For most of us, the NFL season is just about to kick off. For Zach Farley of Waltham and Stephen Gibbons of Somerville, the toughest part is over. They have already taken thousands of snaps, played hundreds of games. And now millions of fans are ready to join the fun. At last, it is Madden time.
On Tuesday, Electronic Arts Inc. releases “Madden NFL 15,” the 26th edition of the best-selling football video game. At the same time, Prima Games, a division of Penguin Random House, will publish the official “Madden’’ game guide, a dense, highly detailed book on how to play and win. Farley and Gibbons wrote the new book, as well as three previous editions that have sold a total of 200,000 copies. That represents a small fraction of “Madden’’ players; the game is one of America’s most popular, selling between six million and seven million copies in a typical year, at $60 to $70 apiece. But Farley and Gibbons — known to fellow gamers as “ZFarls” and “SGibs” — are writing for a highly specialized audience of players like themselves, the “Madden’’ elite.
“We’re a very specific community,” said Farley. “We’re the hard-core of the hard-core. People that want to know how to get better, not necessarily to just come and enjoy.”
“Madden NFL’’ is the athletic equivalent of a flight simulator, designed to mimic as closely as possible the real world of pro football. Players take control of real-world teams such as the New England Patriots and New York Jets. They can play against the computer, against a friend in the same room, or against other “Madden’’ lovers anywhere in the world via the Internet. Each player and coach in the game has been programmed to behave like his real-world counterpart, allowing for highly realistic matchups. Each team has its own playbook with dozens of unique offensive and defensive plays. And of course, new plays, players, coaches, and other features are added to each edition of the game.
There is only one way to master the endless complexity of the game: constant, relentless practice. Farley and Gibbons get an early copy of each new “Madden’’ game and go to work. It takes three months of 12-hour days, seven days a week, to master every detail. They do their homework inside a small, windowless office in a Waltham office park.
“You need a sacred place,” said Farley. “You need a man cave. You need a place to go where your wife can’t come in during the fourth quarter and throw you off your game.”
The tiny room contains an array of Microsoft Xbox and Sony PlayStation video game consoles. There is also a massive custom-built computer and video editing rig. Throughout the year, Farley and Gibbons produce a weekly show, “This Week In Madden,” that is streamed over the Internet via the Twitch video gaming network. The show features tips and advice on winning strategies, but Farley and Gibbons also host a “game of the week,” in which they take on other elite “Madden’’ players in a live showdown. Recordings of each show are posted on YouTube, where they have been streamed over six million times.
Farley and Gibbons met in 2005, as students at Westfield State College who shared a “Madden’’ addiction. “At first we were enemies,” said Farley. “We played each other; I won, no matter what he says.” After graduating, both men landed mundane 9-to-5 jobs, but the hunger to play remained. They decided to try making a business of it, by broadcasting their showdowns over the Internet.
“We started streaming back in 2009 . . . not even knowing that this was going to be a big thing,” said Gibbons. The first two shows were shot in Farley’s parents’ basement. Later, Farley got a job at a broadcasting school in Natick where he was allowed to use the equipment at night.
All the while, they hoped that Electronic Arts’ EA Sports division might offer to sponsor their efforts and provide financial backing.
By 2011, they were on the verge of giving up. Gibbons was driving down the Massachusetts Turnpike talking by phone to his fiancee — now his wife — about shutting down the program.
“The very next day was when we got the e-mail and the phone call,” he said. It was Prima Games. The company was looking for new authors for its “Madden’’ gamer guide; Farley and Gibbons had been recommended by the “Madden’’ people at Electronic Arts.
Paul Giacomotto, “Madden’’ project manager at Prima Games, said that Farley and Gibbons have been a perfect fit. “They’ve been amazing to work with,” Giacomotto said. “They’ve built really close relationships with folks at EA Sports . . . they’re always looking to improve the product.”
The print edition of the “Madden’’ guidebook formerly cost $24.95, but this year Prima is cutting the price in half, in hopes of boosting annual sales from the usual 50,000 to 100,000 copies or more. The company also works with Farley and Gibbons to produce electronic editions of the guide, as well as downloadable offensive and defensive playbooks for every team. Standard playbooks cost $35 each, or a user can pay $80 for a “Winner’s Kit” of digital extras for his favorite team.
Farley’s and Gibbons’s work has earned the admiration of the game’s biggest fans. “I think they do a great job,” said Billy Brewer, 46, a product manager for AT&T Inc. in Austin, Texas, who has been playing “Madden’’ for 20 years. He plays about 10 hours a week. But he also sets aside 10 to 12 hours to study each new guidebook. “I would say it turned me from a below-average player to competitive,” Brewer said.
Today, “Madden’’ is a full-time job for Gibbons and Farley. Apart from the printed gamer guide, they produce a variety of electronic “playbooks” for Prima, as well as their video shows. It hasn’t made them wealthy. “We’re not rich per se,” said Farley. “I have a 2002 Saturn that I couldn’t get out of fourth gear on Route 2 today. But we live a rich life.” The two men spend weeks in Orlando each year working with the software programmers who build the game. They have traveled to Super Bowls and met NFL superstars.
And of course, they spend nearly every waking hour playing a video game. That’s more screen time than most gamers could stand, but not these guys. “I just love ‘Madden,’” said Gibbons. “I’ve always loved ‘Madden’ . . . it’s really the only thing I don’t get sick of.”
This year’s sales figures
• Games sold: 6.24 million
• Books sold: 60,000
• Digital playbooks sold: 3,000
• App downloads: 7,455
Sources: VGChartz, EA Sports, Prima