While the videogame industry courts its share of controversy, you might expect sports games to generally avoid ruffling feathers. Uh-uh.
Some of the industry's biggest controversies have involved football videogames.
While they have fallen short of the furor that surrounded the hidden sex in the “Hot Coffee” minigame in "Grand Theft Auto," football games have had their share of head-scratching moments for investors and fans over the years.
Here are some of the polarizing and odd moments of the industry's most popular sport.
By Chris Morris,
Special to CNBC.com
In December 2004, Electronic Arts and the NFL surprised everyone by announcing an exclusivity deal, making the Madden franchise the only videogame that could use NFL teams and players. It was a move that squashed growing competition from Take-Two Interactive Software and, at its core, essentially guaranteed no other company would ever come close to EA on the electronic gridiron again. (The cost of creating lifelike models of characters and stadiums — as well as hiring a development team to create a great game — would be prohibitive.) Last year, EA extended the license through 2013.
Before the EA/NFL deal, the NFL2K franchise from Take-Two was knocking on Madden's door. After being a perennial also-ran, the publisher decided to offer its AAA football game for just $20. EA tried to ignore the bait, but was ultimately forced to slash prices and match the deal. While Take-Two would have almost certainly had to raise prices the next year, we'll never know how many fans would have stayed with the brand — and what the long-term effect would have been on EA's business.
Making the cover of a Madden game is the modern equivalent of a Wheaties box for today's NFL quarterbacks. But it has its downside. Every player that has fronted the game since 1999 has suffered a significant injury or extreme decline in performance — with one exception: "Madden NFL 10" cover athlete Larry Fitzgerald.
Football is a violent game — on the field and on consoles — but when you see things like exploding testicles on screen, things have probably gone too far. Midway's "Blitz: The League," released in 2005, featured detailed scenes of all sorts of injury-based horrors, including x-rays that zoomed in to show a bone snapping or a ligament tearing. Because the game didn't carry an NFL license, the league could do nothing.
Once one of the most popular football franchises, Front Page Sports lost audience to Madden in the late 1990s. In 1998, publisher Sierra Online vowed to revamp the game. It was unable to do so in a timely manner and shipped a title during the holidays that was largely unplayable. By January 1999, Sierra pulled the game from shelves and offered refunds to purchasers. It promised to make things up to fans in the next version, but that game was canceled before it came out. "It would be a greater disservice to our customers to compromise the development of Football Pro 2000 and release the wrong game twice," then-Sierra president David Grenewetzki wrote in a note to fans.
Robin Antonick created the first installment of the Madden series in 1988, but in 2011 he alleged that he hadn't been paid tens of millions — or perhaps billions — of dollars in royalties that EA allegedly owes to him. His original contract with the company, he said, entitled him to royalties on derivative versions of the Madden game. EA denied the accusations. The case is awaiting trial.
After Take-Two lost the NFL license, it tried to stay in the game with a series featuring former NFL greats. It seemed like a good idea — until the 2007 edition featured O.J. Simpson playing on a team called "The Assassins." When the character scored a touchdown, the team's hooded mascot made stabbing motions with a large knife. Despite an outcry, Take-Two didn't change the game.
While Madden is the crown jewel of EA Sports, the company still does quite well with its NCAA franchise. In 2011, college players led by former Nebraska and Arizona State quarterback Sam Keller and former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon sued the company, saying they were not being compensated for use of their images. It could have cost the company $1 billion, but a judge dismissed the suit, citing EA's First Amendment rights to free expression.
Retired wide receiver Jerry Rice is an NFL Hall of Famer. But was the sight of him as a quarterback receiving a hiked ball from a rottweiler a bit over the top? Rice helped make this family-oriented Wii game — dubbed "Jerry Rice and Nitus' Dog Football" — to open up the sport to young kids and a female audience. (Not confused yet? There was also a hula dancer and a clown.) It might have baffled football fans (and critics), but players gave it high marks.
Many people will never forgive Michael Vick for his involvement with a dog-fighting ring. So when the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback was one of the final two candidates for the "Madden NFL 12" cover in a bracket vote, some fans expressed outrage. Ultimately, Cleveland's Peyton Hillis won the vote.