EA Puts it "In the Game"

To call the EA Sports franchise a juggernaut is an understatement. For over ten years, EA has been consistently building this business into the crown jewel of its vast array of gaming franchises. A crucial date in the history of EA Sports is certainly 1986, when Trip Hawkins and the EA development team approached ex-Raiders coach, and TV football analyst John Madden, with the idea of making an interactive football game. Madden bought into the plan, but only with the stipulation that the games stress realism in gameplay and design over the more traditional "arcade"-style play that had been a staple of gaming in the past.


Are you ready for some football?!
The result was John Madden Football, published for the Apple II computer in 1989. The game featured 11 player teams, real player stats, and authentic plays. The following year, John Madden made his way to the Sega Genesis with the eponymous John Madden Football. That successful launch was followed up in 1991 by John Madden Football II. This version, created for DOS featured gorgeous VGA graphics and enhanced AI, and some diehards still claim this was the best Madden ever.

Unfortunately for EA, though, Madden's push for realism in the games had created a dilemma. A "realistic" sports game should reflect the seasonal evolution of the sport. After all, what's the use of playing a football game in 1993 that doesn't have Emmitt Smith or reflect the off-season changes that the NFL goes through? Of course, there's an old saying that the Chinese character for "problem" is also the the one for "opportunity," and this was never more true than when EA Sports turned the problem of a static video game into an incredible opportunity for the company.

EA's solution to its problem was the launch of John Madden Football '92 for the Sega Genesis. It marked the moment when EA moved to a yearly updating system for its sports games and moved away from the gaming tradition of Roman numeral sequels. It was also the first time that an annual update to a sports game was tied to the launch of the real-world sporting season. Instead of focussing on releasing fewer sequels every few years that had revolutionary improvements, EA Sports instead focused on pushing evolutionary change on a consistent calendar. New players, teams, stadiums, end-zone dances, gameplay features, graphic improvements -- the idea was to consistently improve the experience by building on, rather than breaking away from the older games.

The resulting sales were so good, the system was quickly adopted across the board for every EA Sports product, starting with the launch of NHL '92, FIFA '94, and others. The end result of this system speaks for itself. There's a near-constant hit parade of yearly titles that are now the harbingers of the upcoming sporting season. Consumers have been trained to buy a new version of their favorite sports games every year. The two core franchises -- Madden and FIFA -- have each sold over $1 billion in games and sports video games are now 22% of the entire market with EA the dominant leader.

Today, the Madden franchise holds over 80% of the football game market. Of course, there have been challengers. Last year, Sega threw down the gauntlet, challenging EA in a multi-platform attack on the sports franchise -- particularly football where they put tremendous effort into Sega Sports NFL 2K3. The results were something akin to Super Bowl XXVII, with EA not only blowing Sega out of the water in football, but also going on the offensive in the baseball and basketball genres in a way that has everyone just fighting for second place. Someone someday may knock Madden off his perch, but until that day comes, Electronic Arts' management of its EA Sports brand remains one of gaming's Smartest Moments.

KillRoy: I've worked in many different parts of the entertainment business and I can't even count the number of meetings I've sat through that started out with "how do we get our own [fill in successful entertainment/gaming franchise here]?" The result of these meetings -- if there ever was one -- was usually a pale imitator of the benchmark. So how are franchises like EA Sports built in the first place? The simple answer is to have an innovative idea (realistic games for the passionate sports fan), and a dedication to making each iteration better than the last. The brilliance of the yearly update strategy is that it drives the development team to obsess on how they can one-up themselves every year, which in turn drives ever increasing sales as consumers flock to the newest and best version of their favorite sport -- in many cases replacing a perfectly good game that is only a year old. In a world where most "franchises" are built on inherent laziness (I'm looking at you Tomb Raider!), real powerhouses like EA Sports see the truth: You're only as good as your next game.

ferricide: I don't like football, and I don't like sports games, but I have nothing but respect -- almost awe -- for the brilliance of the whole EA Sports phenomenon. This was all about seeing an opportunity and grabbing it. It only makes sense since the audience wants everything updated every year to reflect the lineup changes. As Killroy commented, the teams at EA put their all into making substantive updates to the games, which means you don't get the Tomb Raider effect -- sequels trailing into the toilet as the team gets creatively bankrupt thanks to pushing out a half-assed edition once a year. It's a brilliant concept in every way, and it's been borne out by reality: The games sell and people demand them every year.

Fargo: This Smart Moment is so smart that we take it for granted today. If you ran one of those dreaded focus groups in '92, they'd tell you it's ridiculous to ask them to buy an upgrade to the game year after year. Now it's common practice. Done well, the resulting franchises are synonymous with quality; gamers can't wait to get their hands on the next Madden. These sports franchises have endured for over a decade, hopping from one platform to the next the way teams ditch losing quarterbacks. Assuming they keep up the quality, there's no reason they can't go on forever.

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