I should’ve seen it coming. Many did. A deal well over a year in the making, EA has just inked an agreement with the NFL and the NFL Players Inc., giving EA exclusive rights to use the NFL’s teams, stadiums, and players in its videogames for the next five years. Quite frankly, this is terrible news, and could be the beginning of a frightening trend in gaming that ultimately would hurt the consumer more than anyone else.
What this deal means, basically, is that none of EA’s competitors in the football genre, whether that be its realistic simulation Madden or its arcade-style counterpart NFL Street will be able to use real NFL teams, rosters, player likenesses, stadiums, or logos for at least five whole years. In its current state, NFL Street is not an exceptional game of football, nor is it the leading game of its ilk, so I’m going to focus primarily on Madden, where the real damage was done.
Let’s get this out of the way right now: Authenticity matters to sports game fans. A lot. Much of the thrill of playing videogame football comes from vicariously living through the heroes you’ve watched on television and followed throughout their careers, supporting your favorite squad and spurring them on to victory with your skills.
Many players remain loyal to their favorite teams and players even if their in-game stats are poor, playing a full season as the Browns just to be able to pull a miracle Super Bowl victory with their longtime favorite franchise. In fact, the Browns won’t be winning a Super Bowl this season, but the player could make it happen, which highlights one of the greatest virtues of videogames in general – vicariously altering “the real world”.
Look, I’m no hater. Madden is absolutely a AAA game franchise, but it’s not untouchable, and in many ways Sega/Visual Concept’s ESPN NFL 2K (formerly just NFL 2K) series has rivaled and even bested it. However, when you are faced with a choice of two excellent and comparable products, but one of them dons the real teams and players that you love, it becomes very difficult to stray from the NFL licensed game.
All factors being equal, gamers would ideally opt for the game with the better gameplay and more well-rounded features, but the power of the NFL license cannot be underestimated. As with all genres of videogames, the hardcore gamer is in fact the minority in the game-buying public, and the dollar of the casual-playing masses is really what drives the market. Do you think the average, somewhat uninformed consumer would buy a football game featuring their almost favorite player, Jerome Lettuce of the Pittsburgh Squealers? No, they’ll probably just buy Madden.
This is not to say that in the future Madden will sell purely on the license, because it may well be the best sim-football game out there right now, but shouldn’t that be the reason it sells? Not because EA paid more money than you could count in a year to give itself a ridiculous advantage over the competition. This fact alone makes it very difficult to compete with Madden, and if EA doesn’t have to constantly worry about keeping one step ahead of the competition as far as evolving the series, the developers could become somewhat lazy, realizing that the game will sell well even with minimal enhancements and an updated roster because nobody else has the license.
Of course, from a business perspective, EA’s move was smart as hell, but really, it borders on unfair practices. And besides, doesn’t it just feel’ dirty? Obviously the NFL is also to blame for offering the exclusive rights to the highest bidder (and really, it would be very hard to bid higher than EA – a big ol’ bastard of a company), but reportedly the decision was not made without over two years of lobbying on the part of EA.
By far the worst thought that emerges from this news is its possible foreshadowing on the future climate of the gaming world. What if this becomes a trend and extends itself into other sports or genres? We could end up with only one game series for each sport with an official pro license – and what if the winning game isn’t already an industry leader such as Madden? What if Microsoft bought up the NBA license and gave it to its mediocre NBA Inside Drive series? What if someday you could only drive real-world cars in Gran Turismo 5? Granted, it’s a bit of a stretch, but with a door being opened like this, similar types of takeovers are certainly possible.
Who loses out because of this type of dollar sign bullying to monopolize a section of the gaming market? The consumers, of course. We lose our ability to buy our sports title of choice without being penalized by the side-effects of inter-corporate squabbling. Not all sports game franchises have official licenses, but in the past that has always been a choice, not an exclusive right. Konami makes the extremely high quality Winning Eleven soccer franchise (Pro Evolution Soccer to European readers) that garners respect and gamers’ dollars without the FIFA license, but does it suffer some losses to EA’s own FIFA Soccer series because of it? Definitely. This was, however Konami’s choice, which is perfectly fine and fair. It’s when that choice is taken away that my stomach begins to churn. And I have a bad feeling that I’ll be getting much more nauseated in the days to come.