Exclusivity and the Modern Gamer

The motto of Electronic Arts sports division has long been, “If it’s in the game, it’s in the game.”

Since December 14, 2004, that motto may well be changed to “If it’s a NFL game, then it’s EA’s game.”

On that day, Electronic Arts and the National Football League announced that EA would have exclusive use of NFL teams, players, and logos for football video games released in the next five years.

This means no more NFL GameDay , no more NFL Quarterback Club , no more ESPN NFL2K games.

Even if popular opinion says that the absence of two of these are no big loss, then at least the sudden lack of an ESPN-backed football should be alarming.

Doom-and-gloomers are quick to say that a monopoly leads to stagnation. Take the recent example in the virtual monopoly that professional wrestling mainstay WWE created after acquiring its rival, WCW, in 2001.

A sharp decline in business soon followed, one that the company still has not quite shaken. EA hasn’t gotten to the top by being foolish. The timing of the contract is the most important factor, and the one that is most often overlooked.

The recent past of the Madden franchise has been rocky, and the broadcast future of the NFL is about to change drastically. This is the best time for EA to strike. The unexpectedly fierce competition from NFL2K5 proved that the Madden franchise is not invulnerable.

The easiest way for EA to assure themselves of continued market dominance is to eliminate competition. I’m not going to argue the legality or the ethics of making sucha movie. I wish to discuss the risk involved, and why I believe EA made the move this specific year. While I disagree with the creation of exclusivity, I want to point out several reasons why the football gaming community need not fear it.

Electronic Arts isn’t a hobgoblin out to copyright everything game related. It is simply a company that took advantage of a business opportunity. And because it is a company and is out to make money, they know well enough not to anger customers too greatly.

EA’s Madden football game franchise has long been the undisputed king of American football video games. Other football franchises have always been available, but none have ever been more than a distant second to Madden in terms of sales numbers.

This changed last year, when Sega Sports’s NFL2K5 appeared with two unexpected allies. The first, and the immediate attention-grabber, a $19.95 price tag. The second, and arguably the more important one, the overall quality of the game.

A few well-known bugs aside, NFL2K5 was comparable to Madden 2005 in almost every aspect. Both had high profile stars on the cover, both had deep franchise modes that allowed the player to take control of a team by every aspect, from the general manager level on down.

Madden 2005 had a simulated radio show that would change weekly to stay current with player’s progress. NFL2K5 had a mode where players could earn and store memorabilia of their favorite team in a virtual condo. Never before had another football game delivered a experience that so many players and video game journalists actually preferred over Madden.

This amounted to one of the closest margins of sale in Madden franchise history. Compared, Madden 2005 outsold NFL2K5 only 1.5 to 1, a stark contrast to the 10 to 1 margin in Madden ‘s favor years earlier. With numbers like these, it is simply a smart business decision on EA’s part to take advantage of a exclusivity opportunity. While the general gut reaction says that a monopoly like this will have no benefits to the players, there are at least a few benefits. For example, under the new contract, EA now has access to the NFL Films archives and soundtracks.

Considering this new level of cooperation, it would not be too hard to imagine a feature similar to Madden 2005 ‘s sports radio station being replaced by a virtual NFL Network broadcast. Ideally, the benefits won’t merely be window dressing, but would extend in a concrete fashion to the players.

Of all the issues stemming from the exclusivity contract, the most commonly cited concern is the price. Would Madden 2006 be released with a higher price? It’s a possibility, but not a likely one. Doing so would anger fans, and angering the fanbase is not the best way to usher in a new era.

NFL2K5 ‘s lower price forced EA to slash Madden 2005 ‘s price in only a matter of months, roughly about half the time it would normally take for such a price drop. My prediction is that any price change would take place later in the contract, after customers have had time to adjust to the Madden franchise’s exclusivity.

There are at least two reasons that make this a germane topic of discussion. One, the NFL draft has just passed, which is historically football’s last gasp of attention just as the NBA playoffs begin in earnest. Two, around two weeks ago, IGN.com gave the gaming world fresh new screens of Madden 2006 , which revealed this year’s gameplay addition: a visible on-screen rendering of the quarterback’s vision. As the next season of football, both real NFL and virtual NFL, is just around the corner, these are things to keep in mind. And it will be a season of very big media changes.

The timing of the exclusivity deal is its greatest asset. The NFL is about to enter a new era in its broadcast methods, one that is more dependent on the ESPN brand. If there was ever a time to make such a bold move, this is the time.

The next generation of football fans will learn to eagerly anticipate Sunday Night Football on ESPN, and the next generation of football video game fans will continue to look to the Madden series as the football game of choice, probably even long after the exclusivity deal expires.

That’s what this deal is really about; the long term viability of the Madden franchise. But no matter how good the deal looks on paper, it’s still a gamble. For the first couple of years, competition from major studios will more than likely continue to exist in a generic form, but as time goes on, major studios will focus resources elsewhere, leaving independent companies space to operate.

At the end of the exclusive era, competition from both major and independent studios will increase in an anticipation of being able to license actual NFL teams once more. So if the Madden franchise hasn’t continuously stepped up its game by the time the exclusivity deal ends, fans may flock to the newer games just for the change of pace.

But, as has already been said, EA knows a thing or two about making excellent games, sports games especially. Beyond any new gimmicks Madden 2006 will have, the core will remain solid playable football. EA is betting that for many people that will be enough for the duration of the exclusivity and beyond.

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