All Your History: EA Sports Part 3 – Getting in the Game
John Madden Football was released for the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo consoles in 1990, becoming a smash hit for publisher Electronic Arts. Over the next few years, their output of sports video games went from a trickle to a flood. Capitalizing on Madden’s success, EA launched new franchises for just about every sport imaginable. In fact, the company published so many sports games that they couldn’t be contained by Electronic Arts alone. EA unified their sports titles by taking their cues from television…and created an entire network…
Getting in the Game
The Electronic Arts Sports Network—or EASN—unified all of the company’s sports titles, its logo beginning to appear on game boxes in 1991. EA founder Trip Hawkins explained the rationale behind the new label in an exclusive e-mail interview with Machinima. According to Hawkins, while televised sports copied video games’ practice of displaying scores on the screen, the EASN was a case of video games aping TV’s conventions:
“[Producers] Don Traeger and Michael Kosaka were doing team basketball, such as Lakers vs. Celtics, and thought that since they had to present the teams and players and stats to start up a game, why not have it done by a fictional sports announcer for a fictional sports broadcasting network? Electronic Arts Sports Network was the obvious name to use.
It was an obviously good idea, so all the other sports projects adopted EASN, and after a while it became the wrapper around other common brand elements that were shared by the sports games, and a sub-brand to EA emerged. […]
Along the way it became obvious that all the sports games had this EASN thing in common and it had a good visual feeling, and it moved to the front of the box and became the overall product line branding for sports. It later became EA Sports because ESPN was jealous and offered a lot of free TV ads if we would change it—so we did.”
In an e-mail interview with Machinima, Bing Gordon, EA’s marketing director at the time, also shared his recollection of the EASN’s inception back in 1991:
“Michael Kosaka, the designer on Skate or Die and Budokan, was art director for Lakers Versus Celtics, produced by Don Traeger. Goofing around, he created a title screen with EASN logo banded diagonally across the screen. He asked Traeger what he thought, and Traeger asked [art director] Don Transeth. They all loved it. So after much internal discussion, we finally went with it.”
Along with its new logo, the brand had a memorable tagline: “If it’s in the game, it’s in the game.” And for more than two decades, EA Sports has lived up to that boast, releasing titles and franchises that simulated just about every sport fans could expect—and even a few that they wouldn’t.
In August of 1991, EA partnered with Park Place Productions—the developers behind the first 16-bit version of John Madden Football—to release NHL Hockey for the Sega Genesis. The game featured the National Hockey League’s license, meaning that gamers could take control of actual professional teams and players on a quest for the Stanley Cup. Best of all for hockey fans, the game featured honest-to-goodness mid-game brawls. The series grew in popularity, and has remained an EA Sports mainstay with new installments on every generation of consoles each year. The NHL Hockey franchise was even featured in a few films in the ‘90s, making appearances in Swingers and Mallrats, and cementing EA Sports’ reputation as the industry standard for sports video games.
In 1992, EA released their first 16-bit golf game, PGA Tour Golf II for the Genesis. The first game in the series had first been released two years earlier for MS-DOS based computers, with ports to the Genesis, Super Nintendo, Mac, and Amiga computers coming in 1991. Developed by Polygames, PGA Tour Golf II offered 60 pro-golfers, high-quality graphics and sound, and detailed stats and ball-physics. This title officially launched EA’s yearly golf franchise that, in 1999, became the Tiger Woods PGA Tour series.
Meanwhile, EA had continued to publish basketball games, the first sport the company had tackled way back in 1983’s Julius Erving & Larry Bird: One on One. In 1989, EA began publishing titles based on the previous year’s post-season match-ups, starting with Lakers Versus Celtics and the NBA Playoffs. Even with the NBA license, the games in the Versus series only offered a limited number of teams, restricted to the eight that had vied for the championship. After porting Lakers Versus Celtics to the Genesis in 1991, EA released Bulls Versus Lakers in 1992, and Bulls Versus Blazers in 1993.
That same year, the company released the final game to use the Versus engine, NBA Showdown for the Super Nintendo, with a Genesis port in 1994. This was the first EA-published game to feature all 27 NBA teams, and also allowed gamers to play full seasons. A year later in 1994, EA Sports released NBA Live ’95 for the Genesis and Super Nintendo, which was built on a brand new engine, and became EA Sports’ default basketball brand ever since.
EA Sports also broadened their offerings to appeal to gamers globally, releasing FIFA International Soccer in 1993 for all major consoles. As the first soccer game to utilize the FIFA license, soccer fans the world over finally had the chance to take to the pitch in control of their favorite players. While the FIFA franchise has chugged along with new installments every year, in 1998, EA released a stand-alone game based on FIFA’s World Cup tournament for the PlayStation and Nintendo 64 consoles. Like the yearly FIFA games, EA has released a new World Cup game to coincide with the tournament every four years. EA also began publishing games based on the European UEFA tournament, starting in 2000.
Finding success with gamers outside of the US, EA continued creating games based on sports with international followings. In 1994, they released IMG International Tour Tennis, with Rugby World Cup and Australian Rugby League published the same year. In 1995, the company dabbled in games simulating baseball’s ancestor, releasing Cricket 96 for MS-DOS computers.
Speaking of baseball, one of the franchises that helped pave the way for EA Sports had quietly died an inglorious death. Earl Weaver Baseball, the groundbreaking baseball sim created by Don Daglow and Eddie Dombrower, was planned to be released as Baseball ’93 for the Genesis, but wound up getting axed. Ernest Adams was hired by EA in 1992 as a software engineer for the title, and explains in an exclusive e-mail interview with Machinima why gamers never heard from Coach Weaver again. According to Adams, the marketing department didn’t think Weaver had much pull as a brand name anymore, and issues with the game’s programming compounded the problem:
“The Weaver code was, in my opinion, the most sophisticated baseball simulation available—better than any of its competition at generating credible baseball statistics for simulated games. But it was an aficionado’s game, not an arcade game. I also think it would have been difficult to port it—since it was written in C—to the Genesis. It would have required a complete rewrite, and the point of Baseball ’93 was to springboard off the existing code base, thus saving a lot of time and money.”
But programming and marketing issues weren’t the only factors that led to the game’s demise. The company’s founder, Trip Hawkins, was making moves that would lead to his eventual departure from EA entirely:
“Trip Hawkins was off making a new machine at his secret company, the San Mateo Software Group, later named 3DO. Madden was very much the flagship title even then, and EA had promised to put it on the 3DO Multiplayer. So [producer] Scott Orr knew he was going to have to support the 3DO with Madden. He didn’t actually want to; he felt—rightly, as it turned out—that the 3DO wouldn’t make a fraction of the money that the SNES and Genesis did, but he had no choice.
I had written some comments on Eddie Dombrower’s design for Baseball ’93, and I also had experience at designing for CD-ROM-based devices from my previous job, so Scott asked me if I would design Madden for the 3DO—the first CD-ROM based Madden. So I dropped Baseball ’93 and moved to Madden 3DO… and became a game designer along the way.”
America’s pastime would eventually get its due in 1994’s MLBPA Baseball, but the Madden football franchise became the jewel in EA Sports’ crown, finally gaining the NFL license in 1994. That year, EA published Madden NFL ’94, the first Madden game to feature real teams. The next year’s Madden NFL ’95 had snagged the license of the NFL Players Association, finally bringing the names of actual pro-football stars to the franchise. The Madden brand grew each year, setting the standard for football video games across the industry. But in 2004, EA went from making the best football game in town, to making the only football game in town…
Tune in next time to see the NFL license go from elusive to exclusive…