All Your History: EA Sports Part 5 – Overtime
Over the past three decades, Electronic Arts grew from a company that emphasized the people who made games to a publishing powerhouse whose influence can’t be ignored. Even though the EA Sports label wasn’t officially created until the ‘90s, its sports games have shaped not only Electronic Arts, but the entire video game industry itself. And just as the successful Madden NFL became the company’s flagship franchise, the NFL-exclusivity deal in 2004 became emblematic of EA’s modern public image. By paying a princely sum to keep rivals from entering the football market, EA signaled to the video game world that they would do whatever it took to take first place.
But while it may be easy to reduce EA Sports down to a single franchise, the company’s other brands have experienced their share of ups and downs on consoles—and, once again, in the courtroom…
When EA and the NFL entered into their infamous exclusive partnership, many gamers decried the way EA Sports’ most visible competitor, 2K Sports, was shut out of the football market. But just a year later, in 2005, Take-Two Interactive—the co-publisher of Visual Concepts’ 2K Sports games—signed a similar deal with Major League Baseball. The contract ensured that 2K Sports would be the exclusive third-party publisher with video game rights to the MLB license. The main difference between this deal and EA Sportso’ NFL deal, however, was that the MLB still allowed first-party publishers to pay for the MLB license.
The contract was a loss for EA—but didn’t turn out to be much of a win for 2K Sports, either. While EA Sports’ MVP Baseball franchise was killed by the deal, critics and consumers seemed to turn on 2K Games’ baseball series, with each installment’s scores failing to live up to those published before the agreement. Meanwhile, Sony took advantage of the first-party exemption, creating a brand new, PlayStation-exclusive franchise in 2006 called MLB: The Show only a year after the 2K Games’ deal. In May 2012, amid low sales and poor reception, 2K Games announced during an investor conference call that MLB 2K12 would be the final game made under their exclusive contract. In addition, a new installment in the series was absent from their 2013 schedule of games.
However, despite the apparent freeing of the license, EA Sports has yet to announce any resurrection of the MVP Baseball series, leaving fans of baseball video games wondering if they’ll ever get more time on the digital diamond outside of Sony’s consoles.
Not all of EA Sports’ struggles have been as cut and dried as their rivalry with competitors, though. In 2008, Hall-of-Famer Jim Brown kicked off what would become a string of lawsuits filed against EA Sports for their use of players’ and coaches’ likenesses in NFL and NCAA games.
For some, Electronic Arts has reached out-of-court settlements in the same way they handled the class-action lawsuit over their NFL-exclusivity contract. Others were dismissed by judges, letting EA off the hook. And still others are pending in court, such as a class-action suit filed by a group of former NCAA football and basketball players. They allege a conspiracy between EA, the NCAA, and the Collegiate Licensing Company to have players unknowingly sign away their rights to royalties for the use of their likenesses in EA’s games. In May of 2012, a federal judge rejected EA’s request to dismiss the suit. Should EA lose in court, it’s been estimated that the company could lose a billion dollars in damages.
Of course, court battles can often simply be chalked up to the costs of doing business. But some of the trials and tribulations EA Sports has faced have come from some unlikely places. The company dominated the market for golf video games once they snagged the endorsement of the sport’s biggest modern star, Tiger Woods, in 1998. Its competition fell away, and soon enough, Tiger Woods’ PGA Tour was the only serious choice for golf fans.
But after nearly a decade’s worth of great sales and no real competition to speak of, a problem arose that no one expected: one late November night in 2009, Tiger Woods’ personal life exploded across tabloid headlines when the athlete crashed his Cadillac Escalade into a fire hydrant on his own street, while questions of whether or not he suffered an assault at the hands of his wife swirled.
Reports began to circulate of Woods having had multiple extramarital affairs, and he took a brief break from playing professional golf while he sorted out his personal life. When he did return to the sport in April 2010, his performance suffered, and he’s struggled to regain his spot at the top of the game ever since.
