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Playing Field Shifting for Football Video Game Industry

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Long before "Call of Duty" was dominating the video-game sales charts, there was football.

Though shooters might be the hottest games around these days, sports games are still big sellers — and the virtual gridiron is a perennial favorite. And, more importantly to console makers, it's a genre that helps sales.

"Football is considered a system seller," says Billy Pidgeon, senior analyst at M2 Research. "There is a type of gamer that plays primarily sports — if not only sports. When a new version of 'Madden' comes out, that customer is more likely to buy a new console. It gets some fence sitters to pick up a new system — and that can work whether we're at the beginning of the cycle, the middle or the end."

When it comes to video-game football, of course, there's no franchise bigger than "Madden," which has thus far earned more than $3 billion for Electronic Arts.

Of course, to be fair, there really isn't any game other than "Madden" when it comes to football on the major consoles. EA sewed up the exclusive video-game rights to the NFL and its Player's Association in late 2004, effectively sacking competitors.

It was an expensive partnership to strike, but one that has paid off. "Madden 2012," the most recent installment, shipped over 3 million units in the company's fiscal second quarter — an equal amount to the previous year, despite a shorter shipping window, due to a change in the game's release date.

When EA and the NFL first struck their deal, though, gamers were aghast. Take-Two Interactive Software had made sales inroads on "Madden" that year, and many players felt it was the superior title. By granting EA sole license to the NFL, they worried creativity would suffer.

Whether those warnings proved true is still a matter of debate in Internet chat rooms, but analysts note that the rise of games like Activision's "Modern Warfare" may have forced game publishers to accept a winner-take-all playing field.

"'Madden' football, at one point, was the killer app for video game consoles," says Colin Sebastian, senior research analyst at R.W. Baird. "[But] what we're finding in the sports genre [today] is there might not be enough room for two profitable large scale franchises. Take-Two has run away with the NBA and EA owns football. The only exception would be soccer, where there is some viable competition — which is understandable, given how globally popular that sport is."

While football may not be topping the sales charts like it once was, it's hardly in danger of becoming irrelevant. It's not bulletproof, though.

The sports genre is still driving console sales but is no longer growing at a rapid clip. In other words, football games are not significantly expanding the gaming audience and the sport has yet to make a smooth transition to areas where the industry is expanding quickly.

Take the mobile platform, for example. EA's Madden app for Apple's iOS systems tops the sales charts for a brief period upon its release, but never as long as its console cousin. And reviews of the app have been spotty.

The mobile space is the one area where EA doesn't hold an NFL monopoly. Other developers, such as Gameloft and Full Fat Games feature NFL teams and stadiums. The problem, for now, is that mobile games don’t have the blockbuster earning potential of console.

"If I were going to compete with 'Madden' on any level, it would be easier and less costly to do so on an iOS platform," says Pidgeon. "But I don't think you could sell on the same level [as consoles]."

That doesn’t sound like a win-win situation.

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