Roleplay Off the Field Helps the Eagles on It

The Philadelphia Eagles’ veterans and newcomers have meshed into a championship contender thanks in part to their bonding over video game roleplay. “It’s kind of like our secret sauce,” one player said.

C.J. Gardner-Johnson stares straight ahead while hearing a microphone headset. A monitor, keyboard and hard drive glow from behind him on a desk.
Eagles safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson sitting next to his gaming setup, where he spends a lot of time playing a roleplay version of Grand Theft Auto V with teammates.Credit...Desiree Rios/The New York Times

PHILADELPHIA — When safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson came to the Eagles in a trade with the New Orleans Saints a week before the regular season, there was one thing he struggled to understand about his new team.

It was a word that his teammates Haason Reddick, Shaun Bradley and Miles Sanders used to describe almost anything: “jawn.” The term, which is Philadelphia slang for a person, place or thing, baffled him, and its usage sometimes still does.

“I seriously never understood what that was,” said Gardner-Johnson, who grew up in a town outside Orlando, Fla. But he said that playing a roleplay version of Grand Theft Auto V, a popular first-person action-adventure game, has helped him and his new Eagles teammates grow closer. More important, he can better understand what his teammates are saying on the field and in conversation.

Through 11 weeks of the regular season, the Eagles (9-1) have the best record in the N.F.L. for many reasons: the improvement of their third-year quarterback, Jalen Hurts; a defense that is ranked in the top 10 in the league; and new players who have made an impact. The time they have spent playing a video game has become an unlikely forum for bonding for the ascendant Eagles.

“It’s kind of like our secret sauce,” Gardner-Johnson said.

After all the practice, film study and weight lifting, several Eagles players said, they cannot wait to spend their downtime living the life of anyone but a football player. So, for hours, they play a modified, multiplayer roleplay version of the video game.

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Credit...Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

In Grand Theft Auto V, a user navigates a fictional city, Los Santos, as a main character who needs to complete missions to make progress. In the roleplay version, players act as civilians — clerks, doctors, taxi drivers, police officers and lawyers — who earn money for completing tasks in their role to purchase clothes, cars, restaurants and whatever else they desire. There is no larger mission to accomplish or progress to make. And while the game can be played on a variety of gaming consoles, like PlayStation and Xbox, the modified version can be played only with a PC setup.

Users need to join a user-created server, or start their own, to enter a customized world, and they can communicate via headsets where they speak to one another using their character names or risk jail and other consequences for breaking game rules.

As in most N.F.L. locker rooms, Eagles players are grouped by the position they play so they can easily discuss the ins and outs of their particular jobs. They are also grouped this way — with a handful of the same guys — in film review sessions and position meetings. It can be a challenge for teammates to build relationships with one another outside those clusters.

But gaming has been a way for Eagles players who line up all over the field to hang. The defensive backs Darius Slay and Avonte Maddox are avid gamers, as are Reddick and Bradley, who are linebackers. Sanders and Kenneth Gainwell, who play running back, are die-hards, and Gardner-Johnson said he persuaded offensive tackle Jordan Mailata to join in.

“It just builds a friendship at the end of the day,” said Reddick, an edge rusher with seven and a half sacks this season. “Then, when you get on the field, we’re all happy for each other, and we all want each other to do good.” He added: “And we get to talk about other subjects; we don’t have to talk about football with each other.”

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Credit...Desiree Rios/The New York Times

The amount of time that Eagles players spend on the game varies, but Gardner-Johnson and Gainwell might be the team’s most avid gamers, regularly livestreaming hours of gameplay each day on Twitch. They both have their own servers (Sanders’s character was in prison on Gardner-Johnson’s server at the time of an interview earlier this season) and have lured teammates into their worlds.

“A lot of people, especially me, are just at home doing nothing,” Sanders said. “Since I’ve got my PC, I’ve been on the game more and calling people more.”

The basement of Gardner-Johnson’s townhouse serves as his gaming and football headquarters. The room features his football memorabilia — cleats, game balls and a shelf with two footballs he intercepted from Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady. Tucked on the opposite side of the room is his gaming oasis, which cost $10,000, he said.

The setup includes two monitors, a gaming keyboard, a headset, and wall lights that spell “2X,” a reference to one of Gardner-Johnson’s nicknames, which he says is a reminder to give twice the effort in any task. It’s also the name of the e-sports team he owns, 2X Global.

Football creeps into the gaming area in two places: a circular screen that sits inside Gardner-Johnson’s PC that displays a GIF of him taunting Brady during a Saints win, and his gaming chair, which he took from the Eagles’ locker room. He says he “has to wear” his furry Balenciaga slippers when he plays, toggling between two characters, Lil Juvie, a business owner, and Cameron Rooks, a police officer.

On the field, Gardner-Johnson is having the best year of his career, leading the N.F.L. with six interceptions and having secured 59 tackles, the second-highest total of his career with seven games to go. In one corner of the basement sits a whiteboard with his goals for the season, many of which he has surpassed, such as having at least five interceptions and 50 tackles by the Eagles’ game against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night.

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Credit...Desiree Rios/The New York Times

Gardner-Johnson said he was “probably the cockiest player you’re ever going to meet,” and he has earned a reputation for being an agitator for his antics on the field, which include goading receivers he has covered into throwing punches; emphatically kicking and punching the logo of the Atlanta Falcons, a rival team, after a win last season; and taunting Brady.

But his video game interactions — not only with his fellow players, but also with gamers who cannot afford the high-end equipment he uses — have humbled him, he said, and changed his approach to football. He has a large framed picture in his basement, next to his football goals for the season, that reads, “Kill Your Ego,” as a daily reminder.

“That’s why I ain’t been so loud this year,” Gardner-Johnson said, noting that he had curtailed his trash-talking this season. “I just been, like, quiet and chill.” He added, “I just want to play football, come home and play video games.”