The scandals created a PR problem for EA. Where a number of Woods’ corporate sponsors shredded their endorsement contracts, Electronic Arts announced in 2010 that they would stand by their man, keeping the golfer’s name on their games. But a year later in 2011, Woods’ image was taken off the front of the standard edition of Tiger Woods PGA Tour ’12, replaced instead with the yellow flag of the Augusta National Golf Club—a detail seized on by media outlets of the time.
EA’s press release boasted the fact that gamers could play the Augusta Masters Tournament for the first time in the franchise’s history, while the collector’s edition did offer Tiger on the cover. And as the memory of the scandals have faded, the 2012 installment of the game restored Woods to the front of the standard edition of Tiger Woods PGA Tour ’13, with the collector’s edition going with the flag.
All the while, EA Sports’ basketball series had been dribbling along steadily with new NBA Live installments every year. EA maintained a direct competition with 2K Games’ own franchise, NBA 2K, for nearly a decade. However, in late 2010, EA’s newest basketball game ran into big problems.
The development team working on the franchise had come to EA boss John Riccitello 18 months earlier, looking to completely revamp the game’s engine and controls. The result was set to be a new iteration of the franchise: NBA Elite. According to Kotaku, an early build of the game caused Riccitello to say, “This is about as much fun as I’ve ever had playing any sports game.”
Despite Riccitello’s support, the team was having trouble cramming two years of work into a little more than a year and a half. By July, EA’s management was told that Elite’s development would be a last-second buzzer-beater. But as the game approached its October 2010 release, problems began to mount. A demo was released for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in September, and it contained so many glitches that YouTube videos of the buggy animations and gameplay started to surface on the web. The game became a joke before it could even hit the market.
With roughly a week before its scheduled release date, EA benched the project. While a few copies of the game managed to find their way to stockrooms—resulting in an ultra-rare collectible for gamers—EA Sports wound up releasing their reboot of the decidedly cartoonish NBA Jam. EA hasn’t released a full NBA game since then, shooting instead for a return to form with NBA Live ’13 in October 2012.
However, not all EA Sports endeavors have met with controversy. Case in point: the company’s series of NHL games has continued its yearly releases without pause, competing directly against 2K Sports’ NHL 2K franchise for over a decade. After 2010’s NHL 2K11, which only released on the Wii and the iPhone, the 2K Sports took a one-year hiatus from the series in an effort to retool for the future. But in May 2011, 2K threw in the towel, canceling their hockey franchise, and leaving EA Sports’ series as the clear winner.
Even without competition from their biggest rival, EA has continued innovating with their NHL series. The ability to create a female player was added to the franchise for the first time in 2011’s NHL 12, while the next year’s NHL 13 features two legends of women’s Olympic hockey as playable characters: Team USA’s Angela Ruggiero and Team Canada’s Hayley Wickenheiser.
But it seems as though the final score for EA Sports is something of a tie. Pre-orders for each new Madden game have gone up 25 percent year-over-year, while EA Sports’ franchises are cash cows, continually keeping the company in the black.
On the flip-side, in March 2012, Electronic Arts earned an unfortunate distinction, being named “Worst Company in America” by readers of Consumerist.com, a not-for-profit subsidiary of Consumer Reports. EA earned over 160,000 votes to beat out Bank of America for the ignominious title.
Despite its less-than-stellar place in the hearts of gamers today, it’s impossible to deny that the company’s legacy transcends consumer satisfaction. Trip Hawkins, the man who founded the company, is satisfied that EA Sports’ games have become so iconic that a whole generation of professional athletes grew up playing them:
“I always wanted my sports games to be good training for kids that wanted to learn the sport, both as players and as potential or real coaches trying to develop new plays…it was very gratifying to see games having a professional impact. Football players or their wives would drop by the EA office to complain about their speed rating—that’s how serious it became.”
Whatever your feelings about the company, EA Sports is undoubtedly the reigning champ in the sports game business. After all, a wise man once said: “Don’t hate the player…hate the game.”