and end up losing 24-10. "That's probably the only time you're going to see Tarvaris Jackson throw three TD passes," Samoa jokes. I kind of hate him now.

Not wanting to squander the whole party in front of the console (it's tough when you have a server bringing you free drinks), I make the rounds. The party has picked up some and everyone is abuzz because Hugh Hefner is there (Thanks for spoiling the surprise, Clay!). I find him a back table sandwiched between eight or so playmates and cordoned off by velvet rope from the gawking partygoers, myself included. I offer a handshake and compliment him on his harem. He smiles sagely.

But wait: More middling stars! JC Chavez! Verne Troyer! Tom Arnold! *Gasp* Jamal Anderson! Someone who actually played football (albeit not for a long time). I am legitimately starstruck though when I spy Tristan Wilds, the guy who played Michael Lee on The Wire. He endures my Wire fanboy gushings politely and I wish him luck with the new 90210 series, despite the fact that he's wearing a Brewers hat. In line at the bar, I strike up awkward convo with Masi Oka, who was also at the Maxim Hot 100 party I went to a few months ago. It's like I really know the guy, except I don't and I've never watched the show he's semi-famous for.

Gamers and Playmates and Heroes! Oh my!

Me: Hey, nice meeting you.

Masi: Oh hey.

Me: How's the new season going?

Masi: Pretty good. We're filming it right now.

Me: I saw you at the Maxim party a few months ago.

Masi: The Hot 100 party?

Me: Yeah.

Masi: They ran out of booze way too early.

Me: Yeah, that kind of sucked.

Masi: ...

Me: You into the game at all or just here for the party?

Masi: No, I play Madden. I'm about to get into an arrangement with them.

Me: Like what?

Masi: I can't really talk about it.

Me: All right. What team do you root for?

Masi: Chargers. They're the closest.

Me: Hmmm. Sooooo...that Philip Rivers. Cool guy, huh?

Masi: Yeah, I like him.

Me: ...

Masa breaks the tension by grabbing the girl in front of him by the shoulders and shaking her vigorously. She giggles. You can do this when you're semi-famous.

At this point, the place is incredibly packed and the rest of the night is split between getting more and more hammered while shuttling between Xbox consoles and rubbing against some out-of-my-league ass on the dance floor. Eventually the place thins out and I stagger home, where, fuck!, I don't have the new Madden yet.