SBJ/January 9 - 15, 2006/Other News

EA takes a swing at college baseball

In the seven-plus months since Jon Robinson first alerted his readers about the development of a college baseball video game, he has received dozens of e-mails about it.

EA has priced the game at $29.99 to
encourage people to try it out.

Fans, players, alumni and others have asked Robinson, who writes for IGN Entertainment, a leading gamers’ source, about the industry’s first foray into the sport.

“We get more e-mails about this than any other sport,” said Robinson, editor of IGN Sports. “People are really curious about this title.”

Electronic Arts is banking on that curiosity. With the release of MVP 06 NCAA Baseball next week, the Redwood City, Calif., company is introducing several features to sports video games — many of which were expensive and time-consuming to develop.

That EA chose a college baseball game to launch these features, including a highly touted ESPN Integration package that is part of an exclusive deal with the sports network, is a gamble.

“The guys at EA are making a bet,” said Geoff Reiss, ESPN’s senior vice president for consumer products, “that baseball gamers are going to be really entertained” by the game.

EA makes several sports video games, including the top-selling Madden NFL series, but the company recently lost the rights to Major League Baseball. In response, EA produced the first college baseball game, said EA Sports publicist Jen Riley.

The game will be available in stores for $29.99 on Jan. 18, two months before the rollout of 2K Sports’ Major League Baseball 2K6.

EA set the retail price low “to get people to give this a try,” Riley said. “That is not at all reflective of it not being a premium product. MVP still is the best baseball game on the market — college or not.”

EA may have had other motives in releasing NCAA Baseball this early, a move that surprised industry insiders, Robinson said. “EA was really pissed off when they lost the MLB license,” he said. “This is their way to get back at everybody.”

But price and timing will only sell so many copies. EA also has incorporated new features into NCAA Baseball to enhance gameplay from its old MVP pro baseball series, such as interactive load and fire batting and precision throw control, customized stadiums and an exclusive deal with Victory Records, a leading independent label that will provide alternative-themed music.

The game’s top new draw, experts said, is ESPN Integration. It will be the first game to feature this package, which includes a live ESPN ticker, ESPN Radio updates and a portal to read reports. (Two other upcoming EA games, Fight Night Round 3 and NFL Head Coach, will also have ESPN Integration, as part of a 15-year deal signed recently by ESPN and EA, former video game rivals).

“This is revolutionary in the world of sports gaming,” Riley said. “We really wanted to bring a new kind of experience to video gamers,” Reiss said. “The next big idea in video games is online network play. We really want to take advantage of that.”

Including ESPN Integration should enhance sales for NCAA Baseball, Riley and Reiss said. “We’re talking about a title that would have had a more challenging time generating this amount of interest,” Reiss said, “if yesterday’s approach had been taken to it.”

Riley and Reiss declined to predict sales figures for NCAA Baseball. Robinson thinks it should sell 300,000 to 500,000 copies combined for the Xbox and PlayStation 2.

It is not available for the new Xbox 360. EA has developed only five titles for that console, going with traditionally popular games. That does not reflect a lack of confidence in NCAA Baseball, Riley said.

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