EA's NHL 06 home page sparks exclusivity confusion

[UPDATE] NHL 06 home page reveals "exclusive license" tagline; EA reps deny agreement, NHL skates around "exclusivity."

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As of late, the National Hockey League (NHL) hasn't been known for its ability to come to agreements. The league is in the midst of a lockout, with owners and players in a bitter battle over salary caps, labor issues, and contract restructuring. The standoff has melted the entire 2004-2005 NHL season, with no promise of future seasons to come.

However, the NHL may be playing a much different game off the ice...with Electronic Arts.

The Web sites for several EA Sports games indicate that a major deal could be afoot. On the Madden NFL 06 page, the words "exclusive NFL license" are listed just beneath the game's title. The same is true of the pages for two other EA-only franchises, NCAA Football and NASCAR. EA owns the exclusive rights to all these properties, meaning no other publishers can develop or publish another NFL-branded game, NCAA Football-branded game, or NASCAR-branded game.

Heading over the NBA Live 06 page, the subtext merely reads "official NBA license." Earlier this year, the NBA renewed its license with several publishers rather than granting a single company exclusivity.

Here's where it gets interesting. On the NHL 06 page, the subtext may surprise some, as it reads "exclusive license." Though the official NHL logo is missing, it appears EA may now be the sole license holder of the troubled league. If so, the deal doesn't come as a total surprise. Strike or no strike, the NHL was one of the few remaining major pro sports licenses not locked down by a publisher, since 2K Sports holds third-party rights to Major League Baseball.

If EA has indeed acquired third-party rights to the NHL license, it would mean the end of 2K Sports' critically acclaimed NHL 2K series, as well as Midway's NHL Hitz franchise. If the company has managed a lockout of first-party players as well, then Sony's Gretzky NHL series for the PlayStation 2 and PSP would go over the boards as well.

However, NHL 2K fans shouldn't throw down the gloves just yet. At this point, nothing is official. And even if EA does get the NHL license, it would not necessarily mean the end of pro hockey games, since the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) and the World Cup of Hockey are still up for grabs.

NHL 06 is scheduled for release later this year on the Xbox, PS2, GameCube, and PC.

[UPDATE] Since this story went live, EA has changed the artwork on its NHL 06 home page. The graphic now reads "official license" rather than "exclusive license" (check the above screenshot index for a comparison). Subsequent to the story going live, an EA spokesperson told GameSpot that the company does not have an exclusive licensing deal with the NHL. The NHL confirmed that an existing license with EA was in effect, but the NHL did not offer additional comments on the earlier use of the word "exclusive" by EA.

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