SBJ/20090727/SBJ In-Depth

No licensing deal, no problem for publishers of these video game titles

Quick Hit Inc., a Massachusetts-based startup developing an online video football game, doesn’t have a huge marketing budget, an established legacy among gamers or, perhaps most pertinently, a licensing deal with the NFL or players’ union.

And that suits the company just fine.

“Would I like to have a license? Sure, who wouldn’t? But that’s probably not going to happen,” said Jeff Anderson, Quick Hit chief executive, referring to the exclusive deal EA Sports holds with the league and union for “Madden NFL.” “But necessity is the mother of invention, and not having a license is definitely not the end of the world. We’ve constructed a very different experience and one we believe will resonate.”

Midway’s “Blitz” football game is among the
unlicensed titles to enjoy a strong following.

The Quick Hit game, due to launch online in September, is a free, ad-supported game that seeks to provide a strong depth of football realism and easy-to-navigate play, though without any official player and team names. Rather, players will name their own squads, just as they would for a fantasy team. The company, formerly Play Hard Sports, has been buttressed by $13 million in venture capital financing and involvement from former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher.

The game is just one of a growing number of sports titles now entering the market without licensing deals with sports leagues and their players’ unions. Taking a cue in part from massively multiplayer online (MMO) games highly popular in Europe and Asia, the emerging titles without licensed intellectual property seek to succeed on a smaller economic model while still challenging their larger competitors.

Among the other recent unlicensed entrants finding broad audiences are “Freestyle,” an online multiplayer street basketball game from South Korean developer JC Entertainment Corp. recently released in North America, and Midway’s “Blitz” football game. The “Blitz” brand garnered a sequel release last year and involved a writer from ESPN’s much-discussed “Playmakers” series and former NFL player Lawrence Taylor. The title, along with numerous other company assets, was recently sold to Warner Bros. Entertainment as part of Midway’s ongoing bankruptcy proceedings, and its long-term direction is unknown.

The ad-supported Quick Hit football game will launch
online in September.

EA Sports, a target of many independent game publishers given its dominant position within sports gaming, now ironically finds itself in a somewhat similar situation with the development of its mixed martial arts title, slated for release next year. The company does not have a licensing deal with UFC, the sport’s dominant entity, and is now in a war of words with UFC President Dana White over what White perceives as duplicity in EA’s intentions for MMA gaming, a charge the company strongly denies.

EA is pursuing licensing deals with individual fighters, each of whom risks being blacklisted within UFC.

“IP helps you break through the clutter and rise to the top, but having it is not an excuse for making a bad game. You still have to deliver,” said Peter Moore, EA Sports president.

Anderson likens the interplay between licensed and unlicensed games to the relationship between TV and movies.

“We compete with ‘Madden’ but we also don’t,” he said. “We’re both football games, so there’s an obvious intersection there, but ‘Madden’ is akin to going to the movies. It’s an investment, both in terms of time and money, and you have to sort of commit to it. We’re more like TV. We’re there, immediately accessible, a lot quicker to play, and so it becomes a very different thing.”

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