SBJ/Jan. 31-Feb. 6, 2011/In Depth

EA Sports vows to press on with 'Madden' release

Regardless of the NFL’s labor landscape, EA Sports in August will release “Madden NFL 12,” the latest version of its iconic football video game, just as it does each year. But what the game will include specifically, and how it will be marketed, each stand as significant unknowns.

More than 20 years after its first release, “Madden” remains a dominant force in sports video gaming, with sales of “Madden NFL 11” last year surpassing 5 million units. The total was tops among all sports titles in the U.S. for 2010 and second-best in the entire video game industry behind only first-person shooter game “Call Of Duty: Black Ops.”

The August release each year of “Madden” is also heralded with a major promotional event, such as last summer’s “MaddenGras” festival in New Orleans that tied in with the Saints’ Super Bowl XLIV victory and quarterback Drew Brees’ turn as the game’s cover athlete.

This time around, EA Sports, the NFL and NFLPA have stayed tight-lipped about what their contingency plans are, if any, for the game if a lockout is in place come August. The video game publisher holds licenses with both the league and union to make Madden with a full suite of player, logo and uniform rights that remain intact and extend through the 2012 season.

But it is unknown whether EA Sports will attempt another aggressive blitz of promotional activity this summer. Also unknown are the exact play features of the forthcoming game and how roster updates will be handled in the absence of real NFL contests.

“Fans of ‘Madden NFL’ will not have their seasons interrupted regardless of when the labor issues are resolved,” EA Sports said in a statement. “EA Sports will release ‘Madden NFL’ in August, complete with exciting new features and product innovation that will allow NFL fans to fill their desire for football.”

There is precedent for leagues and their video game licensee partners to release games into a turbulent labor environment. In September 2004, with the NHL locking players out, video game partners ESPN Video Games and EA Sports released “NHL 2K5” and “NHL05,” respectively. The hockey game sales, however, were and still are a mere fraction compared with what “Madden” posts each year.

“This is a completely fluid situation, so I’m going to give you a completely fluid projection: If there are no NFL games lost, the impact on ‘Madden’ is likely infinitesimal, probably no impact on sales. But if the season is lost, you’re probably looking at a huge impact, probably at least a 50 percent drop in sales,” said Michael Pachter, video game industry analyst for Wedbush Morgan Securities and one of the most prominent voices in the industry.

Pachter added that EA Sports’ licensing fees to the NFL and NFLPA, estimated at well into eight figures each year, would likely be lessened in the event of a lost season or other significant reduction to the 2011 NFL season.

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