Rapid Fire: Money Talks

Money Talks.

You realize this when you see your bosses at work get paid double your salary to browse the Internet and talk on the phone. You realize this every time you see Paris Hilton on the cover of a supermarket tabloid. You realize this each day when some rich guy driving a BMW cuts in front of you without giving a wave of thanks. In each instance, you get angry. What gives these people the right to do these things? After all, they’re no better than you or I just because they have money, right? Right?!?

Why do these people live by a different set of rules? Because Money Talks.

Now, many gamers have blasted EA’s purchase of the NFL’s exclusive license, ensuring that Madden will be the only game in town in 2005. These gamers have every right do so. Do they have a point? Sure. Will it change anything? Of course not.

There are a few major points that factor into the general opinion of this move. People are quite divided – the Madden fans don’t really care, while people who supported ESPN are furious. There’s no middle ground here. Some people will never play a Madden game ever again, while some will buy next year’s version like nothing ever happened.

If you’re on the fence, consider these points. And don’t feel bad if you decide you’d like to see how Madden 2006 turns out.

The NFL Loves Exclusive Deals. This is nothing new; frankly, it’s surprising it took this long for the NFL’s policy du jour to reach the video game market. This is the NFL’s way of saturating the market while simultaneously keeping it obscured. As a result, the license has immeasurable value.

Those who have followed the NFL over the years have seen the proliferation of exclusive partnerships similar to the one the NFL now has with EA. Direct TV, Sirius Satellite Radio, and Reebok are just a few big-name companies that the NFL grants their license to on an exclusive basis. If you want NFL Sunday Ticket, your local digital cable package won’t cut it. If you want a replica Ben Roethlisberger jersey, it’ll be a Reebok jersey or it won’t have the NFL logo. And if you want to hear the opposing team’s announcers before hearing them give touchdown calls on “Inside The NFL”, you’d better have Sirius Satellite Radio.

While many people think it’s wrong for the NFL to deal with only one game publisher – after all, having three NFL games potentially means more exposure for the league – it’s just the natrual evolution of the business. Video games have now reached the point where the NFL feels that it’s worth engaging in an exclusive partnership, and perhaps that’s the most significant point of all. Unfortunately, it’s also the point that’s most lost on people.

Sega Asked For It. Maybe Sega didn’t ask EA to acquire the exclusive rights to NFL video games. But Sega obviously forced EA to make a move, and since EA had the resources, they made their shot count.

You could draw a very close parallel between EA and the New York Yankees of the late 1990’s. Unlike their modern-day counterpart, the Yankees of that era didn’t spend blindly. Instead, they bought what they needed while weakening their opponents simultaneously. After the Yankees lost to the Mariners in the 1995 playoffs, captain Don Mattingly retired. He was replaced by Tino Martinez, an integral part of the Mariners’ success that season. The Yankees picked up David Wells a year later, partially because he was a good lefty, partially because Baltimore (Wells’ team at the the time) was the Yankees’ biggest threat. The point is, while the Yankees won four out of five World Series titles between 1998 and 2000, it had less to do with a huge payroll and more to do with doing the right things to get ahead.

What is EA doing that’s so right? Well, they’ve made it clear that they didn’t get the NFL license just for the sake of doing so. They also snatched up the exclusive rights to the Arena Football League, and they didn’t do it for the sole reason of creating the perfect Arena Football game. More than anything else, the move was made to take the wind out of the sails of all their competitors in the football market.

A lot of people are disappointed by this, as it means that Sega pretty much can’t field a competitive football game in 2005. While this is true, it’s also true that EA was very smart to pick up the AFL license. Successful businesses create contingency plans which involve closing the door on their opponents. When corporations buy domain names for their websites, they don’t just buy one with their company name; instead, they buy dozens of alternate spellings, abbrevations, and different extensions. They do this not only to ensure that all bases are covered, but to keep competitors from exploiting a potentially fatal mistake.

The actions by EA in the past month were actions that the company felt it had to take in order to protect its investment in the football market. Nothing more, nothing less. And since Sega forced EA’s hand in the process, it’s tough to truly feel bad for them, as some sort of contingency plan should have been in place to prevent this from happening. After all, rumors surfaced of EA getting exclusive rights to the NFL Player’s Association back in May.

Business majors know this adage – short-sighted thinking means short-term success but long-term failure, while long-term planning results in unlimited success.

Don’t Be Fooled By The ESPN Deal. People are upset about EA’s latest acquisition, the ESPN license, but it’s not really that big of a deal if you think about it. Blame ESPN if you’re looking for someone to blame.

