SBJ/May 2-8, 2011/Media

Four leave EA's 'Madden' studio for startup

At least four senior staffers have left EA Sports’ Tiburon development studio in Orlando, production site for “NFL Madden” and several other prominent video game titles, to join Row Sham Bow, an online gaming startup founded by former company executive Philip Holt.

Holt, who was Tiburon’s general manager until January, is building a non-sports gaming outfit “focused on direct-to-consumer platforms” such as Facebook and other social networks. Joining him in recent weeks from EA Sports have been Ian Cummings, “Madden” creative director and one of the more prominent public faces of the franchise; EA Sports chief technical officer Richard Wifall; software engineer Christopher Staymates; and chief software architect Nick Gonzalez. Row Sham Bow ultimately plans to expand to 60 employees.

“Our focus is on an entirely different demographic and set of platforms than those that constitute EA Sports’ primary business,” Holt said.

EA Sports executives branded the personnel shifts part of normal industry attrition, and several key “Madden” developers at Tiburon remain in place, including longtime executive producer Phil Frazier.

“The [gaming] community was shocked” by the executive departures, said Cris Benson, operator of The Fantasy Football Informer, a football fan blog focused on gaming. “However, most ‘Madden’ fans felt that the departure of Cummings could open the door to a new creative perspective.”

NFL executives said they have been notified of the personnel moves.

“We are aware of the changes,” said league spokesman Greg Aiello. “EA has been and will continue to be a great partner of the NFL,” he said, adding that the league has had no contact with Holt’s new company.

The moves come as part of an unusually frenetic period of activity for the “Madden” game, still nearly four months away from retail release. EA Sports last month shifted its traditional “Madden” release date of the second Tuesday of August to Aug. 30, a move the company positioned as an attempt to more closely align with the scheduled Sept. 8 start of the 2011 NFL season, should it begin on time.

EA Sports for months has steadfastly insisted that it will plow ahead with full development and marketing activities for “Madden” despite the NFL labor dispute. If there is no new labor deal by the time of the game’s release, however, industry analysts have predicted sales of “Madden,” which traditionally have surpassed 5 million, could drop by at least half.

Cleveland Browns running back Peyton Hillis last week won a spirited online fan vote to be this year’s “Madden” cover athlete. The monthlong promotion, representing a marked expansion from a more limited fan voting initiative last year, drew nearly 13 million votes.

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