- Wayne Drehs, ESPN Senior Writer
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There's only one video game company that has its own Super Bowl party and television show, and considers the late-summer release of its biggest hit a national holiday. Now EA Sports is trying to capitalize on the popularity of its Madden and college football franchises by partnering with XOS Technologies to create what it hopes will revolutionize the art of film study: a video game-driven 3D football simulator players will be able to use each week to prepare for an opponent.
At the heart of the technology is a simple idea: As players spend more time playing video games and less time watching film, why not marry the two together?
The University of Tennessee football team was the first to test the technology, which will allow players to execute plays from their team's own playbook against specifically tailored scout defenses, in an EA Sports-driven video game environment most already know well. There are plans to expand the product into the NFL, with slight tweaks anticipated to cater the program to the needs of NFL players and coaches.
Coaches can tailor the program to include pre- and post-snap questions ("What coverage are they in? Who was the blitz threat?"), on-field instructions ("Watch where the strong safety lines up") and a post-play analysis of the player's decision-making. The information is then downloaded and later provided to the coaches.
"It's absolutely awesome," said Tennessee graduate assistant and former Vols quarterback Jim Bob Cooter, who helped implement the program this past summer. "I grew up playing Madden and NCAA Football and it looks just like those games, providing a fun way for guys to mentally go through their reps."
The program is operated through a laptop computer, with players using Playstation-like controllers to move themselves on the field. Though the program is currently tailored only for quarterbacks, future plans call for customization for every individual player on the field.
"For years and years it was just video and diagrams," said Albert Tsai, vice president of research development for XOS, which has a partnership with ESPN. "While more effective than nothing, these forms of preparation lock you into what you can and can't do. When you go virtual, you can make your points the way you want while engaging your players in a format they're familiar with."
The concept isn't entirely new. Last season, the University of Maryland and 10 other Division I-A teams used a similar program created by XOS competitor GridIron Technologies. Some 20 I-A schools will use the program this year, GridIron president Jason Sada said.
"There are simulators and there are games," said Sada, who believes the involvement of EA and XOS merely validates his company's work in the field. "Our background is teaching and testing. Every single element of our program is based in principles of using this as a teaching tool rather than as entertainment."
But officials at XOS are confident the popularity of EA's games -- and thus the familiarity players already have with them -- will be a major asset when it comes to adding additional teams down the road. Tsai claims several coaches were lukewarm to the idea until they saw a player react with the controller in his hands.
"Then that was it," he said.
Future plans include applying the same principles to a Madden-driven NFL version of the software. For now, though, the future of football film study will in part be headquartered in the Tennessee football offices.
"It's still important to watch film to understand as much as you can," Cooter said. "But this provides the mental reps that are hard to get from visualization through video. You can rep it, rep it and then rep it again. And that's something that before now, you just couldn't do."
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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