A lot of hand-wringing is going on about EA’s monopolization of sports video games and exclusivity deal with the NFL, ESPN, and the imminent end of sports games. You’ll have to excuse me if I don’t think its time to panic yet. Now, before you label me an EA apologist or discount me as not a sports gamer, let me say that I’ve already been through this and frankly, I’m surprised it took EA this long.
EA Sports has had an exclusive license with FIFA, so that only they can make an official World Cup game, since 1998. I also think that they secured exclusive rights through FIFPro to use the names of players who are members of that union, the worldwide representative for all professional football players. EA used their exclusivity to churn out crap soccer games for the last 7 years. Crap games that sold well because most fans don’t really care about the subtleties of the game engine and how faithfully it might recreate the actual sport’s tactics, feel, and so. They sold well because they have teams and players that the average sports fan recognizes and because EA focuses heavily on presentation and eye-candy.
I honestly think EA is simply giving the majority of the market what they are asking for – most people don’t want to do a lot research to pick one baseball or football game to pick, or want to buy 3 baseball games each year. They’d rather go with a name they trust or recognize that has the teams and players they idolize.
So, is there no hope? I think there is. Around 1999, a lot of soccer fans, me included, started to get sick of EA recycling the same crap engine in the latest incarnation of FIFA. All that improved were the graphics, but obvious and subtle game flaws wouldn’t be addresses. There was a version of FIFA we’re you could take any player and use a spin move to blow by all the players between you and the goal – a guaranteed point. Around that time, Konami slowly and quietly released International Superstar Soccer. Did it have the teams and players I knew? Not really. The names of players were a little off, instead of Portugal’s Figo you might have Fijo, and so on. We’re the real teams there, not quite. Manchester United was named simply Manchester. But I thought you said the teams and players mattered. Well, I said it mattered to the average fan. For sports video game fans who care about the game engine, ISS and subsequent releases have been more faithful recreations of the sport of soccer than EA’s FIFA could ever hope to be. This game was so good that its version for the Gamecube is the sole reason why I bought the console!
Besides having a better in-game experience, Konami was smart in including facilities for editing teams, uniforms, and players within their game. So, while the game couldn’t ship with anything recognizable you could edit the teams and players to match their real life counter parts. If you’re on a PC, or maybe even a net-connected PS2 or XBox, you could save yourself the tedium of editing by downloading fan-created roster updates from the Internet. Another gripe against FIFA, the roster’s they would ship the game with were invariably out-of-date by the time the game hit store shelves. And although EA had included roster editing facilies in the game, at some point they stripped it out.
Does all this mean I think EA’s exclusivity deal is a good thing for sports video games? Not quite. I do think that it’ll lead to fewer choices in game options since the larger game distributors are not going to want to risk shipping a sports title without a license, since its a riskier proposition. I think this leaves room for other publishers who are willing to focus on in-game mechanics and include robust roster/player editing facilities to work on a game that is better than EA’s shiny, eye-candy. It may not be sell a gazillion boxes because it doesn’t have the EA hype machine behind it but if done right, there’s no reason it can’t be profitable.