It's Monday night in Garfield, late, and the streets are empty. But tucked among the boarded-up shopfronts that line this battered suburb, there is one neon-lit hive of energy: the Upscale Sports Lounge. The screen door of this sprawling, aluminum-sided bar shakes from the heavy bass vibrating inside, where a unique combination of promotions has brought the bar to life. In the front it's "Alternative Night," which, judging from the burly women grinding on each other there, seems to be code for Lesbian Night. In the back it's a weekly Madden NFL tournament sponsored by 107.9-FM, Cleveland's purveyor of blazing hip-hop and R&B.
Usually in this back room, you'd find hustlers bent over pool tables, itching to separate chumps from their cash. Tonight, the hustle happens in HD. While a table of hot wings goes untouched, a crowd of men gaze at a mounted flat screen, their faces stoned, mesmerized. They barely even notice when a woman walks in and yells, "It's a video game, dudes!"
At the center of the crowd, a cordless Xbox controller is being manhandled by the meaty grips of Robert Wright. Wright — who looks like Suge Knight, but with less height and less beard — maneuvers the controller as his sweaty, fleshy head nods along with the bass-heavy rap blasting from the bar's speakers. Wright is battling tonight for a serious prize package: an Xbox 360, a copy of the new Madden game, Browns tickets, and an invitation to play against Browns cornerback Eric Wright. It's mostly the lure of this last prize — the chance to beat a guy who's in Madden at Madden — that has the men screaming and swearing, jumping and spinning.
The land of Maddenheads isn't ruled by the acne-scarred set, but by these men: posturing, shit-talking dudes who turn barbershop waiting areas into cutthroat gambling dens. (The controller, as one gamer puts it, is the new dice.) And Cleveland's outpost of this subculture is ruled by Robert Wright. He may not dress it — he's wearing baggy jeans, a Dolphins jersey, and a Scarface-inspired medallion bearing the words "The World Is Yours" — but Wright is, at 31, an elder statesman in Ohio's Madden culture, a veteran of both the competitive-Madden circuit and the motel-room and barbershop gambling scene. He's known for his savvy for keeping games close, always with that next game — and that next wager — in mind.
He's doing that now, taking it easy on his opponent, Eric, in hopes of luring bettors. But sometimes he can't help it. A precisely timed flick of a thumb and twinge of an index finger — perfected by 20 years of practice — spins his player from the grasp of Eric's defender and into the end zone.
"Did you see that?" Eric asks twice of the audience, stunned. Almost everyone is impressed — except for the woman in the corner, the only woman here. That's Wright's girlfriend, Erika Vaughn. As she texts on her Sidekick, she wishes he'd hurry up and demolish his opponents; her two kids are at home with a babysitter.
To appease her, Wright tells her about his plan to scare up some bets and turn that juvenile prize package into big dollars. But his motivation is simpler than that. He's been hustling video games for a decade. No matter how hard it tries, he won't let adulthood rip the controller from his hands.
They may not have replicas of medieval swords mounted in their dens or avatars with better sex lives than theirs. But they're still gamers. Theirs is no less obsessive a life, their world no less virtual, than that of Halo addicts and Guitar Hero rockers.
But as the inner city has adopted Madden, the shameful implications of mastering a video game have been hedged away: It's football — a manly, urban pursuit. And it's played for money. It's real. "It's not even a game," explains one player at Upscale's tourney. "It's more than that." And it goes down not in Mom's basement, but often at neighborhood barbershops. Once the place where men discussed the ponies as their beards got lathered, the barbershop is now where gamers make big-money conquests between cuts.
Wright was destined for barbershop gambling since age 12, when he first popped a Tecmo Bowl cartridge into his Nintendo. An army brat who split his childhood between Delaware and Hawaii, he inherited an obsession with competition from his stepdad, an Air Force pilot, and his mom, a college basketball player. To teach him how to win, they taught him how to lose, regularly destroying him at backgammon and chess.
Wright took out his aggression on the phantom opponents within his dusty Nintendo console, and he savored the victories as if they'd come on real fields against real opponents. He can recall his every video-game triumph with precision, and he still chortles with pride when he recounts the time he beat his uncle at Tecmo Bowl — in 1989: "He was up by six points and was about to kick a field goal to end the game. I blocked it and ran it back for a touchdown."
Wright was 16, a high-school student in Dover, Delaware, when he first discovered gaming for money, with kids playing for 5 or 10 bucks a game. He could come away with 30 or 40 dollars after an afternoon that way, Wright says — more than a shift at Burger King.
After he graduated from high school in 1995, Wright moved to Euclid to take a factory job making airplanes and then a collections job at Huntington Bank. But his after-work hobby absorbed more time and energy than his career. When Madden introduced internet play on the Genesis console in 1995, Wright found himself ranked fourth nationwide. "I realized then," he says, "I'm really tough out here."
