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Virtually perfect

Video games the ideal getaway for athletes

Surrounded by his family, Patriots wide receiver Reche Caldwell, a loyal member of Madden Nation, indulges his favorite pastime. Surrounded by his family, Patriots wide receiver Reche Caldwell, a loyal member of Madden Nation, indulges his favorite pastime. (BARRY CHIN/GLOBE STAFF)
By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / July 20, 2007
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Tony Allen slices to the hoop and powers home a drive while absorbing a foul from Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash. The TD Banknorth Garden crowd erupts and Allen pumps his fist and shouts, "That's iso [as in an isolation play], baby," at the two-time NBA MVP.

While Allen's reaction is real, Nash is not and neither is the play. They're virtual. The Celtics guard is playing the popular "NBA Live" video game on Xbox 360 in the Celtics' locker room at the Sports Authority Training Center at HealthPoint in Waltham. The 25-year-old Allen is nearly as big a fan of video game hoops as he is the real thing, playing four hours a day.

"It brings me back to my kid days or puts me in my kid moments," said Allen, who has had lots of time to polish his skills while rehabbing from surgery in January to repair a torn left anterior cruciate ligament.

"Every time when I'm not trying to do some sit-ups or some leg squats on my one leg, I'm playing the game. I'm always the Celtics. I change my position, though. I'm a point guard on it. No disrespect to [Rajon] Rondo or nothing."

Like Allen, many athletes like to plug in and tune out. It should come as no surprise that those who play a kids' game for a living also enjoy playing kids' games off the field or court. Video games serve as an outlet for athletes' free time and a safe and hassle-free way to feed their competitive thirst.

"That's part of it, but another part of it is that we are just like you," said Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, an avid player of massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) such as "World of WarCraft" and "EverQuest." "Sports is, in a way, a microcosm of society.

"For better or worse, we have a lot of money and most of us are still kids, and this sport allows you to be kids, so we do kid stuff."

Schilling got hooked on the epic games in the late 1990s as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies, thanks to teammate Todd Pratt. Now, when Schilling goes on the road, laptop in tow, one of the ways he stays in touch with his kids is through the games.

The otherworldly fantasy environs in the games Schilling plays also create an alternate world for him, one in which he's just another gamer and not a celebrity who is both deified and denounced -- usually depending on his latest performance.

"For me, it's a place I can go out with real people and not be the Red Sox guy and that's fun; that's entertaining for me," said Schilling.

Video games have become more than a hobby for Schilling. As part of an ALS fund-raiser, he was introduced as a character in "EverQuest II" for three days in June 2006 -- he was a villain, if you're wondering -- and he has started his own video game company, Maynard-based 38 Studios, which is producing its first title.

"I had a passion for it," said Schilling. "That led to getting some knowledge of the industry, and they kind of both snowballed into 38 Studios."

The name of the game
Interestingly, the preferred genre of video game titles with athletes is sports games. Electronic Arts, known simply as EA, is to sports video games what ESPN is to sports coverage. The Redwood, Calif.-based company produces popular simulations of the NFL, NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball, and professional soccer, including the "NBA Live" title.

But EA's most prominent product, by far, is its football title, which bears the name of former Raiders coach and iconic television analyst John Madden. Say the name Madden to most current professional athletes and they think of the video game, not the announcer or the Hall of Fame coach. The "Madden" series is entering its 18th iteration with "Madden '08," which will be released Aug. 14, and has sold more than 60 million copies and generated $2 billion in retail sales. Last year's game, "Madden '07," sold more than 7 million copies and was the top-selling game in North America.

"Madden is the hottest game out there," said Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Alex Smith, the two-time defending champion in Madden Bowl, an annual competition among NFL players hosted by EA at the Super Bowl. This year, Smith defeated Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson in South Florida to retain his crown.

Chris Erb, the director of marketing for NFL business at EA, said he never has a problem recruiting athletes to attend or compete in the Madden Bowl. Erb said it's no surprise that video games have become a staple of the professional athlete's existence.

"If you look at the average age of the athletes right now, they're right in the sweet spot," he said. "We're now in a generation of guys who have grown up playing their entire lives."

