You may or may not know that when you pick up an NFL video game for your playing enjoyment this year you have one option: EA Sports Madden NFL 11.
If you don’t enjoy it, too bad. It’s been like that for six years now and it isn’t because the Madden franchise is so great that everyone else gave up. Far from it.
At one time I lined up to buy Madden just like everyone else. The first day that it came out Madden NFL 2004 was in my hands. I brought it home, put it in my computer, and logged more hours on it than any other game to that point. I liked the game so much that I burnt the soundtrack to a CD and listened to it on the bus as I rode to and from school.
The next year when I got my Xbox, I was pumped because—let’s face it—football is one of those games that is just better on a console. I was all excited for Madden NFL 2005. It was going to be the best game ever. How could it not be? It’s Madden. The games have been around forever; of course they’re the best. What’s this other game? ESPN? They aren’t a video game company. Madden 2005 even has Ray Lewis on the cover, he’s one of my least favorite players, I’ll buy the game, he’ll be cursed and the Steelers will go all the way. What’s not to like?
Then one day for no apparent reason I decided to take a step back and actually compare Madden NFL 2005 and ESPN NFL 2K5. I read previews, I watched videos, I talked to other gamers, and I realized… Madden wasn’t the best of the two. ESPN’s game looked to be superior. They hadn’t been around forever, only a few seasons, but they were quickly gaining ground on Madden. Reviews from each successive year were getting closer together, this could be the year; they could take down Madden.
Now I’m beating back Madden fanboys on forums with both of my hands. How could they not see it?
June 9, 2004: Huge rumors start flying. ESPN NFL 2K5 is listed with a price of $19.95. If you don’t remember, the standard games back then cost $50. The rumors are confirmed and me and my buddies who are hyping up for 2K5 go nuts because we all have an extra $30 now.
EA eventually reduced Madden’s price to $29.95, but ESPN was still able to “st[eal] a respectable chunk of EA’s Madden Football market.” American Technology Research’s PJ McNealy stated the reduced price would “likely erode additional market share from EA and Madden” in the future.
Nevertheless, the king of football games announces big news after the games are released. Madden NFL 2005 has sold a franchise record of 1.35 million copies in its first week. EA vice president of marketing Todd Sirlin said, “EA Sports has delivered the best football experiences in the market.”
Then the reviews came out.
Game Informer and Official XBox magazine picked ESPN 2K5 as the better game.
GamePro.com and IGN gave both Madden 2005 and ESPN 2K5 an Editor’s Choice Award. GameSpot gave Madden 2005 a 9.0 rating, while ESPN 2K5 received a 9.2. ESPN NFL 2K5, they wrote, had “truly blurr[ed] the line between a video game and a television broadcast.”
Madden sales dropped by 25% in September.
Things die down, people find the game that they are content with and play the heck out of it.
Then in mid-December EA Sports signed a deal with the NFL giving them exclusive rights to use NFL players, teams, and even stadiums.
“Some industry insiders speculate the exclusive deal was embraced by the NFL after it saw Take-Two lower the price of its 2K5 product earlier this year,” wrote GameSpot.
Take-Two, NFL 2K5’s publisher, responded, “an exclusive license for videogames do[es] a tremendous disservice to the consumers and sports fans whose funds ultimately support the NFL, by limiting their choices, curbing creativity and almost certainly leading to higher game prices.”
Less than a month after signing their contract with the NFL, EA Sports signed a similar contract with the AFL.
The NFL, like NASCAR before it, went for the money rather than the better quality product. And with ESPN and Take-Two out of their way EA Sports had no competition and no incentive to improve their product.
Madden NFL 2006 was released in August ’05. It cost $50.
Its reviews were lower than the year before.
In 2008 EA extended the exclusivity contract with the NFL. A few months later, Operation Sports names ESPN NFL 2K5 the Best Sports Game Ever.
Later in the year two gamers in California filed a class-action suit that states through their exclusivity contracts with the NFL, the NCAA, and the AFL, EA had created a monopoly on football video games.
The judge allowed the case to proceed, “As the court understands these allegations, interactive football software will not sell if it does not use the names, logos and other markers of teams that actually compete in the NFL… If true… this adequately alleges that there are no substitutes for interactive football software without the markers of actual teams and players.”
The case is on-going, as is EA’s stranglehold on NFL football video games.
So I hope you have fun with Madden 11—not that you have an alternative—but I won’t be buying it. That $20 is looking like one of the best purchases I’ve ever made because I still have fun with NFL 2K5.
Does the $60 they miss out on mean much to them? Probably not. Does the $300 over the past six years they’ve missed out on mean much to them? Probably not. Does the potential thousands of dollars they miss out on because I’ll never buy another EA game again mean much to them?
Is that overreacting? Maybe, but ESPN 2K5 is probably my favorite game ever. EA has deprived me from that feeling of anticipation that every sports video game fan has about what’ll be improved for next season.
EA had two options: Make a better game by using the competition to push themselves and create a truly great football experience or just eliminate the competition and keep right on making games with features like Create-A-Sign. They took the easy money, but it isn’t coming from me.