It was 1998 when Wright, then 21, first turned Madden into real supplemental income. He was still doing collections. It was the holidays. And he was broke. "I had a hundred bucks to my name," he says. A friend called his office and told Wright he had found some Cleveland "ballers" willing to play for — conveniently enough — a hundred bucks per game.
Wright sprang into blow-off-work mode. "I rub my eyes, make 'em red," he recalls, "do a sad face to my boss, and tell him, 'I just threw up.'"
Bailing on work to gamble your net worth is the move, no doubt, of the future addict. But to Wright, it was the coup that saved Christmas. "In two days, I went from $100 to $1,400," he says. "I got my moms and my sister some nice stuff."
Seeing how willing gamblers were to part with their money awoke in Wright a hustler's spirit. With cronies in tow, he began traveling the Midwest and East Coast, making connections, meeting gamblers in their homes or hotel rooms, and stripping them of their cash. But he never stripped them of their hope. "My policy is, win by 10," he says. "As long as you keep that pressure within 10 points, they're always gonna feel like, if they play a little bit better, they're gonna beat you. Some people become obsessed with beating you."
Unlike the marathon skate sessions of Tony Hawk games or the one-man death fest that is Grand Theft Auto, Madden is well suited to gambling — it's football, after all. As a result, it can attract the same dirty money that wagering on the real sport does. "The hood plays this game," says Topp Taylor, an emcee at Madden tournaments. Taylor says he's seen $20,000 hotel-room grudge matches between top players. "Some nerds play this game, but it's mostly street guys."
In 2004, Wright says, he found himself holed up in an opulent Pittsburgh hotel suite, locked in a weekend Madden marathon with a local drug dealer. The games were naturally close; Wright never allowed himself a blowout victory. As the dealer found himself in a growing hole, he tried to wager himself out of it with bigger bets. He eventually gave up, down almost $2,000. "That's couch change," he said as he peeled off bills from his wad.
"That's why there's such good money in it," says Wright. "A lot of these people that you gamble, money is not that big of an issue. If they lose $500, they can go make it back like nothing."
Not surprisingly, crimes involving Madden gambling usually go unreported. But there are countless rumors of stickups, shootings, and beatdowns. A friend of Wright's was robbed at gunpoint by a pair of sore losers in Atlanta, Wright says. These are the risks when a mild-mannered cubicle dweller tries to hustle drug dealers.
Wright, like most gamblers, also seems to conveniently forget any money he's lost gambling on video games. But he swears the money he's won — estimating his total Madden earnings at $40,000 — makes the risk worthwhile. In '04, Wright was laid off and couldn't find work. But he was living fine, he says — because he had scads of free time to gamble. "Right when I got laid off, my Madden took off," he says. In the four months it took to land a sales job, he says he won more than $10,000. He estimates that he made $20,000 on gambling wins in '05. "That was my toughest year," he says. "I was off-the-charts good.
"We straight raped the Detroit boys, the Pittsburgh boys, the Cincy boys," Wright says of his Cleveland gambling crew. "We would decide where we were going and feast."
It's a warm fall Sunday in Pittsburgh, and Wright's sitting on the edge of a potted plant outside Heinz Field, the home of the Steelers, waiting for the latest Madden Challenge to kick off. He's adorned by his Scarface medallion and a Mike Tyson T-shirt, and he's talking to a friend from Challenges past — a big, slouchy guy he knows as B-Rock. He's trying to figure out why B-Rock always gets knocked out of Madden Challenges.
"I'm a street nigga!" B-Rock huffs. "I don't know about this website, that website."
They're sitting away from a mob that's gathered outside the stadium. The Challenge is infused with what an EA marketer would surely term hip-hop flava — a synthesized, safe version of the barbershop scene. The gamers scream into cameras, preen like peacocks. One guy shows off the Madden logo tattooed on his biceps. There's 500 Pittsburgh entrants all told, and like kids on the first day of school, most are wearing their newest sneakers and favorite football jerseys. Today is one stop on the 17-leg national tour. The first Challenge EA, in 1995, was overrun by 4,000 rabid gamers. Now, 20,000 players enter each year, and hundreds more get turned away at stadium gates.
As Challenge season rolls around, lives are overtaken by Madden. Gamers forgo sleep to practice, spinning and juking players through drills on an empty field. They follow, with religious fervor, Madden Nation, a reality show in which top players tour on a bus, competing for $100,000. They learn entire NFL playbooks. From paid-subscription websites like the one Wright co-owns, themaddenlab.com, they rip strategies and game glitches. "The funniest emotion I've seen is tears of joy," says DJ Kaleem, who tours with the Challenge. "They prepare for so long for the moment of victory, and then when it comes, they feel like it was destiny."
