Players enjoy football on-field and on-screen

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    It’s fourth and 10, and the clock is ticking.All-pro quarterback Peyton Manning scans the defense, anticipates the blitz and calls out the appropriate protection scheme. As he sits under center, he goes through his progressions, preparing his mind and body for what comes next.

    But the clock is still ticking. It’s time.

    The center snaps the ball, and Manning immediately realizes he read the defense wrong. The middle linebackers are rushing hard, and the secondary has dropped into a zone. He had not prepared for this, and he becomes acutely aware of the pocket collapsing around him. His left tackle falls down, and he sees the defensive end come free.

    He snaps his head back to the field, and he desperately checks his receivers. No one is open.

    He’s out of time.

    He knows the hit is coming, but nothing can prepare him for its fury. He hears his rib cage creak, feels his helmet snap off and sees the grass rushing to meet his face. With a bone-shattering thud, everything goes black.

    As reality slowly sifts back into place, the dirt is replaced by couch cushions, pads with pajamas and pain with simple frustration. Manning’s conqueror is no longer a mountain of man crouching over him, but a cold, calculating, simulated intelligence. And as for Manning himself, he is actually nothing more than just an ordinary child, sitting in a bedroom playing a video game. It’s all just a game.

    But that’s the question: Is it just a game?

    Modern day sports video games have become so advanced they are practically an extension of reality, not a simulation of it. With ever-advancing technology in the field of computer graphics and artificial intelligence, what were once fuzzy blocks of pixilation have turned into startlingly real representations of hundreds of America’s most beloved professional and collegiate athletes.

    Junior business major Talor Ross said he thinks these continued advancements are a testament to the hard work of computer gaming companies.

    “I play a lot of sports games, and I think the games get more realistic every year,” Ross said. “The players look real because they are modeled off the actual athletes. Playbooks get changed each year to reflect a team’s actual play calling.”

    Freshman linebacker Robert Henson said gaming is only silly to those who lack the skills.

    “The people who aren’t any good … they’re the ones who say it isn’t realistic,” Henson said.

    The realism of sports video games is attracting a powerful following as it becomes more sophisticated.

    Sophomore linebacker David Hawthorne said games, especially football titles like Madden 2006 or college parallel NCAA 2006, are turning into a fad even among the collegiate elite: athletes.

    “All the TCU football players get real intense with it,” Hawthorne said. “We always have tournaments and things – we’re real competitive.”

    Henson said sports games prowess is a coming of age, signifying the move into video game manhood.

    “It’s like one of those ‘in’ clubs, you have to get in first,” Henson said. “Everybody wants to be the king, but it’s a rite of passage. On Mondays, it’s six to eight guys in a room, playing all day.”

    But with practices four times a week and a game every weekend, how can players possibly stand anymore football?

    Hawthorne said today’s gaming provides more of a recreational release than might be expected.

    “Football occupies 90 percent of our time,” Hawthorne said. “Video games, though, are our form of fun at home.”

    But fun can still be educational. Hawthorne said games are now lifelike enough that even competitive, trained athletes can pick up a trick or two.

    “I did learn one thing,” Hawthorne said. “I learned a lot about (tackling) angles from video games. You wonder how you stop a guy like (Texas quarterback) Vince Young, and you play with your defense until you can. You realize that it just comes down to angles.”

    Even though proficiency in computer gaming physically proves little more than thumb speed, Hawthorne said the consistently victorious are part of an elite group whose reputation might even transcend the successes or failures of real life.

    “In some ways, being the best at the game means you’re the best on the field,” Hawthorne said.

    Ross said success, simulated or not, is still success.

    “Video game skill is something to be proud of,” Ross said. “It is a talent, just like being able to go out there in real life and make plays.”

    But such a high level of intensity begs the question: Can the non-athlete really hope to be able to compete with those who have mastered the simulated version of their real-life passion?

    “When we play guys outside of the team, we always win,” Hawthorne said.

    Ross said the ordinary student, however, can be a formidable force.

    “Video game skill can go hand in hand with real football skill, but that isn’t always the case,” Ross said. “I don’t play on the football team, and I know a lot of people who don’t, and we are all video game gods.