The Madden series is popular with Patriots players. Safety Rodney Harrison, running back Laurence Maroney, and wide receivers Reche Caldwell, Bam Childress, and Chad Jackson are all part of Madden Nation. Childress said departed running back Corey Dillon was the biggest "Madden" maven on the team, bringing the game with him on the road.

"Every away game, he'd bring it," said Childress, who added he would play with Dillon and former Patriots linebacker Tully Banta-Cain. "The Jaguars game last season in Jacksonville, we got up at 10 or 11 and booted up until we had to be at the stadium."

Childress said the Bill Belichick of "Madden" is Harrison, who is able to apply his vast knowledge of real football to the virtual version, staying one step ahead of the competition.

That's music to the ears of Erb and the developers at EA, whose goal is to make the game as authentic as possible. To that aim, EA gets copies of NFL coaches' film from the league -- "Every team gets one and we get one," Erb said -- and brings in coaches and players to provide input. Erb said EA has 400 employees working on the "Madden" series.

Just how realistic is the game?

Caldwell, who said he often hosts his teammates for round-robin "Madden" duels, said that last year -- when he joined the Patriots -- he used the game's create-a-play function to help learn the team's offense.

"That's how I learned our plays," said Caldwell, who led the team in receptions and receiving yards. "I'd design our plays on 'Madden' and run them, and it helped me learn our plays better. I did that in San Diego, too. It's kind of like you're playing and you're studying your playbook."

Rocking the time away
Baseball is such a mental grind that major leaguers prefer not to play virtual versions of their sport.

When catcher Doug Mirabelli rejoined the Red Sox last year in a trade with the San Diego Padres, he got the rock star treatment as he was whisked to Fenway with a police escort, but Mirabelli enjoys playing the rock star role on his own, along with pitchers Tim Wakefield and Javier Lopez.

The three jam vicariously as virtual rock stars in the video games "Guitar Hero" and "Guitar Hero II," interactive titles that allow players to play popular songs using a guitar-like controller that has color-coded buttons, which correspond to images on the screen.

Mirabelli said he was introduced to the "Guitar Hero" games, which were developed by a Cambridge-based company called Harmonix, last season in Baltimore. The game was in the clubhouse. Now, thanks to Lopez, who brought in both PlayStation 2 versions of the games, the Sox can rock out in their players' lounge at Fenway.

That's not enough for Mirabelli and Wakefield, who bring it on road trips. Mirabelli said that on the road, he'll spend as much as 2 1/2 hours a night playing songs from Nirvana, Guns N' Roses, and '80s rockers Warrant.

"I wouldn't call myself a video game junkie," said the 36-year-old Mirabelli. "I just got stuck on this game. It has songs that I know and now I can go back and play them, which makes me feel like a rock star."

Wakefield is the only one of the three who actually plays the guitar, although Lopez is the reigning virtual rock star. The knuckleballer said such games serve a purpose for the players.

"It fills a void," said Wakefield. "We have a lot of time on our hands on the road. It's kind of an escape. You don't have to think about the pressures of our sport and our business. It's nice to be able to relax and just play a video game and not have to think about anything. [It's] kind of like turning on the TV and watching a rerun that you've seen a thousand times."

While such video games seem like harmless fun, they can become addictive and problematic. Detroit Tigers reliever Joel Zumaya missed three games in the American League Championship Series last season with inflammation in his right wrist and forearm. The Tigers, after examining Zumaya, determined his injuries were more consistent with those of a guitar player than a pitcher. The culprit, according to the team, was "Guitar Hero," which Zumaya was playing excessively.

That should have been game over for the flamethrower, but in an interview with the Detroit News prior to this season, Zumaya denied the game was the source of his injury and told the paper he still plays it. Zumaya is hurt again this season. He has been on the disabled list since May with a ruptured tendon in his right middle finger. That injury is unrelated to "Guitar Hero."

Lopez said video games are more helpful as a stress reliever than harmful as a potential source of injury.

"Some people might think it's a bit childish, which when you step back it probably is a little bit, but it keeps your mind fresh," said Lopez. "It just helps you get through the monotony of the day, playing some video games with some guys."

Game on.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. For a video games photo gallery, visit boston.com/sports

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