'Our No. 1 escape and savior': Arizona Cardinals level up through video games

Katherine Fitzgerald
Arizona Republic
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When the pandemic began, many of us looked inward. For some, there was a chance for introspection, to find something new. 

Budda Baker looked in as well. More specifically, he looked into his closet. 

“I had an Xbox in my closet somewhere, and I just pulled it out, bought Call of Duty,” Baker said. “Next thing you know, all my teammates are all on.”

The Cardinals safety spent a significant chunk of time the last few months playing video games. He did so with some notable teammates: Kyler Murray, Christian Kirk, Chandler Jones and Chase Edmonds. 

It is neither newsworthy nor insightful to share that men in their mid-to-late 20s enjoy playing video games. However, for the Arizona Cardinals, playing for hours (and truly hours) on end was more than just a way to kill time. 

It was a way to flex competitive muscles. It was a way to connect with fans. It was a way for teammates to keep in touch without seeing each other in person.  

Players would often post on social media when they were able to stream, almost always through Twitch. Edmonds and Kirk, who were already extremely close, paired up for tournaments and also casual livestreams. The running back and wide receiver would talk about what they thought might happen to the NFL season or about their post-football goals. They saw it had a positive impact on the fans as well. 

'You're supposed to know all the coverages'

Back in March, Kirk could already see the importance of having this outlet. 

“It's helped me more than what people will believe,” Kirk said. “Not just being able to interact and meet new people, but me and Chase just being able to just communicate and interact with one another on there and just have fun.”

Five months and countless hours of gaming later, his answer was stronger, teetering on hyperbolic. Video games were not just simply nice and helpful. They were basically Tier One of the hierarchy of needs. 

“I'm sure I can speak for about 80% of the professional athletes that video games has been our No. 1 escape and savior during quarantine,” Kirk said last month. 

It came during a time when an escape was needed. 

"The vast majority of (athletes) became distressed in many ways because it's part of their identity, to be to be physical, to be athletic, to be competitive," said Dr. Javier Cárdenas, MD, a neurologist and the director of the Barrow Concussion and Brain Injury Center.

"Out of necessity, we're finding ways to connect, because historically, people would argue that being on a computer or playing a video game, you're actually not engaged with others. And gamers and other people would say 'Actually, yeah, I am.' ... There is a positive outcome and there is camaraderie that's built among the athletes."

Aug 24, 2020; Glendale, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Christian Kirk (13) during training camp at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher/The Arizona Republic via USA TODAY NETWORK

The hours spent gaming were not strictly a product of the pandemic, however, particularly for the younger players. 

Many lifetimes ago, back in January of 2020, Murray was a part of the Twitch Rivals Fortnite Streamer Bowl Showcase, which paired professional athletes with professional gamers. 

Murray, who was the first athlete in the history of the world to be a top-10 draft pick in both the NFL and the MLB, felt the need on a livestream of him playing Fortnite to justify why he was not quite as good as people who dedicate all of their hours to gaming. 

“This isn’t an accurate representation of my game,” Murray said at one point. 

“I just don’t want the world to think I’m bad,” he added a few minutes later.

Perhaps the first quiet admission holds true: It wasn’t an accurate representation of his body of video-gaming work. Around the Cardinals, players — sometimes begrudgingly — admit that the quarterback is one of the best. It varies by game, and they are honest enough to admit that. Kirk is likely the strongest shooter, Edmonds the best sniper. Murray is perhaps the finest at sports games, which his teammates applaud.

“When he beat me in Madden, I was like, ‘Bro you’re supposed to beat me in Madden,' ” Edmonds said. “'You're supposed to know all the coverages I'm doing. So I'd be worried if you didn't beat me in Madden.’”

It’s not just familiarity with the coverages for the 2019 Offensive Rookie of the Year. While Madden is not an exact replica of an NFL game, if any tendencies do carry over, Murray has some additional familiarity with the players he picks.

“You're not allowed to pick Kyler Murray if Kyler’s in the franchise,” Edmonds said. “Kyler’s picking himself.”

'I talk to him every day'

Edmonds often gets two requests from fans. First, “every single day, they’re obviously asking me and Kirk if we can get Larry to play the game.” (Edmonds says this is unlikely.) But also, people will hop on Edmonds’ stream specifically to ask if he can get Murray to interact more. (This is also unlikely.) Murray will sometimes jab at his teammates, but he is not the most verbose. 

The best trash talk, the most devastating insults, usually comes from familiarity. The Cardinals players agree that they’ve gotten to know each better through video games. And the deeper the bonds, the deeper the cuts. 

Last December, Baker was mic’ed up for the Cardinals’ 27-13 win in Seattle in December. Baker basically teleports 10 yards to hit C. J. Prosise so hard, the running back corkscrews in mid-air. Jones runs up to celebrate, asking Baker again and again: How did you do that?

“No fear. No fear,” Baker says, as Santa Baby plays in the background of CenturyLink Field. “No fear. I ain’t scared of nobody.”

On the field, that seems accurate. Baker is a tenacious defender, with the mic also catching his crunching hits. General manager Steve Keim compares him to a literal lion. But apparently, per source, Baker’s valor does not exactly extend to the world of virtual competitions. And that begets some natural trash talk. 