If you have any import as a Madden baller, you've got a nickname. Here in Pittsburgh, there's Kornstar, The Next One, Evil Ken, Big Game James. Forty Gees, the oldest truly competitive gamer at 36, has already won a regional Challenge this year; he's in from Philadelphia to "scout."
"I already got a blitz from Duck," he'll say later. "Worth. The. Trip."
Then there's Da Secret. A baby-faced white kid in a velour tracksuit — his real name is Billy — the 20-year-old evokes awed whispers as he saunters through the crowd. Secret won last year's Challenge in Los Angeles for $100,000, and is now the ideal to which every Maddenhead aspires — the flesh-and-blood reminder that all those sore-assed, thumb-swelling hours spent memorizing NFL playbooks just might be their ticket to financial freedom.
As Wright waits for the gates to open, kids go out of their way to pound his meaty fists, greeting him with respect. They know him as "Ill Spins," a nickname he gave himself a few years back to acknowledge his joystick-thumbing ability. His previous nickname, I.B. Tasses, was apparently too cerebral. "Most people didn't get it," he says.
Wright earned the young players' respect by making it to the national finals in 2004 and 2005, winning paid trips to the events in Las Vegas and Honolulu. In Vegas, EA put the gamers up at Mandalay Bay and gave them chips to throw around at the casino's tables. Wright schmoozed with stars like the NFL's Jeremy Shockey and boxer Roy Jones Jr. at an event party. It was among the proudest moments of his life.
Wright hasn't made a run at a championship since then, but as he straggles into a line at a stadium gate, he's feeling — and talking — cocky. "Women complain when their man is always playing video games," he says, launching into one of his many Madden dictums. "But then you tell them, 'I made $400 today.' And they're usually like, 'Can I get a hundred?' I call that 'shut-up money.' That's money well spent."
When the Challenge finally starts, Wright happens to draw a woman, the only female entrant in Pittsburgh. He dispatches her easily but politely, and as he moves on, a little crowd follows his progress. He's the most interesting development so far — an old man trying to hold on, the Roy Hobbs of Maddenland. He beats his next opponent, a timid white kid, with less cordiality. Excitement wells in his boyish eyes.
But spectators know he hasn't accomplished anything; elite players are still lurking. "He's gonna run into a monster that's going to send him on his way," grumbles Forty Gees. He believes Wright's been out of the game too long. Wise old men like Forty and Taylor know Wright's story. And they've seen it before. Wright, they know, has got himself a girlfriend. A real job. A real life.
Those four months in 2004 when he was laid off gave Wright a taste of the Maddenhead Dream: playing video games for a living. According to Madden lore, a Florida gambler known only as "Carl" has spent the better part of the last decade traveling the country, betting on Madden and winning. He might not seem like much to aspire to, this IRS-dodging, addicted-to-gambling gamer. But for the obsessed Madden man, there is no life better than the life of Carl.
Instead, this is Wright's life: Six days a week, he drives his Ford Explorer from Akron to Brecksville, stuffs himself into a cubicle, straps on a headset, and goes to work — selling broadband and other enticements to businesses for AT&T.
If Wright really wanted the freedom — and lonely risk — of Carl's life, he wouldn't have posted an ad earlier this year on Blackplanet.com in hopes of netting a girlfriend. But he did. And while he tried to preserve his gaming habit by revealing his devotion to Madden on his profile page, it didn't work. Erika Vaughn didn't read it.
"I just looked at his picture," says Vaughn, an unrestrained 26-year-old cheerleading coach. "And all I saw was no kids!" She already had two of those.
Within a few months, Vaughn was pregnant by Wright, and he moved in. Their two-story house is decorated with pride: Wright would have preferred a life-size cutout of Dan Marino hanging on the living-room wall, but instead, it's done floridly. Gold tassels hang off the butter-colored couch pillows, and the wooden dining-room set is knobby and ornate.
When Vaughn realized the depth of her boyfriend's hobby, she promptly squelched it. "[He's] coming into contact with a lot of grimy people, going out of town hustling," she says. "And I don't like spending my nights alone."
Wright, under the sudden trance of a comfortable home and a concerned woman, put down the controller, and even stopped practicing for the upcoming Challenge in Pittsburgh. His Xbox gathered dust and was even injured when Vaughn angrily yanked the cord out of the console. "Shut-up money" had become nothing more than a mythical concept, a catchphrase from a former life. And the only action he saw happened at the dining-room table: "He hustled me in Connect 4!" Vaughn says. "While he's letting me win a few, he's studying how I play the game."
"Like I said," Wright says smugly, "everybody has a pattern."
But hot meals and new love can only suppress an addiction for so long. After a while, Wright started clamoring for the sticks again. He was eyeing the Pittsburgh Challenge — a chance to shake off the dust and catch up with old Madden chums. "There's got to be something for me," he told her.
