Battle for the NFL

The recent exclusivity deal between Electronic Arts and the NFL was the last and biggest shot fired in an ongoing struggle between EA and Sega Sports. This feature outlines the build up between the two sports gaming rivals led up to this week's shocking announcement.

By Brian Ekberg

With shockwaves still emanating from EA's bombshell announcement that it had secured exclusive rights to the NFL license for all games appearing on consoles, handhelds, and the PC for the next five years, many sports gaming fans are probably still dazed. While rumors of an NFL exclusivity deal had been making the rounds in industry circles for years--and speculation on the actual price tag of such a deal broke out in May--it took the actual December 13 announcement for it to finally become a reality in many people's minds.

In truth, this most recent turn is just one in a long history of competitive jockeying for market share between EA and Sega. While 2004 may have been the year in which the fight really heated up over perhaps the most valuable license in American sports video games, the actual conflict has its roots in the final days of Sega's Dreamcast console. Here, we take a look at the early days of the Sega-EA dispute over the NFL video game market, beginning with the emergence of the current generation of consoles.

2001: NFL 2K2 Goes Multiconsole

One consistent question was on the lips of all sports gamers when the Dreamcast was released in 1999: Would EA ever develop sports games specifically for the Sega system? After all, during the previous console generation, EA had been slow to release an iteration of its Madden series on the Nintendo 64, due to the success of the title on the original PlayStation. Despite the DC being the first console release in the current generation of consoles, EA made it no secret that it had little interest in bringing its popular line of sports titles to the platform.

The first shot is fired, as NFL 2K2 breaks away from the Dreamcast and becomes a multiconsole title.

Sega, while chagrined by EA's snub, had its own burgeoning line of sports franchises to worry about: NFL 2K and NBA 2K, both of which were well received by fans and critics alike. Still, as the Dreamcast continued to flail in an increasingly crowded marketplace, it was clear that, to survive, the NFL 2K series would need to expand beyond the orange swirl. In 2001, that's exactly what happened, as NFL 2K2 was the first game in the 2K franchise to make an appearance on multiple consoles.

NFL 2K2 was first released for the DC in September, but the real fun began when the PS2 version made its debut two months after. Two months after that (and just a few weeks before Super Bowl XXXVI), the Xbox version of the game was released. Meanwhile, EA staggered eight versions of Madden 2002 that year (including releases on the N64, Game Boy Advance, and the Game Boy Color). The Madden series would not see a game released on that many platforms until 2004, when Madden NFL 2005 came out on the Zodiac, the Nintendo DS, and the dearly departed original PlayStation.

2002: Online Gaming Emerges

With the Dreamcast no more and Sega's NFL 2K series safely harbored among this generation's console survivors, the battle's focus shifted entirely toward who could dominate the current playing field. To that end, the thought on sports publishers' minds was the increasingly exciting prospect of online play. EA was more than a year away from announcing support for Microsoft's Xbox Live service, so NFL 2K3 had that console's online service all to itself. Both NFL 2K3 and EA's Madden 2003 made online appearances on Sony's PS2, however, and while the results were mixed for online performance, the future was clear: Any sports game without an online component from here on out would most likely be a disappointment.

In 2002, both EA and Sega scrambled to get their football games online.

While the Madden series had traditionally relied on its homegrown look and feel, which featured series namesake John Madden as its color analyst, Madden 2003 upped the presentation ante with the introduction of Al Michaels, who just happened to share the commentary booth with Madden on Monday Night Football broadcasts. The addition of Michaels (and the removal of former play-by-play man Pat Summerall) enhanced the presentation's quality, and using a real-life TV duo further immersed gamers in the notion that they were part of a real NFL experience.

Not to be outdone, Sega's 2K series got a presentation boost of its own when, in May 2002, the company announced a licensing agreement with ESPN. While it would still be a year before gamers could enjoy the full benefits of the licensing agreement in the 2K series, the addition of the ESPN graphics and music did for NFL 2K3 what the addition of Al Michaels did for Madden 2003, only to a greater degree. NFL 2K3 was actually the second time the ESPN brand made its way into an NFL video game in 2002, as the Xbox version of ESPN NFL Primetime 2002 was released in January of that year, to mediocre fan response. It would be 2003, however, that the ESPN brand was used to full effect, and the 2K series was retitled to better showcase the name of the sports broadcasting giant.

2003: A Complex Tapestry

The increasingly complex relationship between ESPN and the big two NFL series was no more evident than in 2003. This was the year that NFL 2K4, as it was originally titled, was rebranded with the full ESPN license as ESPN NFL Football. From the opening ESPN title sequence to the pregame intros and halftime show hosted by Chris Berman, the series for the first time looked almost exactly like an actual ESPN broadcast.

The full ESPN license brought credibility and immersion to Sega's NFL series.

Meanwhile, on the ESPN network itself, EA's Madden NFL 2004 was making its presence felt. The game was featured extensively in ESPN's NFL pregame analysis segments to provide demonstrations of on-field strategy. Viewers were even encouraged to go to the EA Sports Web site to e-mail questions to the ESPN hosts. The complexity didn't end there, either. Let's not forget that John Madden himself, through his gig at Monday Night Football, was an employee of ABC, itself a subsidiary of Disney, which also owned ESPN. This cross-pollination of talent and games caused more than a little confusion about just whose side everyone was on. In 2004, those questions would be clearly and quickly answered.

