Electronic Arts broke the calm of a national holiday today by announcing a licensing deal of epic proportions. For the next 15 years, EA will be the sole licensee of the ESPN brand in the area of sports games, which will include console, handheld, PC, and wireless games.Games that leverage the ESPN brand will make their way to retail sometime during 2006, "upon the conclusion of ESPN's existing video game licensing commitments." The news is the second blow to current ESPN license holder Sega (and its Visual Concepts development studio). It recently lost the right to publish sports games using the NFL license when EA scooped that license up. Now, it loses the right to the ESPN brand as well.
In a statement released today, the world's largest game publisher said, "The relationship will include established EA Sports franchises--which will be enhanced by ESPN telecast, print, and online content--as well as new sports games to be published by EA based on ESPN media properties." Addressing ways EA intends to leverage not only ESPN programming but also technology, EA's vice president of marketing Frank Gibeau told GameSpot today, "When everything is online, and we're going to be able to have live feeds, there's a lot of sports information content from ESPN that's really going to expand what EA Sports already does." When asked to elaborate, Gibeau declined to go into specifics, but did say, "I think you can start to think about some of the core technology capabilities that are going to come online in the next few years with portability, wireless...you can think about the live feeds that can start to come in from ESPN inside of the games." For example, "being able to set rosters based on that night's rosters, brought to you by ESPN." Gibeau also said the deal "goes upstream as well as downstream," suggesting that ESPN will gain from the alliance as well. "Being able to use our technology to help illustrate games and analysis, being able to use some of their franchises with our games as programming opportunities [also] becomes part of this deal," he said. Gibeau seemed intent on dispelling chatter that the ESPN deal means a hasty split with ABC color commentator John Madden. "If you think about the deal, it's not an inevitability that he goes away...I'm not sure where those stories are coming from," Gibeau said. "I think the simple fact is we've had a long-term, great relationship with John Madden. And he's in our games next year." The agreement announced today is for 15 years, "with an option to terminate after 10 years under certain conditions," the statement said. The agreement gives the publisher "exclusive first rights" to all ESPN content for simulation sports games. Elaborating on that first-right option, Gibeau said, "With regards to the first right of refusal, all it means is that if ESPN has a program that we're not interested in making a video game about, they have the opportunity to be able to go and figure out how to produce it, without our participation." However, Gibeau added, "The likelihood of that occurring is very low." While a 15-year term in the world of licensing is nothing new, it is unusual in the game space. "The term is really a signal and a commitment level between the two partners," Gibeau said today. "It's like saying we're going to get married without a prenup." Watch for a complete interview with Frank Gibeau, and more on the EA-ESPN marriage, tomorrow in GameSpot News.