Coaches using video games to teach

Leave it to football coaches to spoil the fun.

That might be stretching a point, but a few years back, some in their ranks noted their players' obsession with video games (the "Madden NFL" and "NCAA Football" games in particular) and suggested that these games might serve as terrific teaching tools. And after that, it was only a matter of time before the line between work and play was blurred.

XOS Technologies hastened the process. The Massachusetts-based company licensed the core technology of the video games produced by Electronic Arts -- the creators of the "Madden" games -- in April 2007. With EA Sports, XOS created the Thunder PlayAction Simulator.

Available in wide release for the first time this year, the simulator allows a team to load its plays, and those of an opponent, and then give its players -- quarterbacks in particular -- a 3-D look at what they might expect to see on game day.

"We did everything we could to keep the game as similar to 'Madden' [and] 'NCAA' as possible," said Albert Tsai, XOS' vice president for advanced research.

The result being, Tsai said, that players are being trained "in an environment they want to be trained in."

To date, LSU, Oregon, Arizona, Cincinnati, Colorado and Tennessee have the technology, though XOS is now hoping to make serious inroads throughout college football and the NFL, which has yet to see a team make use of the simulator.

Those schools that do use it give it a thumbs-up, though it should be noted that LSU and Oregon were among XOS' development partners. (Michigan State, California and Minnesota were the others, according to Matt Bairos, XOS' director of product marketing.) ESPN has also had a business relationship with XOS.

"No question, it puts guys in the thick of things, rather than watching film," said Erick Harper, Arizona's director of football operations. "The way they are technologically and what they do with video games, it's right up their alley. It's what they do daily, as it is. … Roll it out, and they're into it."

"To them, it's fun," LSU video coordinator Doug Aucoin said. "It's a game, but at the same time they're learning."

The simulator has thus far been used almost exclusively with quarterbacks, but Bairos said the latest versions of the product support every other position on the field as well.

It can be used in a variety of ways. Oregon graduate assistant Alex Miller said it gives Ducks QBs a jump start early in the week when the game plan for an opponent is mapped out.

The players can also have the simulation loaded into laptops, allowing them to take what they're learning with them when they leave the practice facility, Miller said.

"It feels like they're getting a break from football," he said, "except they're still learning what we want them to learn that day."

It is also possible to "replay practice," Aucoin said, giving reserves a chance to see the things the starter might have seen.

"You run 30 plays at practice and 30 on the video game," he said, "and you're not getting banged up and beaten."

Teams may also conjure up scenarios that are unavailable in film study. Tsai cited goal-line situations as an example. Perhaps, he said, an opponent has shown six or seven defensive looks; the simulator can give dozens more.

"Same with two-minute [situations]," he said. "Same with exotic blitz situations. All these situations that you want to prepare for, but that aren't common enough that you've got a lot of video evidence to teach, you can use a simulator and describe any scenario you want, exactly the way you want [players] to see it."

Aucoin and Harper talked about the testing element of the simulator, something also mentioned by Tsai -- how a coach can pause a play at any point and then quiz a player on his responsibilities. The speed with which a player responds, crucial on game day, is duly noted.

The simulator, Aucoin said, "tells you it took three seconds to learn the coverage. It times how fast you give the answer. It grades them. If they threw to the wrong receiver, it knows."

"Anything you can do to get an advantage -- that's what we're looking for," Miller said. "I think this gives us a mental advantage some weeks."

"If it helps with one play in a game, it's worth it," Aucoin said. "If you can avoid one interception, one bad play, it makes it worthwhile."

A January 2008 Associated Press story -- written shortly before LSU drubbed Ohio State for the national championship -- noted the Tigers' use of the technology, which was due in no small part to the tech savvy of offensive coordinator Gary Crowton.

Crowton was quoted in the story as saying that the simulator was "pretty realistic" and the Tigers' backup quarterback at the time, Ryan Perrilloux, said it was "a great resource."

"Whenever we hit a play, that play would automatically match up with the defense that we would see or blitz we would see," Perrilloux was quoted as saying. "If you make the wrong decision, it's an automatic interception or it's an automatic incompletion."

Development has continued. Tsai mentioned the possible recruiting benefits, saying a high school kid might find a football power more attractive if it had the simulator at its disposal. But the primary benefit is as a teaching tool.

"It's got to be something that's going to catch on more, when it becomes affordable and people hear about it," Aucoin said.

XOS will not reveal to the media the cost of the simulator; Bairos would say only that the entry bundle runs "in the neighborhood of a five-figure investment."

There are also those who believe that for all its benefits, the simulator can do only so much.

"I don't think this will replace film," Harper said. "It will be an enhancement to what film study is."

Miller, who called the simulator "a secondary learning tool," agreed.

"You can't replace what guys do in a game with what they do on a video game," he said.

But technology is ever-changing, and the line between real and realistic is growing increasingly blurry. Sort of like the one between work and play.

Gordie Jones is a freelance writer in Pennsylvania. Jeremy Willis contributed to this story.