NFL 2K3 also took the first stab at online leagues for console football, which were exclusive to the PS2 version of the game. Explaining that the leagues weren't the hit the company expected, developer ESPN Videogames shut down the feature a scant six months after the game was released. The goal, according to company representatives at the time, was to start over from scratch with the league features to create something "bigger, badder, and a lot better" once 2004 came around.

2004: ESPN Drops the Price, EA Drops the Bomb

Ho hum, another year, another slate of football releases from Sega and EA Sports, right? Wrong. Without a doubt, 2004 was the year that the long-simmering feud between the two companies finally came to a head. It started like any other year. Both EA and Sega announced their football titles in April, and fans of the series eagerly awaited the new tweaks and features each title would boast. There was even some skepticism on the part of gamers--after all, the previous year's games had been of such a high quality, and with big-ticket features such as online play already expected, what could they possibly offer that would justify yet another purchase?

A long year of NFL jabs ended with EA's strong right hook. The behemoth's acquisition of exclusive NFL rights was a painful blow to Sega's football future.

The first answer came in May, when EA announced its long-awaited and much-anticipated agreement with Microsoft to make its line of sports titles Xbox Live-compatible. For the first time, Madden fans who also happened to own an Xbox could take their skills online and compete with fans all over the world. As exciting as this news was, it was just a lead-up to an even more stunning announcement by Sega and new publisher Take-Two: ESPN NFL 2K5 would sell for only $19.99.

Rumors of a price drop for ESPN NFL 2K5, which actually began to circulate in early summer, were quickly confirmed. While gamers were jumping for joy at the news, some inside EA scoffed at the idea, saying the move was indicative of a lower-quality "budget" title. As fan response, sales, and critical praise soon made clear, however, ESPN NFL 2K5's low price was in inverse proportion to its high quality. When the game was released in July, gamers were blown away by its addictive mix of beautiful graphics, compelling gameplay, and in-depth online component. To its credit, Madden NFL 2005 was no slouch in the gameplay department, despite its higher price tag. With effective control tweaks such as the hit stick and the aforementioned Xbox Live play, Madden fans had reasons of their own to be overjoyed with their title. Those who'd held off on Madden for a few months would have even more reason for joy when, in November, EA finally reacted to the financial pinch the lowered price of ESPN NFL 2K5 (and, indeed, Sega's entire crop of 2004 sports titles) had placed on it and lowered the price of Madden NHL 2005 by $10. Two other EA sports titles, NBA Live 2005 and NCAA Football 2005, would be reduced in price by $20. EA also announced an across-the-board two-for-one deal on its entire line of EA Sports games. This, in addition to ESPN's across-the-board $20 price tag for its entire line of 2004 sports releases, meant that sports gamers could have more fun, for less money, than ever before. The tactic seemingly worked, as ESPN NFL 2K5 made strong inroads into the Madden franchise's market share, selling nearly 2 million copies, compared with approximately 450,000 copies of ESPN NFL Football and more than 3 million for Madden NFL 2005. Viewed from any angle, this was an ingenious business move on Sega and Take-Two's part.

Things were looking up for Sega and Take-Two, though the feud between the two football series was on the brink of taking more toxic tone as 2004 wound down. Rumors of an exclusive deal between the NFL, the NFL Players Association, and EA percolated throughout the industry in 2004. Some even had the proposed deal valued at somewhere around $1 billion. In May, the NFLPA denied that any such deal was in the works, even going so far as to demand a retraction from sports-industry publication The Sports Business Journal, which had originally run the story. The news was sweet relief for ESPN NFL 2K5 fans, who recognized what such a deal might mean to their favorite NFL game.

Which brings us all back to December 13, 2004--a day that will surely live in sports gaming infamy. EA's blockbuster five-year deal for exclusive video game rights to the NFL is a staggering blow to Sega, Take-Two, and perhaps even Visual Concepts, the developer of the entire 2K line of football titles. It's doubtful they'll go down without a fight, but, at the same time, they'll have to act quickly to staunch the bleeding. The real danger lies in the precedent being set by EA, of which the recent NFL announcement is only one aspect: the hoarding of professional sports licenses. Already EA owns exclusive rights to NASCAR, the PGA Tour, and FIFA. If, as many believe, the company decides to expand its license gobbling to the other major American sports leagues, such as Major League Baseball, the NBA, and the NHL, the war for sports gamers' attention may be over much sooner than expected.

What's ahead? Now that EA is the only NFL game in town, game developers will need to get creative to push a pigskin property into the limelight. Already Midway has announced an over-the-top football title that will make full use of the 'roid-spewing, trash-talking guilty pleasure that was ESPN's short-lived Playmakers series (about a fictional pro football league). Presumably, the existing licenses that are available--the Canadian Football League, the Arena League, the defunct XFL, and the NCAA--all have attractive aspects. That said, none are the NFL, and that's an awfully big obstacle for any sports game publisher to overcome.

As we head into 2005, the story between EA and Sega is far from over, and there are a number of questions to be answered, starting with the next crop of football titles. Will EA take advantage of its newfound position and create a "one-stop shop" NFL game? What will 2005's non-NFL football games look like? More importantly, what about 2006, when the next generation of consoles hits store shelves? With this week's announcement, the NFL playing field has changed dramatically. The next chapter in the story is just now being written.

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