SBJ/May 22 - 28, 2006/This Weeks News

EA aims ‘NFL Head Coach’ at new demo

EA Sports believes it has a new hit on its hands with the forthcoming debut of “NFL Head Coach,” its new football strategy game that expands its exclusive relationship with the NFL, and one it hopes will develop a new audience and demographic to its mix of game players.

If that belief is proved correct, the timing could hardly be better.

As the video game industry goes through a complex and often painful transition to the next generation of gaming consoles, and EA bleeds higher-than-expected levels of red ink, “NFL Head Coach” occupies an important place for the company. The basic concept of the game — making players the head coach of an NFL team and requiring them to manage everything from salary caps to game planning and motivational strategies for the club — shifts away from reactive, twitch-based games that have been the life-force for the entire industry for years.

As a result, “NFL Head Coach,” set to hit the street on June 20, will be marketed to older video game players, fantasy football fans and general sports fans who have felt isolated from the often-insular world of video games.

“We certainly would like this to be a strong title for us, and we’re hopeful,” said Todd Sitrin, vice president of marketing for EA Tiburon, the development arm of EA Sports that produced “NFL Head Coach.” “There’s a whole group of people out there who aren’t comfortable with controllers, feel those type of games have grown too difficult, but have a skill and passion for football. … Strategy titles have been out there in video games, but in sports, it’s been much more of a basic spreadsheet thing.”

Part of the game’s immersion will include a graphic presentation not unlike “Madden NFL,” but also include developing playbooks, managing a staff of assistants, and scouting opponents. In games, plays can be called using a voice-activated headset, again moving away from game-pad play.

The title also reflects EA’s partnership with ESPN, with network talent such as Mel Kiper Jr. and Trey Wingo appearing in the game.

To be certain, EA is not placing all its bets on “NFL Head Coach,” and the game wasn’t featured at this month’s Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, the key annual gathering for the industry. Rather, EA concentrated on displaying demos of established hits such as “Madden NFL” for the forthcoming PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii consoles that dominated industry buzz at the event.

The company needs good news, though, creating an opening for the game. Electronic Arts, which counts EA Sports as one of its brands, earlier this month reported a $16 million loss for its fiscal quarter ended March 31, prompting a 7 percent drop in its stock value and signaling the likelihood of a third straight year of declining profits. As of May 17, shares had yet to show any meaningful recovery, trading near 52-week lows. Electronic Arts also projects industrywide video game sales to be flat at best this year, and possibly down by several percentage points.

“NFL Head Coach,” however, presents an opportunity to broaden the company’s marketing. While placement of ads will not differ significantly from its other games such as “Madden NFL,” the messaging will veer sharply from graphic enhancements and other additions targeted to hard-core video gamers and instead will sell the simpler notion of going beyond being a Monday Morning Quarterback.

“We’re very enthused on what this game can be,” said Gene Goldberg, NFL vice president of consumer products. “Everybody likes to say they could have done a better job than the coach of their team. This is their chance to finally prove it.”

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