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PROVIDENCIALES, Turks and Caicos Islands (Reuters Life!) - While professional athletes can earn millions of dollars, video gamers now have a chance to also take home tens of thousands of dollars in sports winnings without breaking a sweat.
Sports video game competitions, like the EA Sports Madden Challenge which held its finals in virtual American football in Turks and Caicos Islands this week, are becoming global events.
Over 180,000 gamers took part in the Madden Challenge online through Xbox Live and another 10,000 football fanatics attended one of 18 events held around the United States over two months.
Electronic Arts expanded the virtual gridiron competition to include Toronto, Mexico City and London this year as the NFL tries to expand the sport into new territories.
But this week it was Lee Green, 20, from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who walked away with a $25,000 check and a $25,000 gift card from consumer electronic store Best Buy as the seventh Madden Challenge champion.
For the second year running Walt Disney Co's ESPN2 TV network is airing a one-hour special on the Madden Challenge Finals during Super Bowl Sunday on February 1 while ESPN continues its popular "Madden Nation" reality series for a fifth season this fall where elite football gamers battle for $100,000.
"I play Madden five days a week, 10 hours a day, and it's paid off," said Green, who made it to the finals of last season's "Madden Nation" show.
It has also paid off for Eric Wright from West Covina, California who earned $180,000 in cash and prizes playing Madden last year and made it to the finals again for the fourth year.
This devoted "Madden" community has helped the game annually find a place at the top of the U.S. sales charts. EA Sports sold over 6.5 million copies of "Madden NFL 09" in 2008 in the United States, which brings the 20-year total sales for the franchise to over 75 million.
The NFL and NFLPA has helped EA grow this competition.
NFL players Matt Cassel of the New England Patriots, Kirk Morrison of the Oakland Raiders, Brad Smith of the New York Jets, Marshawn Lynch of the Buffalo Bills and Bernard Berrian of the Minnesota Vikings were on hand for this year's challenge finals.
"I got to see these gamers in their element playing Madden amongst their peers, talking smack to each other and the competitiveness these guys have is amazing," said Cassel.
Smith said the Madden Challenge shows how popular the sport of American football is not only in North America, but globally.
Glenn Chin, vice president of brand marketing at EA Sports, said the Madden Challenge has grown from an informal tournament launched 17 years ago into the official challenge that began seven years ago with 10 cities in the United States.
Each year the sponsors, cash and prizes grow.
"We could do this in 100 cities because the interest is there," said EA Sports marketing vice-president Brian Movalson.
"I think where you'll see the Madden Challenge evolve next is with the creation of multiple events with a regular season with teams similar to the PGA TOUR, where they have the Masters and then other events throughout the year."
Football isn't the only virtual sport offering gamers the chance to cash in on their hand-eye coordination.
EA Sports hosts an annual NCAA Football Challenge across 16 college campuses every year with a $10,000 cash prize.
The NASCAR Challenge makes pit stops in nine NASCAR cities and awards the winner $10,000.
EA Sports kicks off its third annual NBA LIVE Challenge on January 16 in Sacramento with an 11-city tour and $25,000 prize.
2K Sports held a pair of online hockey tournaments last fall, offering the winners the chance to have their names engraved on trophies on display in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
Editing by Belinda Goldsmith