Special: "What irony..."
Today's economy revolves heavily around competition, as companies relentlessly try to persuade customers to buy into their ideas and products. For the consumer, nothing but good things normally stems from this competitive cycle. But when the competition develops into eliminate the competition
, the time-tested adage ?there's an exception to every rule? proves its relevance yet again.
The deal is made
In what feels like an eternity ago, Electronic Arts and the National Football League inked a licensing agreement that would forever shape football gaming as we know it. How EA could conjure up an agreement of such immense proportions is amazing considering the NFL's insurmountable appeal here in the States. Heck, companies all over drool at the thought of shelling out gaudy amounts of revenue to score a brief advertising slot during the Super Bowl. EA actually considered pitching an exclusivity agreement years before the deal finally came to fruition in 2004. Yet it wasn't until the NFL decided to put the exclusive rights to its players, teams, and stadiums up for bid that such a deal between the two would become possible. EA's ploy seemed brilliant from a businessman's perspective, and absolutely sadistic from a consumer's perspective. The company wasn't a total monster, though, because a representative from the NFL claimed there were four other software publishers vying for the same rights--EA was just fortunate enough to land it.
Tide turns to EA's favor
At the time, 2K Sports was enjoying success with its own football game, a game that matched up pound for pound with EA's Madden series, while at the same time costing less than half the price. That's right, remember the $19.99 price tag right out the gate? Skeptics figured the unbelievably low price to be attributive to the game's quality, but many who took a chance on the bargain bin game were pleased. It was a clever way for 2K Sports to reel in longtime Madden players, which 2K figured would be enough to turn skeptics into believers. EA's Madden still had the more recognizable name and more experience in the business, but support for 2K Sports' six-year-old series steadily expanded into a larger and larger fan base during its brief lifespan. And EA was well aware of this, which surely had a hand in EA's propensity to fight so persistently for the exclusivity deal.
While the bulk of the competition with football-based games was between EA and 2K Sports, the five-year deal also meant Midway's Blitz series, as well as any other football-hopeful developers, would have to take a similar hiatus to the one 2K Sports suffered. The only other option, of course, would be to create a football game without any NFL players, teams, or stadiums--a ludicrous and nugatory option. Midway's Blitz brand, a once-popular series turned victim to the fictional player/team/league syndrome, is testament to such a theory. Sure, in the heyday of gaming, a sports title without licensing wasn't an utter disappointment but rather the norm. But it's safe to say that in this day and age, particularly with so many nitpicky, hard-to-please sports enthusiasts, heightened consumer expectations won't allow for such blasphemy, especially those games with the alleged ?simulation? label.
Consumers take the biggest hit
As Madden's football competition suddenly dwindled away, EA assumed full power over the NFL market in all software spanning across consoles, PCs, and handhelds. With all competition null and void, EA was ridden of price-matching concerns, graphical comparisons, and any other aspects that separate one developer's game from the next. Basically, EA became the only shop in town whether you were a fan or not. And its stranglehold over NFL gaming has already become apparent, with Madden's minimal and unsatisfying annual enhancements. For example, Madden's first entry on the 360 was laughable with its shoddy gameplay, horrible presentation, and fewer features than its then-current gen counterparts. In fact, to this day, NFL 2K5 boasts certain features that the current-year Madden still doesn't provide. Gang tackling, for instance, is a feature exclusive to the PS3 version, but it was also available in 2K5, a now three-year old game. Suffice it to say EA Tiburon's Madden hasn't achieved the proper integral improvements over the past couple seasons, due largely to its monopoly over the genre.
To be fair, Madden is still a fun game that manages to introduce novel ideas each year out, and EA hasn't invariably cemented its football series without a world of hard work. But it's hard to ignore this question: What if EA was still toe-to-toe with another publishing heavyweight? Surely EA's product would push 2K Sports (and any other vying companies) to dig deep in its bag of tricks, and vice versa. Tightly knit competition not only gives consumers a choice, but forces companies to pull out all the stops to convince consumers why their product will outdo the next man's. This should result in multiple high-quality games, which we all witnessed with NFL 2K5 and Madden 2005.
2K Sports not content
With the five-year bid coming to its midpoint, apparently 2K Sports is not satisfied watching from the sideline. While the licensing agreement is in effect for almost another three years, 2K Sports is currently developing a gridiron game to feature football's legends. A game based around past greats can't possibly supplant one featuring all the current superstars in the league (LaDainian Tomlinson, Terrell Owens, Peyton Manning, there's just so many stars), but it's a step in the right direction and will perhaps give EA incentive to do more with its Madden series. At the very least, it is comforting to see that 2K Sports did not have to succumb to creating a game with generic players and teams, which quite arguably would be a waste of time. Unless of course, if 2K Sports were to include a full-fledged editing system, one where players could replicate the current NFL roster through text and stat editing.
EA not entirely to blame
With EA's software at the forefront of sports gaming for so many years, the NFL- exclusive license is yet another chapter in the company's laundry list of achievements. And by all means, the purpose is not to malign Electronic Arts for a business move that many would make in a similar situation, but rather to dissuade organizations such as the NFL to ever put such a deal on the table in the first place. Unfortunately the problem reaches far beyond the NFL, which is why NCAA Football 07 is the only current college pigskin title on the market. And the NHL, believe it or not, was in a similar circumstance just last year, when EA attempted to snag yet another exclusivity agreement. Thankfully such negotiations never fully developed. But that does not prevent similar contracts from coming about, such as the MLB's decision to fork over licensing rights to 2K Sports, effectively halting EA from expanding on its solid MVP Baseball series. Call it getting back at EA
? evening the score
? or even EA's bad karma
, but no matter how you cut it 2K Sports' ?retaliation?, if you will, only exacerbates the problem, further limiting consumers' options. While not trying to make a mockery out of a serious matter, how about EA and 2K trade licenses? At least then
the developers will focus on the genre they are debatably better suited in.
Simply put, monopolies curb creativity and dissuade companies from striving for the best possible product. It is never a good thing when your options are stricken to one single choice, especially in such a broad industry as gaming, where gamers can choose among various handhelds, consoles, accessories, first-person shooters, racing games, and so on. Imagine being forced to buy a steering wheel from Company A, or a market where only Company B is allowed to issue licensed cars in its games. Where's the fun in that? Competition brings out the best in us and is the underlying gear driving this country and the world. Without it, the urgency to succeed and achieve greatness is not nearly as dire.