They've got video game
By Bob Young
Family emergency? Stock trade gone bad?
Johnson left without packing his Xbox video-game player.
He quickly dials a friend and asks him to rush it to the arena.
Professional athletes these days love to play video games. They live to be in them. Most of all, they dream of being the featured guy in the latest red-hot game.
John Madden, the former Oakland Raiders coach better known these days as a "Monday Night Football" analyst, uses graphics from his Madden NFL 2004 game to map out pregame strategies.
The NBA enlisted the help of video-game publisher Entertainment Arts to design the look of its NBA TV network.
Turner Sports uses NBA Live graphics during its studio show to illustrate plays.
But for the athletes, it's all about the video games.
"That's what is important to these guys now," former Suns coach Frank Johnson said. "It used to be everybody worried about money, shoe contracts and commercials. Now it's those (video games)."
Twenty-five years ago, making the cover of a Wheaties box signaled an athlete's arrival in the big time. Today it's being a "box cover athlete" on a video game.
"People don't really buy Wheaties that much anymore, I don't think. Video games have a lot of potential," said Suns guard Stephon Marbury, the cover boy of Midway's new NBA Ballers game, scheduled for a February release. "You're on the cover of (video-game) magazines, you get national commercials; it helps you in so many different aspects. And kids love them."
Therein lies the connection. Many of today's athletes are still kids, and even the veterans were raised in the computer era. Video games were as much a part of their childhood as neighborhood baseball and football games were for an earlier generation.
The combined sales of game systems and the games themselves will approach $20 billion globally this year, more than the U.S. movie industry's annual box-office take, according to Greg Lassen, senior director of interactive and electronic licensing for the NBA.
It's a hobby that makes sense for pro athletes, who often practice for a few hours or play an evening game and have the rest of the day to kill, not to mention long flights and boring days in hotels.
"It's addicting," said Arizona Diamondbacks catcher Rod Barajas. "On the road, it's basically all I do. Football, baseball, golf. I can spend three to six hours on one game."
His current favorite is the Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004, a golf game that's also a favorite of the Suns' Amare Stoudemire and popular among Arizona Cardinals players.
"Everybody still wants to be something else," Suns veteran Tom Gugliotta said.
Among the Suns, Madden NFL 2004, NBA Live and Tiger Woods are staples.
"They're just really fun for me," Joe Johnson said. "We have a lot of time on our hands. On some days, after practice, I'll spend four or five, six hours playing video games. You won't even know that much time has gone by because you're having so much fun."
Among the Suns, Johnson is currently the king of the joystick, but Penny Hardaway is the all-time champ. Gugliotta said he doesn't play the games much, but that he and others even get into watching the Johnson-Hardaway rivalry.
"I think I have the most wins, all time," Hardaway said.
Some NASCAR drivers have become video-game addicts. Dale Earnhardt Jr. uses the games to polish his real driving instincts and reactions.
"Man, some of these games are so realistic," Earnhardt said. "I think it helps with your hand-eye coordination, but I think it teaches you a lot more about patience. You're driving around other cars, and you can't make any foolish mistakes because you suffer the same exact results as you would in a real race."
Sports video games continue to be among the hottest-selling entertainment items in the country, with star players from the four major sports leagues serving as pitchmen.
The games last year generated at least $1 billion in sales in the United States, according to industry observers, and capture about one-fifth of the entire video-game market.
With their high-quality images of players and teams, the games appeal to not only sports fans but also a generation of 18- to 34-year-old men who grew up on Pong and Mario Bros.
"These (video) gamers are the lifeblood of sports. They are young men who corporate America is trying to reach and who professional sports is trying to reach," said David Carter, a Southern California sports business analyst. "If you are relevant to the video-game generation, you are damn well relevant to the Fortune 500 companies as well."
Video games have enhanced the bottom lines of all four major sports leagues and their players, along with the software companies. The NBA, for example, has seen its video-game revenues more than double in the past five years, while players who appear on the cover of video games can command six-figure sponsorship fees.
While sports video games are a $1 billion industry, action games have recently overtaken them in market share.
In 2000, sports games had a 24.5 percent share of the market, making them the No.1 video-game genre. Last year, action games became the top seller at 25 percent, according to NPD Group, a New York-based marketing company, while sports games fell to No. 2 with about 19.5 percent of a $5.5 billion market.
However, Matt Atwood of ESPN Videogames said sports games typically command the top price among video games at just less than $50 a game, while most others go for just less than $40.
EA Sports of Redwood City, Calif., whose parent company made $2.5 billion last year, leads the sports game market.
Craig Harris, Arizona Republic