Wisely, Wright had dutifully attended Vaughn's cheerleading meets over the previous several weeks. Finally, she gave in. "I want him to support my cheerleading," she says, "so I realized I had to support his Madden."
After the first two opponents in Pittsburgh, Wright's third is a true test. He's Brian Delph, a brawny 21-year-old 50 Cent look-alike in a backward hat and matching Nikes. The Sandusky kid was featured on Madden Nation. He's known simply as "Delph."
More onlookers pack around the TV. When Wright picks the Dolphins to play with, Delph snickers. "What?" wonders a spectator, and that says it all: Miami may be Wright's favorite team, but the virtual version is just as hopeless as the real-life squad.
After falling behind, Wright somehow finds himself in position to tie the game. His quarterback tosses a sure touchdown pass to a receiver, and Wright (the real-life version) jumps and spins to celebrate. But when his eyes return to the screen, he realizes: The pass was incomplete.
In the third quarter he misses a field goal, an unheard-of error in Challenge play. "Hell yeah!" Delph screams. He points at Wright's back and makes a face that can be interpreted only as "Who's this dude?"
Wright loses 17-14, eliminated by the first real talent he's faced. After the game, he looks dazed as he rubs his bald head, which glimmers with perspiration. "What happened when I thought it was a touchdown and I turned around?" he's asking, but nobody cares to answer. The crowd has scattered, off to root on the new wave of Madden elite.
"He used to be the man in Cleve-land," eulogizes Taylor. "But he's an adult now."
It's a week after the Dolphins debacle when Wright lumbers past the bass-shaking screen door and into Upscale. He senses that his days in competitive Madden may be numbered — like Taylor said, he's an adult now, and adults can't devote six-hour sessions to perfecting a spin glitch.
But he isn't ready to go back to his New Love days, when his Xbox was something to trip over in Vaughn's living room. So he stands, weight shifted to the heels of his Air Force Ones, toying with Eric, his goofy, smiling, sweaty opponent. Eric is outmatched, but as the second half rolls on, Wright falls behind by a touchdown. Eric is jittery with hope, even though the in-house DJ is sending him subliminal warnings through the poetry of Rick Ross: "Hustlin' hustlin' hustlin', every day I'm hustlin'."
A shifty character in a black T-shirt is walking around the room, offering a $50 bet to anybody who makes eye contact. As he plays, Wright stiffens, listening to the intrigue behind his back. If people start gambling, he wants in.
Sitting in a chair against a wall, Vaughn is immersed in her phone, but the talk of gambling perks her up too. Not only has she given in to her man's habit, she's become a sort of Fast Eddy to his Vincent. Belly bulging with the five-month-old bump, she approaches the opponent Wright's slated to face next, a guy named Manuel. "I'll betcha 20 you don't win!" she says playfully. A small bet, proposed by a woman — a ploy designed to tweak Manuel's ego. But Manuel, it turns out, is a local barber. He doesn't bite.
Meanwhile, Shifty Guy can't find a bettor and soon leaves the club. So Wright, sensing his gambling prospects dwindling, scores four straight touchdowns. After the loss, Eric seems unaware that he was used as hustle bait. "I had a chance to beat him, and I couldn't execute," he clichés sadly.
In the final, Wright destroys Manuel, 38-7. As he walks through the parking lot to his SUV (license plate: "ILL SPNZ"), Wright's disappointed that he couldn't hook any fish: "I just can't get any bets in Cleveland." But he hopes his prize package will change his fortune.
As the winner, Wright will receive a new Xbox and a copy of Madden '08. He'll hawk them both. More important is the chance to play Madden against Eric Wright, the Browns' defensive back. This, he believes, is his chance to gain access to the holy grail of video-game gambling: the actual NFL. The guys featured in Madden are well known for gambling on Madden. And, Wright says excitedly, they gamble big. He intently recounts the time a friend beat Browns tight end Kellen Winslow out of $4,000.
So he's developed a plan, which he lays out while sitting at home with his girlfriend the day after winning the tourney. He'll demolish Eric Wright, he says. "Beat him by like sixty points, where it's like, 'Damn, this is the best person I've ever seen play.'" That way the cornerback will urge teammates to experience the same humiliation. Then, he says, he'll play less ferociously, maybe even lose a couple. That'll get them hooked.
It's not just the home team he's shooting for either. In a fantasy even the storied Carl would envy, Wright plans to lure reputed gamblers from around the league. A Cincinnati Bengals receiver might be surprised to learn that a Cleveland gamer is salivating over the concept of his wallet. "When Chad Johnson comes to town," Wright says, "maybe they'll call me."
He fingers a tablecloth as he lays out his hopes. Vaughn, sitting across their coffee table, doesn't protest. In fact, she's holding her breath that it works. It's the Winslow story that brought her around. Four thousand dollars can buy a lot of baby formula.