June 25, 2005

EA, Still Major Dickheads

Electronic Arts' website briefly displayed a picture of the cover for the next version of EA Sports NHL Hockey which sported a "Exclusively Licensed" logo. After some activity on the gaming forums the picture was altered to say "Officially Licensed". So the question is, was this just a mistake, were they testing the waters, or did somebody accidently let the cat out of the bag?

Now, I've made my hatred of EA clear in previous posts, but here's the recap if you're just joining us. Back in the days of the SNES and Sega Genesis, Sega was where you went for sports video games. On top of the many third party sports games on the system, Sega itself produced some great sports titles. With the birth of the Playstation, and the begin of Sega's decline on the hardware side of the industry, Electronic Arts took the reigns as the premier company dealing in sports video games, particularly Madden, their football title. Madden, and the other EA sports line, ruled the field with almost no serious competition from roughly the launch of the Playstation in 1995 until around three years ago, when Sega got serious about sports games again.

Sega's sports development house, Visual Concepts, put together an increasingly competitive line of sports games, and in some cases garnered higher scores in the reviews than EA's version. The problem was that most gamers were so used to buying the new version of Madden every year, and the name Madden was just so universally recognized, that Sega just wasn't making a dent in EA's sales. The solution to this was two fold; they licensed the ESPN brand and brought all of their sports games under the well known banner. The second prong came just this last year, with Sega pricing all of their sports games at $20 instead of the industry standard $50. Coupled with the fact that the games were universally getting better and better while EA's had been stagnating or actually getting worse, and Sega finally started making some headway in the market. How would EA react? How would they counter this new competitive force?

Be really huge dicks with barrels of money.

The first volley came when EA announced that they had paid the NFL $300 million for a five year contract for exclusive use of all the players, teams, and stadiums in the league. Now, back in the day, making sports games based on fictional teams was pretty standard, but as the games became more of a simulation, the need to license the teams and players for heightend authenticity increased. Sega could certainly make a football game, but if a player wanted to play as their favorite real life team, they have to go to the substandard Madden. Next EA announces that they've paid ESPN a truckload of money for the exclusive use the ESPN brand for the next fifteen (15!) years. Keep in mind that they still have a contract with Madden for the next several years and will in all likelihood renew it, so chances are they won't even use the ESPN brand, or at least only in a very limited sense. The positive influence on EA's games will be minimal, but this sure hits Sega hard doesn't it? Oh well, at least they can still make another football game, like college, right? Wrong: EA then got exclusive licenses for college and arena football. At this point Sega got out of the game and sold Visual Concepts to Take 2 Interactive, another gigantic publisher like EA.

Take 2 managed to get some kind of limited exclusivity with MLB and the NBA has refused, thankfully, to enter into any exclusivity agreements with anyone, but EA's still in the driver seat. The worst part about this rumor is that while ESPN Football 2k5, the last Sega football game, was pretty widely considered to be better than Madden '05, EA's NHL game has actually been getting worse each year since the 2000 edition and the Sega version was significantly better in most ways. Exclusivity gives the company no reason to improve their game year to year, and EA has precious little competition now. Not only that, but all the money they used getting these exclusivity agreements is sure to be passed on to the consumer, and they've even hinted that next generation games from them might jump to $60.

On a slightly positive note, I suppose there is some hope that Take 2's games, since they are no longer bound to constantly trying to keep their game up to date on how real life players are doing, they might be able to make their nonlicensed games even better. Also, since they no longer have to pay royalties to the various leagues and players associations they might be able to sustain the lower price on their games. Also, this new generation will offer unprecedented customizability and online sharing, so it's entirely possible that though Take 2's games don't ship with official teams and players someone will make them and post them as a download. Hell, I wouldn't be surprised if Take 2 employees did that on the sly. Still, when your average gamer is in Gamestop, he's going to see one game he doesn't recognize, and Madden with some real life football player's picture plastered on it.

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