E3 2004: Missing in Action
By Tim Martin -- Reviews Editor
Calm down. There is no need to panic even if the football genre becomes a monopoly after EA Sports secured exclusive rights to the NFL and its players' association earlier this week. Madden football, the most popular sports video game series ever, will still produce high quality games that fly off the shelves and symbolize a pop culture icon.
But if history and current trends shine a light on what is to come, gamers might be cheated of a more innovative product because EA Sports tends to put development on proverbial cruise control when it has control over a genre. Secondarily, EA's move could have a trickle down effect because football games represent such a cornerstone of the sports gaming world. Last year, Madden was the No. 1 selling game in any platform on any console, according to a September article in The Wall Street Journal.
Just in case you missed the news earlier this week, EA Sports signed a contract that gives it the right to be the only football game on the market to have NFL players, NFL team names and NFL stadiums. Everyone else? We'll see QB #5 starring for the Philadelphia Birds square off against the New York Airplanes at Soldiers Stadium. The gameplay will remain unaffected, but to what extent the lack of licensing will drain sales remains to be seen. That said, quickly name a video game that slides by with fictional team and player names?
Take-Two spokesman Ed Nebb said in a statement used in an ESPN.com article that the move would, "do 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."
What he means is that a potential monopoly is not good for the football game industry, a rule that applies to any industry if you think about it. Whether you are a Madden or an ESPN Football 2k5 fan, you should have some skepticism of what the future might hold. At issue is the simple rule of competition - most people/businesses/entities will perform when someone else is, too. What NFL 2k (now called ESPN NFL after a merger) did for Madden was what Frazier did for Ali.
Let's take a look at how the Madden series was progressing before Sega Sports and its NFL 2k series hit the Dreamcast in 1999. In one word: flat.
Madden '99, released the year previous, ranks as the lowest reviewed game of the Madden series, according to Gamerankings.com. That is hard to believe considering Madden '99 was the first year to have a Franchise mode but the frustration had bubbled over the years because of a lack of improvement. The Madden series had received a jolt two years before when its chief competitor, NFL GameDay, arrived on the scene with polygon player models - instead of the customary 2-D sprite models.
Now it is a tough argument to make, suggesting that Madden was sitting on its laurels during those mid- to late-1990s because the game was still the best available. But the fact the game held back the Franchise mode and polygon graphics until '99 was a source of frustration, among other smaller items like adjustable quarter times. Why don't we deserve the best ... now, gamers wondered. A feeling of Madden ho-humness or sandbagging was prevalent back then.
Those points sounds nitpicky but the way EA dealt with its first serious contender - NFL 2k - provided a case study of how explosively phenomenal Madden could be. After NFL 2k shocked the sports gaming world, Madden responded with a homerun effort in its inaugural version on the PS2. Gamers and critics alike at that moment braced for a 128-bit, virtual Cold War, Madden on the PS2 and NFL 2k on the Dreamcast.
The best part was the two games striving to one-up each other. NFL 2k was the first to have online play, player speech and the first to do play-by-play commentary well. Madden face-mapped coaches and touted a Matrix-like replay system. Each countered the other similar to how two suburban neighbors might build additions to the house, buy bigger cars, fertilize greener lawns. Arguably, fall of 2000 netted the greatest season for video game football, with NFL 2k1 (considered by many critics as the greatest football game ever) and the first PS2 Madden.
The football renaissance was short lived. Sega announced the Dreamcast would have no further games released in 2001, but exciting news surfaced: Sega Sports and the NFL 2k series would jump to the PS2 and Xbox. The two games now shared a stomping ground.
And Madden prevailed.
Madden had a well-established relationship with the Playstation 2/Xbox crowd, who were accustomed to a blitz 'em all day, bomb it all night type of game style that varied from the slower pace of the NFL 2k series. The gamers were used to a certain button configuration, a certain look. The critics, however, disagreed. NFL 2k2 and NFL 2k3 generally fetched reviews at least as favorable Madden, if not better. It was like the Apple versus PC debate. Sega Sports, NFL 2k remained in the background with an almost underground following. Sales lagged, and it soon became apparent Madden had a Bill Gates-like stranglehold on the market.
