The stigma that once attached to video games and the people who play them is long gone. No longer are those who enjoy video games stereotyped as Doritos-addicted basement dwellers. Nowadays, everyone’s a gamer—including some of the greatest athletes on the planet.
Though video games have traditionally been belittled as a waste of time, current releases are miles ahead of the games of decades past, both in terms of realism and graphical fidelity. Two game series that are consistently on the cutting-edge? Madden NFL (published by EA Sports) and NBA 2K (published by 2K Sports).
As it turns out, proficiency in playing these high-level sports simulations results in a higher sports IQ. A 2009 study conducted by the Warsaw Sports Business Center found that NFL fans who regularly played Madden had a 60% higher football IQ than the average football fan. Considering that this study was done nearly a decade ago and the game has become even more realistic in the interim, that stat speaks volumes. “What we were really struck by is that there is an absolute correlation between the amount of time you spend playing the game and your understanding of the game,” Paul Swangard, then-head of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center, told ESPN.
Even some of the best athletes in the world can reap real-life benefits from these games. Not only do they improve hand-eye coordination, but they help instill a deep understanding of schemes, strategy and situational play. With that in mind, here are five pro athletes who believe they got better in reality thanks to hundreds of hours of Madden or NBA 2K.
1. 20 Years of Madden Gave K.J. Wright “Spidey Senses” on the Field
K.J. Wright is one of the most underrated players on the Seattle Seahawks suffocating defense. Last season, the 27-year-old linebacker racked up 126 tackles and 4 sacks en route to Pro Bowl honors. Wright has an incredible knack for sensing plays before they happen—a skill his teammates have dubbed his “Spidey Sense.”
“He’s a really smart player. He’s going to be a coach one day. He’ll probably become a defensive coordinator right after he retires,” fellow Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner told Seahawks.com of Wright. “He’s one of the best. He sniffs everything out. We call him the screen master. Nobody runs screens to his side anymore, because he knows what’s coming.”
Wright credits much of his incredible football IQ to decades of playing Madden. “I’m telling you, the same plays on Madden are the plays that NFL teams run. I’ve been playing Madden since 1995, so over time it just sunk in my brain, and I figured it out,” Wright told ESPN. “You just know stuff. Teams have to run certain concepts. They can’t put two guys in the same spot, so you just know when the flat route comes, something else has to come in.”
Wright also believes that getting the chance to role-play as an offensive coordinator in Madden has helped him gain greater insight into the opposing coach’s mindset. “I’m a real good offensive coordinator on Madden,” Wright told Seahawks.com. “I know what to call in certain situations, so therefore I think like offensive coordinators think, so I’m able to make the plays.”
2. Paul George Takes Mental Reps On NBA 2K
Four-time NBA All-Star Paul George is an NBA 2K addict. The Indiana Pacers franchise player has been playing the series since 2000. He’s said he plays the most recent iteration every single day.
George told FTW that he approaches 2K the same way he approaches a real-life game, allowing him to take quality mental reps and get a better feel for opponents. “Depending on who I’m playing, match-ups, I play like it’s a real game. I call pick-and-rolls. I swing the ball, make sure there’s ball movement. I like to drive and attack, kick out. I treat it like it’s a real game, and I feel like I see the game differently. I know it’s a video game, but I think I just see it differently,” George said.
Like the real Paul George, virtual Paul is a dominant player. He’s currently rated 91 overall in NBA 2K17.
3. Bryce Petty Believes Madden Sharpens His Pre-Snap Reads
In the NFL, quarterbacks have to be able to determine what a defense might be doing before they even receive their snaps. These decisions—called “pre-snap reads”—help an offense gain easy yardage and avoid disastrous plays.
Madden has helped New York Jets quarterback Bryce Petty sharpen up his pre-snap read ability.
“I’m gonna spread it out, and you kind of already know if it’s man [coverage],” Petty told a Daily News reporter who was observing him play a game of Madden. “It looks like a linebacker on [my slot receiver], so as soon as I snap the ball, he [the linebacker] comes down, so I know it’s Cover 1. Then the safeties, as soon as one of them rotates down, it’s Cover 1. He [the slot receiver] is going to be open.”
Since Madden includes the same plays and schemes NFL defenses actually run, it can be a great way for a quarterback to work on pre-snap reads in a relatively stress-free environment. “[Playing QB] in real football is about having a feel for the game and having an understanding of what could hurt me; and then those questions being answered at the snap [before I throw the ball],” Petty said. “But you can read the same things in the video game.”
Petty believes the game helped him effect a “night-and-day” difference in his football IQ since he entered the NFL.
4. De’Aaron Fox’s Dad Swears NBA 2K Made Him a Smarter Player
De’Aaron Fox is one of the top prospects for the 2017 NBA Draft. The one-and-done from Kentucky posted incredible numbers last season, averaging 16.7 points, 4.6 assists and 4.0 rebounds per game. His greatest attribute is his blazing speed, but he also possesses a high basketball IQ and elite court vision. Thousands of hours of NBA 2K are a big reason why.
Fox has been playing the series religiously since he was in elementary school. “A lot of people don’t believe me, but I tell everyone that that PlayStation helped him get where he is today,” Aaron Fox, De’Aaron’s father, told Bleacher Report. “He’d play that PlayStation, and he could master it in no time. He learned pick-and-rolls. He learned how to roll off a ball screen. I tell kids if they want to learn something about basketball, go put on NBA 2K.”
Fox also included moves like the Allen Iverson crossover in his real-life game after seeing their effectiveness in 2K.
5. Brandon Stokley’s Miraculous Touchdown Was Inspired By Madden
One of the most magical plays in NFL history occurred during the Denver Broncos’ 2009 season opener. The Broncos were down 7-6 to the Cincinnati Bengals seconds left in regulation. To make matters worse, Denver was on their own 13-yard line. Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton dropped back to pass, and then this happened:
Notice how Brandon Stokley takes a sharp right turn just before he reaches the goal line, in order to let time expire before he enters the end zone? Apparently, he learned that move from playing Madden. “It definitely is [from Madden],” Stokley told WIRED. “I think everybody who’s played those games has done that [move].” Stokley estimated he’d done the exact same thing in Madden “probably hundreds of times” before he got the opportunity to do it for real. The play demonstrates tremendous football IQ and clock management skills. Had Stokley just sprinted straight into the end zone, the Bengals may have pulled off a magical kick return and spoiled his sensational play. Thank heavens for Madden.
Photo Credit: Andy Lyons/Getty Images, Joe Amon/Getty Images, Dylan Buell/Getty Images, Al Pereira/Getty Images