FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Baker Mayfield was chillin’ in his hotel room with some of his Oklahoma teammates when, suddenly, things got serious.
The video game finished loading.
It was time to play Halo.
“He rushes to the front of the bed,” said linebacker Eric Striker, who was among those hanging out with the quarterback during some down time leading up to the Orange Bowl. “We were like, ‘Bake, what’s going on?’ He’s like, ‘The game’s about to start!’ Bake is real intense. … He loves the game. I had to leave the room, it was getting so crazy.”
Mayfield is hardly alone.
Many college athletes spend their spare time playing video games, booting up everything from Halo — the science-fiction, first-person shooter preferred by Mayfield — to the always-popular Madden NFL.
On the surface, it’s just the modern-day version of athletes sitting around playing cards, an obvious conduit for bonding with teammates and satisfying that competitive drive away from the field.
But for some, it’s more than just fun and games.
Clemson running back Wayne Gallman, whose team will meet the Sooners in the Orange Bowl national semifinal on New Year’s Eve, is convinced that video games help improve his performance on the real-life gridiron.
“When I’m playing Madden,” he said Tuesday, “I can see where the blitz is coming from if I’m running the ball. I can see where the hole is going to be because you have a bigger view of the field.”
Alabama receiver ArDarius Stewart agreed. When playing Madden, he even runs the same plays he thinks offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin would call in certain situations. Some of them might turn up in the Cotton Bowl semifinal against Michigan State.
“I tell coach, ‘Oh I saw this play run on Madden, I ran this play on Madden,’” Stewart said. Not that Kiffin is buying it. “He’s like, ‘Man, this ain’t Madden, this ain’t a game.”
Another of Clemson’s avid gamers, defensive tackle Carlos Watkins, believes he is honing skills he can take to the field when he plays his favorites, including the military-based shooter Call of Duty. In particular, he points to the hand-eye coordination needed to maneuver a controller while looking at a video screen, which is not entirely different from using his hands to beat a blocker while keeping an eye on the guy with the ball.
“You just get so adjusted to it, it’s crazy,” he said.
Long viewed as nothing more than a mindless pursuit, video games have become increasingly complex and lifelike — so much so, there are actually colleges offering scholarships to play them, a de facto league known as Major League Gaming, and a growing number of big-time networks willing to televise competitions such as League of Legends.
It has even sparked debate over whether gamers should be considered athletes, no different from those who play more traditional sports such as football and basketball.
Mayfield, who has pondered the notion of playing video games professionally, isn’t ready to go that far.
“It’s more of a glorified hobby,” he said. “I wouldn’t call it a sport. I wouldn’t say the guys on there are athletes. But they’re good at what they do. Obviously, they’re very talented.”
Mayfield is pretty talented, too — on and off the field. He’s gone so far as to say he doesn’t think anyone on the Oklahoma campus can beat him in Halo.
Several students have taken him up on the offer, a challenge he hopes to tackle when the Sooners’ season is finally over.
Stewart is amazed at how far video games have come just since he was a child.
“It’s just funny looking at it now, like, ‘Aw, man, this is real. They run this in the game, and they run it on the field,’” he said. “Now I see it. Now I’m putting it together.”
Then again, there are some limitations.
“When you start using Madden’s NCAA plays, I don’t know if they’re necessarily going to work out here,” said Darien Harris, a Michigan State linebacker. “You start using an engage-eight and prevent defense. I just think the competitive nature that you get from video games is what really helps us out here as players.”
Mayfield also downplays any crossover from the video screen to the real game. But he acknowledges that the complexities of Halo can enhance the decision-making skills needed when he is dissecting defenses, calling an audible and making sure all his teammates are lined up in the right spots.
“It’s a good multitasking hobby,” he said. “You’re thinking about one thing and doing another.”
Gallman is already looking forward to the next generation of games.
“Soon, we’ll just play video games with our bodies,” he said. “I love it.”
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry . AP College Football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org. AP College Football Writer Ralph Russo and Sports Writer Stephen Hawkins in Arlington, Texas contributed to this report.