Watching the Madden Community After Jacksonville

As a gamer, I’m inspired, and heartbroken, by the way they are supporting one another.

Two young men's backs are toward the gamer as they play Madden on a TV screen.
Gamers play EA’s Madden 17 during the Jaguars Se7ens Cup at Wimbledon Park, London, in 2016.
Daniel Hambury - EMPICS / Contributor

On Sunday, a 24-year-old white man who had traveled to Jacksonville, Florida, to maybe win money by playing Madden NFL 19 instead used a handgun to shoot people he had known, professionally if not personally, for years. He killed two people, and injured nearly a dozen more, before killing himself. Video capturing the moments before the tragedy was broadcast on a Twitch livestream of the professional video game tournament, which was held at GLHF Game Bar in a Chicago Pizza. (Good Luck, Have Fun is pretty classic gamer parlance, whether used earnestly or sarcastically.)

Elijah “Trueboy” Clayton, one of those killed in Jacksonville, was 22. Though he was from California, he favored the Jacksonville Jaguars and had won the 2017 NFL Club Series event with the Jags. Trueboy had played Madden and football IRL in high school, according to the Los Angeles Times. Just a few days before he traveled cross-country to compete, Trueboy posted a video to his public Instagram account in advance of the coming season.

“It’s impossible to comprehend today’s news. I’m heartbroken for the families and friends of the victims and can only express my deepest condolences as we try to understand why and how this can happen, not only here, but anywhere,” said Jaguars owner Shad Khan in a statement posted to Twitter on Sunday. A bio on EA Sports’ competitive page about Trueboy noted his strengths: “His versatility when it comes to playbooks and game planning is what keeps True locked-in as one of the perennial top competitors in the scene.”

Trueboy had also been featured on an episode of NFL’s Madden America series with Dave Grunfeld. After he played Grunfeld, he helped the host improve his strategy for future matches.

Just a few weeks before the Jacksonville tournament, Taylor “SpotMePlzzz” Robertson, 27, had announced that he was joining professional esports team Dot City Gaming for the Madden Championship Series. He was a husband and father and West Virginia Mountaineers fan who, like Trueboy Clayton, had played football in high school. SpotMe was also winner of the Madden 17 Classic and was known for his offensive plays. His EA Sports bio for the Madden 18 season, in which he played the Tennessee Titans, says he “has the skill to completely take over any Madden tournament.”

Here is Robertson playing the Titans on an episode of Madden America with Grunfeld:

Just the night before Trueboy and SpotMe died, I was debating with a family member about whether video games cause violence—and whether games, in general, were dangerous. Even in the wake of this horror, which touched a community I’m adjacent to and feel deep sympathy for, I still don’t think they are, or that they make a person violent. Nearly every game I’ve played or replayed in 2018 has involved guns. I’ve used a gun to summon or stun demon Pokémon. I’ve used the light bowgun to capture, not kill, Rathalos or to fend off Sentinels and biological horrors. Every night when I sign off from work, one of the first things I consider is whether I want to engage in several hours of cartoonish gunplay via Overwatch or Fortnite, or if I’d just prefer the casual gunplay in Persona 5. I even dabbled in a shoot-’em-up title where I was the gun. Not one of the games I’ve touched in recent years has involved military-style combat or excessive gore. But many of them had guns. And many of them involved using those guns on fictional representations of people.

In the aftermath of so many shootings, we’ve discussed the violence in video games. None of the Madden games involve shooting a gun. At its core, the franchise has always been simple: Make a football team. Play the football team. Beat the other football team. (Variety’s Will Partin does a much better job explaining what the past weekend’s tournament series entailed, and how it ties in to Madden’s pro scene at large.) And I’m setting aside the argument about whether football is dangerous because it’s a useless whataboutism in the aftermath. Madden is not about guns, or about killing people, or about fighting terrorists or living out comically dangerous murder fantasies. It is Football: The Video Game.

While the stereotype may be that video game players are loners who avoid social interaction, that is far from the reality for many of us. In Madden, as in other games, most pro players know one another. They vouch for each other in the online spaces where players congregate, drum up engagement or hype with fans through offseason matches and one-off tournaments, or make low-key verbal wagers on one another’s success or failure. Even from a distance, it is clear that this collection of (mostly, but not exclusively) young men has formed a kind of family, one that can only be forged through games—where your skill, tact, and personality transcend the restrictions of real-life relationships that insecurity and social norms could otherwise hinder.

A long time ago, I found my own game family. We came together by chance in a fantasy roleplaying game (that has guns) as we slowly worked toward in-game goals and triumphs. And once we were in-game comrades, we gradually worked our way into one another’s lives as we individually, but collaboratively, grew and changed. Now we travel together semiannually, talk constantly, and play games together often. The idea that any of us could die doing the one thing we all love, on an occasion when we’d all traveled to be together? I don’t have the words for it. I try, but my throat stops up and I get a little teary-eyed and then I pop into Discord just to make sure they’re all OK, that they’re all still there. I’m not sure when I’ll stop doing that.

It’s impossible to say what the murderer was thinking, or what may have motivated him to open fire, but he was known for being very removed from Madden’s more social aspects. It has been reported that his family struggled for years to get him effective mental health care and that he legally acquired two handguns before he left for Florida. In an interview in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Dennis “Evil Ken” Alston, a Madden pro scene mainstay, said that the gunman was a “well-known competitor” who did not play against either Clayton or Robertson during the tournament. Contrary to virulent online rumors that they had been targeted over a loss, he instead lost two matches to another player and Alston himself.

He was weird all weekend. He had shades on, he didn’t speak to anybody—even after we played, I beat him and went to shake his hand and tell him good game and he just looked at me, he wouldn’t say anything. … He had on basically the same outfit he had on the day before, so that was kind of weird.

Alston, who plays under the username “DoT Tamales,” and Reggie “BoogzTuff” Brown did both play, and defeat, a player with the username “satiricbulb” during the group stage and single one-on-one matches, respectively, over the weekend. While the shooter’s name was on the list of players registered for the weekend tournament, the username is not one that has been publicly linked to him. He had previously used a host of monikers over the years including “Bread,” “mr_sliced_bread,” “RavensChamp,” “raua4848,” “TREXHARTATAK,” and “DatWazRuffDog.”

Authorities are continuing the investigation into the shooter’s motive. Madden player Justin “Swizzy” Saline has started a $100,000 GoFundMe campaign specifically for the families of Trueboy and SpotMe that had raised over $26,000 by early Tuesday afternoon. A second GoFundMe page endorsed by GLHF Game Bar on Twitter has been posted “to cover funeral costs, medical costs, counselling and other costs incurred from this horrendous tragedy.” As of Tuesday, it had raised more than $20,000 of its $250,000 target goal.

Developing a friendship over online gaming—knowing some of the deepest, most private thoughts of people you never or rarely see face to face—can be complex. But the interpersonal web woven with HDMI and Ethernet cables has formed some of the strongest bonds in my life. And as members of the Madden community grieve for their lost and rally behind their injured, I find love in them.