At The Heart Of The Maelstrom
Next Tuesday, the fourteenth iteration of EA Sports’ “Madden” football arrives in stores – the first salvo fired this fall in a high-stakes battle fought annually by behemoths of the interactive entertainment industry: Electronic Arts, Sega and Microsoft, among others.
The battlegrounds: over forty million PlayStations, Xboxes and GameCubes worldwide.
At stake: Nearly two billion dollars.
According to the NPD Group, $5.5 billion dollars were spent on games for home systems. Sports titles (including racing) accounted for over 36 percent of all console spending in 2002.*
That percentage is higher than any other genre of games by at least ten percent.
Sports games are the surest bet in the interactive entertainment industry. The leagues that they digitally portray do a fine job of marketing themselves, building interest in the video game versions. They’re released every year like clockwork, with only tweaks and relatively minor additions for the prior year – a far cry from developing a title from scratch in the hopes it becomes a runaway hit. The end result? With a known commodity in high demand, the release dates of major sports titles become unofficial holidays for game retailers, with weekly sales numbers on a single title occasionally surpassing a normal week’s entire sales for dedicated shops.
Fans of the games often follow “their” titles (and brands) with nearly religious fervor. Chip Lange, EA’s vice-president of marketing, was quoted in Kiplinger’s this July when he explained this behavior – a boon to his company – quite succinctly: "EA Sports is as much a culture as it is a product."
Electronic Arts has sports gaming down to a science.
MTV is currently airing a special detailing the behind-the-scenes experience that is “Madden” – how it’s made, and it’s relevance to the “MTV generation”.
The game is in its fourteenth year – long enough for many gamers to think of John Madden as the TV/video game shill, and be completely unaware of his history as the legendary Super Bowl-winning coach of the Oakland Raiders.
Madden – the man and the game – became a pop-culture icon, and made Electronic Arts the undisputed king of sports gaming.
Nevertheless, with this much money on the line, there’s no shortage of contenders for the crown – but how can they possibly combat EA Sports’ dominance in the marketplace?
Sega Sports has been trying for five years now. Visual Concepts has been developing sports titles for Sega, and has garnered numerous plaudits for its innovative titles.
Nevertheless, Steve Raab, senior vice-president of marketing for Visual Concepts, illustrated the difficulty of dealing with the juggernaut that is EA. "There are lots of examples of technically superior products that are not necessarily the most commercially successful," he said. "It's great if the consumer tells you it's great."*
Since Sega hasn’t yet developed a “culture” for its products, they’ve done the next best thing – they’ve adopted one.
ESPN is the largest and most successful sports network on the planet, and since its launch in 1979, the Disney-owned conglomerate has become nearly synonymous with sports in America. This year, Sega and ESPN have fully partnered - to the extent of renaming Sega’s sports titles with the ESPN moniker, and fully utilizing their inimitable style and on-air talent. The hope is that ESPN’s pull with sports viewers translates to better sales numbers for Sega.
For this battle is fought not only on the console itself – but on television, radio and in print, as well.
Nestled within the rolling hills of Redmond, Washington, the world’s most influential company plans its own strategy.
Microsoft made a splash with its Xbox console two years ago. Despite many estimates to the contrary, the Xbox has succeeded in the American marketplace, but it still trails far behind Sony’s PlayStation 2 in its user base. While it’s not realistic to expect the Xbox to catch the PS2 anytime in the foreseeable future, it does have room to grow. Like Sony and Nintendo before them, Microsoft turned to exclusive titles - knowing that an outstanding exclusive can dramatically increase hardware sales. Microsoft scored big with “Halo”, and now they’re taking another approach – sports games.
Microsoft Game Studios’ initial sports releases were met with mixed reviews. Since then, they’ve been working to improve the titles, and they now believe they have an ace in the hole – the wildly successful “Xbox Live”.
Microsoft’s “XSN Sports” initiative launches this month with “NFL Fever”, and will carry over to five other titles in 2003 – covering the sports of hockey, basketball, golf, tennis and snowboarding.
A dynamic confluence of console and PC interfaces; XSN promises to change the way people think about sports video gaming, and gaming on the Xbox in particular.
For the battle will also be fought across the digital landscape of the Internet.
Electronic Arts’ generals have already made their countermoves. No EA Sports title will be online this year for the Xbox, the end result of a battle of wills and dollars with the Redmond leviathan. Their answer to Microsoft’s “XSN”, “EA Sports Online”, is running right now on the PlayStation 2 with “NCAA Football 2004” (a title so dominant for EA that only Sony’s 989 Sports dares challenge them with a competing product), and will support the line of EA Sports titles released in 2003. In contrast, Sega intends to support online play on both the PlayStation2 and Xbox – keeping in step with their “platform-agnostic” software strategy formulated after the failure of Sega’s touted Dreamcast system.
The comparative qualities of the games themselves have now become only a part of the equation in this ever-expanding battle. Where that will lead to in the future is anybody’s guess.
Here’s hoping that with all the riches available to these companies, that they don’t lose sight of what brought them their fortunes – providing their customers with the most enjoyable game experience available.
Then again, there may be no need to trust to hope – for the decision will be made this year as it has been in every preceding one– by you and your wallet.