“Well, if I'm trying to get in Budda’s head, I like to just mimic Budda’s voice, ‘cause his voice is so distinct,” Edmonds said. “So I'm like, ‘No fear, bro. No fear.’ ...

“Budda plays Call of Duty so scared,” Edmonds adds about the highest-paid safety in the history of the NFL. “So I'm like, ‘Bro, you're 180 pounds soaking wet, you'll hit a grown man full speed, but you can't charge a door in a video game?’”

Edmonds’ imitation is shockingly close. In a phone interview, quite frankly, it passes for Baker. (Baker, however, disagrees. He says the imitation is “terrible.”) It’s part natural talent for Edmonds, who also has a solid impersonation of Jones, but it also helps just how frequently he’s in touch with his teammates from the defensive side. 

Arizona Cardinals running back Chase Edmonds (29) runs with the ball during practice on Sept. 11, 2020, at Dignity Health Arizona Cardinals Training Center in Tempe, Ariz.

“It’s ‘cause I talk to him every day, I’ve heard it every day now,” Edmonds said. 

And that is where perhaps the marathons of video games matter the most. Sure, the players had fun and connected with new fans. Some earned new bragging rights. But in a year defined in large part by distance, the Cardinals also got a little closer. 

“The level of chemistry that this team is at right now, I mean, these guys are like my brothers. It feels like I'm playing college football,” Edmonds said. “And the paycheck is a bonus, but it’s just a great atmosphere right now. It’s like a family over here, and everyone’s close to each other. Everyone’s friends, everyone’s brothers.”

Jones agrees.

“I feel like a lot of that Call of Duty playing brought us closer,” he said. “It sounds funny, but this offseason, we didn’t have an opportunity to have OTAs, team activities together due to the pandemic. It was just a chance to build that camaraderie, not just on your side of the ball, but across the team."

So next, the Cardinals hope to translate that wireless connection to what they achieve on the field. The team is having fun, but also has won a total of eight games the last two seasons. All signs point to improvement this year. They’re building off a second year with Kliff Kingsbury. They revamped the roster. They added DeAndre Hopkins. 

The chemistry helps all of that. And fortunately, for those less talented at video games like Madden, those results are not an indicator of what happens on a real, physical football field. 

'What else are you gonna do?'

Running back Kenyan Drake lost a lot of games at the start. 

“To play Madden, you’ve got to know how to play Madden, not just football,” he said. “There's a lot of things that was really making me mad, because I was trying to figure out how a middle linebacker could cover a slot receiver running down the seam.”

But even in the virtual realms, the Cardinals adapted. They adjusted. And they improved upon their record. 

“Well, when I first started playing video games, I wasn't the best,” said Jones, who had 19 sacks last season. He says “wasn’t the best” in the kind of voice you use when, perhaps, you were actually the worst. 

“The word that they use in this world and age is ‘bot.’ ‘You're a bot.’ So if you ask Kyler or Chase or any of those gamers, Budda, they know what a bot means. It means you're not too good," he said. "So I was a bot at first, but now I'm actually becoming an elite player in the game. So I’m actually carrying the squad.” 

He needed time to learn the system. It takes hours to perfect any craft. So a little prodding from his younger teammates helped. 

Cardinals defensive end Chandler Jones.

"I'm like, 'Bro what else are you gonna do? You gonna sit in the house and workout 24/7? We’re literally in the house all day, not doing anything,' " Edmonds said. 

Jones first rolled out reasons like the fact that he’s "30" or "has a daughter" or "doesn’t have time" to play video games all day. But there are no excuses in sports. No days off. Not only did he hop on. He went all-in. He hopped on often. 

"Chandler started playing the game more than me and Kirk," said Edmonds, who also said he and Kirk once played for 9.5 hours straight. "He started calling like, ‘Bro, you’re not on? What’s up?’ "

Once they were all on, the teammates talked about the games they were played, but also about football and life and everything in between. 

"There are times when the game is loading and I'm like, 'What did you do today? Did you work out? Did you break a sweat?'" said Jones, a team captain. "This was back when we weren't having workouts. I wasn't jumping on their case. I was just putting the thought in their head.” 

Players used video games as an ice breaker before. When Edmonds entered the league, he had already played with a number of Cardinals players on Madden. Often in his rookie year, Edmonds told them that. There were the expected candidates: Fitzgerald, Patrick Peterson, Jones. And one slightly less expected linchpin.

“Andy Lee was always the punter I got. That’s just a weird fact," said Edmonds, who naturally told this to Lee. "He was like 'Oh, that's interesting, man.' "

If all goes according to plan, the Cardinals will not be using Lee, their three-time Pro Bowler, as often this season. They hope their high-flying offense will conjure up video-game-like highlights throughout year. After playing virtual football as an escape all summer, it's time to get in the game. 

“I think it’s pretty crucial,” Murray said back in August on having an outlet. “I think everybody should have something that they enjoy outside of whatever they call work. You know I love to play the game of football, so I don’t really see it as such. 

“But just being able to play video games with my boys, it’s a way for us to connect. Especially some of my teammates, they’re heavy on video games, so we get to connect through there even though we’re not together any more. So it’s helpful for everybody to relax with something they enjoy doing.” 

Reach the reporter at or 480-356-6407. Follow her on Twitter @kfitz134.

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