There is nothing unique and different about the concept of playing football video games. Picking up the sticks and playing some Madden is a time-honored tradition amongst nerds, kids, football fans and anyone who lands in that giant Venn diagram. The biggest football news of the weekend was Tom Brady laughing off the Madden curse to appear on the cover of the G.O.A.T edition of the game.

But the NFL's investment of time and money into the world of eSports is a surprise, although it probably shouldn't be, because of how sensible it is in terms of being the future for young football fans. 

Also a surprise: the number of people who are watching other human beings play Madden. The Madden Championships will air Sunday night on NFL Network and, if the numbers hold from the previous tournaments leading up to this event, literally hundreds of thousands of people will tune in.

According to Chris Halpin, the NFL's SVP of Consumer Products, "viewership has been great" so far, with the network getting close to 200,000 people to tune into the Madden Bowl, one of three different championship run-ups along with the Madden Classic and the Madden Challenge.

Considering the numbers that sports networks get for highly-visible sports-talk programming, those numbers are pretty stunning. 

"As far as programming and content, I would say all the sports programmers are seeing the value of eSports," Halpin said. "It's competition, it's engaging, it's live, it's tape-delayed content. NFL Network -- you can see the shift in growth and windows in 18 to 39 and 18 to 44 in what we put on. It's bringing younger audiences into these windows is real and very compelling."

The demographics aren't a narrow base; they're a swath of the ideal age range that every single advertiser and programmer wants to laser in on. There's a group of adults -- parents even -- right now who grew up playing Madden back when EA Sports only put John Madden on the cover of the game. 


But over the past decade, with the internet becoming a functional thing that works in everyone's home at an adequate speed, the game has literally changed. Fifteen years ago, if you were playing against someone in Madden you were in the same room. Ten years ago, it was laughable for two different people in two different places to stream a high-quality video game against one another. 

The quantum leap in technology has allowed anyone from anywhere to hone their skills in the virtual football game against the best the world has to offer. 

And as a result, the best Madden players in the world can all spend hours playing against one another, moving up leaderboards and positioning themselves to play in a championship event that is streamed across multiple platforms -- this weekend's event is on Twitch, YouTube and Facebook, not to mention, you know, actual television -- and broadcast to millions.

The number involved from a financial perspective are pretty staggering, too.

"If you win the Madden championship this weekend, the cash prize is $100,000," Todd Sitrin, an SVP at EA Sports in charge of the Competitive Gaming Division, said. "That is significant money, obviously."

The second-place finisher takes home $70,000, which means the two gamers who square off in the finals are ostensibly playing a game of Madden for $30,000. As someone who used to skip college classes to draft Madden teams and spend hours playing against his roommate for "loser has to clean the living room," that's a pretty staggering figure on the line for a single game. 

What differentiates Madden from much of the eSports world is the relative simplicity with which most users can grasp American football. 

"Up to this point, the challenge has been, the games that have started this industry have been really complicated and they're very hardcore experiences. Deep strategy games," Sitrin said. "I think with Madden and EA Sports in general, we are making it much more accessible for people, because a lot of those barriers that have been created with other games don't exist.

"Anybody in North America ... understands the basics of American football. Immediately it becomes a lot more accessible to people, and I think that's why you've seen such huge momentum around our Madden championship series."

EA has also changed the way Madden operates for the average player in a manner that has dovetailed nicely for the future of competitive gaming. The casual gamer would just, well, play games. The hardcore folks would play out franchise modes. The real psychopaths would clear all the rosters, spend an hour drafting two teams and the play those teams in a game. (Loser cleans the living room.) 

Combining the latter two into what is called Madden Ultimate Team has been a boon for EA and the franchise, because now online players can build their unique franchise, battle head-to-head against other players and get the satisfaction of managing a roster.

"You're adding a whole level of strategy to the game experience. So instead of just having the fantasy of stepping on the field ... here we're really tapping into the fantasy of managing and running a team," Sitrin said. "If I were the GM of the Indianapolis Colts, who would I assemble around my team? We've seen this phenomena for a decade or more around fantasy sports and this has become a realization into our games. This has become the most popular mode by which you play Madden."

