This may come as a surprise to some of you, but it turns out that watching snippets of someone else’s epic Madden throwdowns is less exciting than actually playing the game yourself. It’s also less thrilling than watching an actual NFL broadcast.

Neither of those truths stands in the way of Madden Nation, ESPN’s reality show that pits 14 “professional gamers” — no, that’s not an oxymoron — against each other in Madden matchups on the Xbox 360. Each gamer represents an NFL player (Randy Moss and Reggie Bush, for example), and the winner’s Holy Grail is a hefty $100,000 check. In pairing pro athletes and sports gamers, the show ties together two groups with exactly two things in common — a vastly overinflated sense of NFL stars’ celebrity and a ridiculous amount of free time.

As TV, Madden Nation isn’t a horrible experience — it’s no better or worse than most of the other offerings that dot the vast reality TV landscape, like so many McDonald’s on the interstate. The series’ final game — played on a Jumbotron in Times Square, outside, in the rain — featured a match between a white teen named Billy who dubbed himself “Da Secret” and Frederick “Fred Dizzle” Amponsem, a low-key loan officer with the best sports nickname since the XFL’s He Hate Me. The trash-talking Da Secret hummed past Dizzle, making him perhaps the most obnoxious individual to win a buttload of cash since the last set of winners on Deal or No Deal.

Now, you can make the argument that Madden Nation is merely an astute case of the world’s largest sports network capitalizing on the world’s largest sports videogame phenomenon — bling plus bling equals cha-ching. The PS2 version of Madden ’07 has already sold more than 1.8 million copies, and some cultural observers have already noted what they’ve termed a “Madden effect” — average teenagers who now know as much about NFL defensive schemes from playing the game as some of the league’s well-paid coordinators.

But in tossing gaming and reality TV into the pop-cult blender, ESPN is also doing something else: promoting gaming as a lifestyle. A lifestyle, in this case, that involves chillin’ on the Madden Nation bus, going to Monday Night Football games, fielding calls from the Bills’ Willis McGahee, and generally livin’ large. It’s a far cry from, say, an actual gamer lifestyle, which is far more likely to involve action figures, sci-fi posters, and HDMI cords snarled on the living room floor.

ESPN wisely makes no bones about its modus operandi, noting that the contestants have been chosen for their “skill, personality, and audience appeal.” Listening to one of the finalists bust out Warren Sapp-worthy trash talk in a tight game (“start puntin’, dawg — play like I’m somebody good!”), I’d have to say the last one’s debatable.

Given that the average gamer is now 33 years old, and that he (and she) likely harbors few illusions about converting gaming into multimillion-dollar megastardom — we’ll set aside Jonathon “Fatal1ty” Wendel, who’s earned more than a million bucks fragging everything that moves in Quake IV — most viewers can take Madden Nation as mildly entertaining diversion. For the non-gaming masses of Clueless Nation, it just perpetuates the stereotype of gamers as MTV-gen refugees — Justin Timberlake with a wireless controller.

If you missed the 2006 run of Madden Nation — which is entirely possible, given that the episodes aired on ESPN2 late at night and were rerun largely in the hours when most NFL players are being arrested for DUIs and assaults — fear not. ESPN is preparing to give the same lifestyle/reality treatment to Electronic Arts’ NBA Live franchise with NBA Live: Bring It Home with EA Sports. The forecast? Trash-talking with a chance of dunk.

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