The writing was on the wall: Sega Sports was hurting. First came the merger with ESPN, a move the company hoped would bring a mainstream audience. Next came the price cut, from $49.99 to $19.99. Neither helped. And now with EA's recent move, the game's fate seems all but sealed. ESPN Videogames is mulling over their possible options, but it might be a wise move to mimic Acclaim (All-Star Baseball) or Konami (Winning Eleven soccer), companies that specialize in one sport. ESPN's successful basketball game compares more favorably in sales with NBA Live than NFL 2k did with Madden, which is a series, a name that is synonymous with video games.
Tremors will be felt throughout the sports gaming industry because the football genre will be cornered completely by EA Sports (remember NCAA Football has no competitor, either). Football is a passion of American society and a cash cow for game companies. According to a recent study, Americans favor football to baseball by a 2-to-1 margin. Madden, according to the Wall Street Journal article, accounts for 5 to 10 percent of Electronic Arts total sales (note it's not EA Sports but EA, the company that sells The Sims, The Lord of the Rings and the EA Big games).
If the sports gaming world were a dinner plate, football would be the entrée, baseball and basketball would be the side dishes. Soccer might be the appetizer or desert. Hockey would be the small mint after the meal. To what extent the other companies survive after EA has swooped in and taken the filet mignon is yet to be seen. Will the other companies see it profitable to be left with leftovers? The day ESPN Videogames/Sega Sports raises the white flag will be a sad, sad day for the sports gaming world because, despite its mediocre net sales, it raised the quality level across the board by providing an alternative. You should think that way regardless if you are an ESPN or Madden fanboy.
Maybe the strongest argument for a bustling market is the baseball genre, which this year had four games that were all solid if not spectacular. And this was a year when 3DO's gem High Heat Baseball took the year off to specialize for next year's Xbox version. The games - EA Sports' MVP Baseball; Acclaim's All-Star Baseball; ESPN Videogames' Baseball 2k5; 989 Sports' MLB 2005 - represented the strongest crop of games the genre has ever seen. But that renaissance has only surfaced after All-Star Baseball ported from the Nintendo 64, ESPN (then called World Series Baseball) from the Dreamcast and High Heat from the PC. In the late 1990s, the two games were 989's MLB series and EA Sports' Triple Play Baseball, a series that was so God-awful the company changed its name to MVP at a time when those games were infiltrating the Xbox and PS2. There were potential sales to be lost.
And now, that invisible economic incentive appears to be leaving the football genre. Surely, the EA Sports/Madden people will say the game will still be as cutting edge, as avant-garde as they used to be, but why should we believe them? Look at Madden, at Triple Play Baseball. They may have still been the best games in the genre but look at the competition? Tecmo Super Baseball could have beat out 989's MLB some of those late-1990's years.
The question is: Will EA Sports hold back some of the juiciest gameplay or game feature additions now that it knows it has an automatic sales base?
EA has exclusive contracts with FIFA, the PGA Tour and NASCAR, according to the ESPN.com article. Also, with no competition, EA has the monopoly in college football. Well, how have those games progressed in recent years? One year after NCAA Football 2004 was the game of the year (even over Madden, ESPN NFL), this year's game felt like 2004 with a roster update and a few aesthetic touches. When was the last great FIFA game? Has the Tiger Woods series done anything to reach the gameplay depth and realism of Sierra's now-defunct PGA Championship Golf, other than add more exploding golf balls? Can you even name a recent NASCAR game?
Madden will not fall into such obscurity. There's too much of a fan base, too many of EA's resources pooled into the game's production. But what game company will come around to once again push Madden to unprecedented limits? Who can? That is a question that needs to be answered.
Not just for us, the gamers, but for them.