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TAMPA, Florida (Reuters) - With just days until Super Bowl Sunday, a who's who of NFL players and celebrities are lined up for one of the hottest parties in Florida on Thursday -- the annual videogame competition, the Madden Bowl.
The 15th annual competition pits the best NFL pros in a single-elimination tournament to find out who the best "Madden NFL 09" gamer is on Microsoft's Xbox 360.
"A lot of guys play video games, especially "Madden," and everybody thinks they're good, so Madden Bowl allows players to find out who's the best," said New York Jets' Brad Smith.
"You want to have those bragging rights for the next year."
This year's tournament includes a pair of combatants who will face off on the real gridiron Sunday in the big game -- Arizona Cardinals running back Edgerrin James and Pittsburgh Steelers running back Willie Parker.
Other players that will take part in this year's Madden Bowl include Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Bryant, Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew, New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck and Dallas Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware.
EA Sports is introducing a first-ever Madden Bowl XV Rookie Play-In game between quarterbacks Mark Sanchez of the USC Trojans and Matt Stafford of the Georgia Bulldogs, both of whom have declared for the upcoming NFL Draft.
The winner of this pre-tournament game will take part in the big competition that always take place in the home city of the Super Bowl.
Last year, Baltimore Ravens running back Willis McGahee took home the trophy in Arizona. He faced off against Buffalo Bills running back Marshawn Lynch.
"I didn' even think I would make it past the first round because I' not a "Madden" player like some of these guys," said Lynch. "When I got to the championship game, my first thought was, "Damn, there's somebody out there that's worse than me.""
Microsoft will offer gamers at home the chance to play "Madden NFL 09" against Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis via Xbox Live during the festivities.
Attendees will be able to mingle with some of the biggest names in the NFL, including popular wide receivers like Terrell Owens (Dallas Cowboys), Chad Johnson (Cincinnati Bengals) and Reggie Wayne (Indianapolis Colts).
"When Madden Bowl first started, EA had to almost beg people to attend," said Jon Robinson, editor at ESPNVideogames.com.
"Fourteen years later and they're turning people away."
Tom Goedde, vice president of marketing at EA Sports, said the Madden Bowl started coming together as a media event around 2000, when celebrities like P. Diddy and athletes like Joe Montana and Barry Sanders started attending.
Today, satellite trucks line up outside and hundreds of media covering the event and the celebrities attending the bash.
"I think Madden Bowl is designed to show retailers that EA will promote the game heavily, and encourages them to participate by promoting "Madden" throughout the Super Bowl build-up," said Michael Pachter, videogame analyst, Wedbush Morgan Securities.
"A couple years ago we doubled down and partnered with NFL PLAYERS to put on the Rookie Madden Bowl in Los Angeles in May and it's been fun to get the young guys in the mix as well," said Goedde.
Washington Redskins wide receiver Devin Thomas won the last Rookie Madden Bowl in May 2008 in Santa Monica.
"You take a bunch of guys who are competitive on the field and give them videogames and it makes for a great event," said Thomas. "It's something we all love to see."
Editing by Belinda Goldsmith