It's also the mode by which the folks competing in the championship end up using. They get to select one team off the bat and then potentially adjust throughout the tournament. The added layer of strategy is fascinating, because no one is going to just pick the Patriots or Cowboys and run roughshod through the competition. Balancing a salary cap is a real thing in this not-real world, and building a roster best suited to one's skill set is paramount for success. 

Where this all gets really wild is looking at the production involved. There are multiple groups of announcers assigned to the online/television production of this tournament. 

The game being played is obviously the key component.

via Twitch

And as this action is going on, you have a play-by-play and color man. Just like Jim Nantz and Tony Romo, these guys are looking at specific defensive schemes, talking about strategy, adjustments and mistakes made. Their commentary is just a little different, what with the focus on specific video-game behavior (spotting a receiver, etc). 

via EA Sports

There are sideline reporters doing postgame interviews with contestants who have perfectly normal nicknames and the same sort of postgame demeanor you get from actual NFL players (skimbo has a Jay Cutler vibe going). 

via Twitch

It almost feels like an SNL skit, but when you watch the stream on Twitch there's a never-ending amount of commentary in the chat box to the right. There are literally thousands of people sitting up on a Friday night watching two other people play Madden online. 

Part of me wants to tell my dad about this, just to see how he reacts. The Baby Boomer generation trying to wrap its head around the idea of people playing Madden on television for money would be something to behold, although considering how much time their kids spent playing video games, maybe it wouldn't be that surprising after all.

Certainly the group of NFL owners, many of whom would qualify as grandparents for the folks playing these games, already understand the importance of finding ways to introduce new fans to the game of football, even through less traditional methods. 

"It's funny, I think in any group there's going to be quartiles at the absolute cutting edge. And then you've got very interested 'I think it makes sense, I want to learn more' ... and then you have 'I don't get it, this seems odd' groups," Halpin said. "With the way the digital world is changing, I think a lot of traditional audiences are just accepting that there's a lot going on, whether it's Snapchat or eSports, musically or other things going on that don't make sense to them but are for real."

Look, eSports never made sense to me until it was presented in the form of Madden. That's just a thing I understand versus something I didn't grow up with; if kids were playing Street Fighter against one another for huge money online, I would just be mad it wasn't a thing that happened when I was a kid. All we got was Fred Savage and a Power Glove. 

Oh, by the way, eSports competitions involving Street Fighter are happening, too:

This is what a Street Fighter final looks like. USATSI

But this is a thing that's growing by leaps and bounds across the globe right now. What makes the NFL's willingness to jump on it so interesting is that it's not something that has become prevalent in the world of sports just yet.

"Sports-based eSports is still relatively nascent," Halpen said. "When we talk to our owners, we said, we want to invest in it with EA. There are so many Madden fans who want to watch the best players. Tapping into that Madden passion makes all the sense in the world."

Imagining a hardcore football fan being turned off by some "young punks" playing a game of Madden on their television instead of real football isn't hard. But it's not that difficult for actual football fans to get interested. The NFL thinks it can tap into both the eSports fan and the NFL fan with these competitions, two divergent markets converging in a wildly popular video game.

"We had the Madden Bowl finals and semifinals at the NFL Experience this year in Houston and it was a whole stage and seats," Halpin recalls. "The crowd -- and these are not eSports fans, these are NFL fans -- they were sitting there cheering and yelling, about 1,000 people watching the games. And all the games had unbelievable outcomes, the championship had a pick-six at the end."

The NFL didn't just invest with these championship events either. Multiple clubs had their own season-long events to determine the best Madden player from their respective fanbase. Eight different teams had over 24,000 total fans sign up to compete, and some of the fans that participated were treated to some unique experiences. Patriots and Chiefs fans got an in-stadium experience for their tournament action. The Vikings held their event at the Mall of America, and the Seahawks hosted one at the Seattle Museum of Pop Culture. 

These teams and the NFL are making a clear push to invest in the eSports arena. And it's an investment that is showing early returns. eSports might not be the future of football, but it's hard to imagine it as anything less than a very important engagement stream running directly parallel to the actual action on the field.