Why? Because while Sega was putting out games with the ESPN license, EA was advertising its own series of games all over the ESPN networks. ESPN even ran a show called the “EA Sports NFL Matchup” while it was getting millions of licensing dollars from Sega! ESPN advertised Madden a lot more than it ever advertised NFL 2K5, so EA and ESPN were already had one foot in the proverbial bed together, which made this deal something less than a surprise.

And if you were EA, why wouldn’t you make this deal? If you already have Al Michaels, John Madden, and the entire Monday Night Football crew under contract – and Monday Night Football airs on ABC, which shares its owner with ESPN – why not tie up the loose ends and just pick up ESPN’s license as well? This not only settles an extremely awkward predicament, but also provides the best possible represenation of the average NFL weekend.

If this move still troubles you, take a deep breath and calm down. Even Take-Two doesn’t care! According to spokesman Ed Nebb, “The ESPN license was principally a branding tool and as such does not have a meaningful impact on game play.” In short, there wasn’t going to be an ESPN NFL 2K6 anyway, so this is icing on the cake at best. And given the nature of the Sega-ESPN license, where it was apparently okay to sell out and bury the game with your name on it in favor of the big EA ad budget, it shouldn’t be a big issue at all. It certainly isn’t to Sega’s marketing partners.

Money Talks. And this is where you, the gamer, come in.

Put yourself in the position you were in just one year ago. You’re in either one of tho camps. You either love the Sega Sports series and despise Madden, or you love Madden and don’t even realize that there’s another football video game out there. One group, quite obviously, is larger than the other, with the latter outweighing the former by a significant margin. If you’re part of the first group, you wish you could get people to realize what they’re ignoring. if you’re part of the second group, you ignore the first group. No one’s right, and no one’s wrong.

That all changes when Sega decides to sell NFL 2K5 for $20. Now, people are suddenly jumping off the Madden Cruiser and onto the Sega bandwagon because of the price. Those who have been loyal all along welcome the newcomers, dubious intentions aside, in the hopes that this is the year when EA finally gets theirs. Hardcore EA fans are forced to take a look at the competition, and some even decide that they don’t need a second football game to make them happy. Advantage, Sega Sports. Right?

Wrong.

Turns out that in spite of the lost sales, EA still has billions of dollars to spend, and decides to make the ultimate purchase – the exclusive rights to the National Football League franchise, the National Football League Players’ Association franchise, and the Arena Football League franchise. Advantage, EA. Without question.

Now, getting back to who’s wrong and who’s right. Does EA make this move if NFL 2K5 doesn’t sell like wildfire? No. Does NFL 2K5 sell like wildfire if the price isn’t $20? No. Is the price $20 if Sega doesn’t believe the fickle-minded casual gamer will buy it just because it’s cheap? No. So, in the end, the casual gamer crowd – the same people who ignored the Sega Sports series for years until they basically gave their games away – ended up doing Sega Sports in. In other words, if you didn’t give any of the Sega Sports NFL games a chance until it became economically feasible for you to try them, you helped make this deal happen.

A lot of gamers are taking this extremely personally. Some say that it’s big business sticking it to the underdog yet again. Some hate EA to the point where they don’t see that it was a move that EA felt it just had to make due to respect for its competition. Some feel that EA won’t be motivated to put out the best possible product since it’ll sell like crazy no matter what it’s quality. And some are just kinda bummed that gaming has lost its innocence to the extent that something like this can happen.

People who subscribe to these schools of thought aren’t wrong. But the one wound that will take the most time to heal is the lack of choice gamers had just a few months ago. Let’s be honest, football gamers had it made. If you wanted an arcade-style game, you got it on in Blitz. If you wanted a very realistic title, you got ESPN NFL 2K. If you wanted to play in an online league, you took a look at Fever. And if you wanted a game that covered all bases, you got Madden. Now, no matter what your tastes are, if you want an NFL game, you must purchase Madden. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like the engine. It doesn’t matter if your favorite player is on the cover and you don’t want to jinx him by buying the game. Nothing matters anymore. In the high-stakes game of video football, it’s Madden, or it’s nothing.

If you’re okay with that, then enjoy Madden NFL 2006. If you still hate EA, then you still hate EA and nobody’s going to change your mind. But realize that the powers that be at Electronic Arts didn’t acquire the exclusive rights to the NFL license to put the screws to gamers worldwide. They did it because they felt it was the right move at the right time. Now, it’s up to EA to deliver the goods year after year. There are no more excuses left. If it’s in the NFL game, then it must truly be in the EA game. And if it’s not, let your dollar speak for you – don’t buy the game.

Money Talks. Remember that next summer.