In Videogames, Even Football Isn't Without Controversy

Chris Morris, |Special to
Nick M Do |  Photodisc | Getty Images

While football is a pretty family-friendly sport, it's not always benign in the videogame world.

The NFL has been a part of the landscape for about as long as videogames have been around — and anything with such longevity tends to ruffle some feathers among both players and publishers.

The controversies are often economic or deal with the creative evolutions of the genre — and can't hold a candle to gaming's most infamous moments. But when you're talking about a subgenre where a single game franchise — "Madden" — is responsible for more than $3 billion in sales, those issues can have a big impact on a company's bottom line.

No company knows the importance of football more than Electronic Arts. In 2004, the company saw the "Madden" franchise under assault like never before. Take-Two Interactive Software, tired of being the perennial also-ran in football games, tried a bold strategy to boost awareness. Rather than pricing its "NFL2K" game at $50, like most sports titles cost at the time, it offered the game for $20.

The strategy worked. Fans, many of whom had criticized "Madden" for failing to offer significant innovations each year, tested out the competing game and liked it. EA tried to hold the line on its premium pricing, but was forced to lower Madden to $20 within months, causing its quarterly numbers to suffer. On a conference call at the time, company officials vowed to take all necessary steps to protect the "Madden" franchise.

They weren't kidding. In December 2004, EA and the NFL announced an exclusivity deal that would prevent Take-Two (and other game publishers) from using NFL team or player names. The agreement proved to be a master stroke (from a corporate standpoint). By taking the NFL away from the competition, EA essentially gained control of the market.

"Certainly, many versions of ‘NFL2K’ were really good football games," says Billy Pidgeon, senior analyst at M2 Research. "[The franchise] was, in some cases, possibly better than ‘Madden.’ But EA having the official license made it difficult for anyone to compete – even with a better game."

Many fans, to this day, argue that both “Madden” and “NFL2K” would still be slugging it out for supremacy in the virtual gridiron. But analysts aren't so sure. As sports games have been surpassed in popularity by shooters, there's debate about whether the titles could have co-existed.

"The data I see doesn't support the notion," says Colin Sebastian, senior research analyst at R.W. Baird. "EA may have stifled innovation, but I don't think we would have had two football games each selling 10 million units each year."

Take-Two for its part tried to stay in the game, recruiting star NFL athletes of years gone by (and licensing their images) as its hook. That kept the “NFL2K” series on life support, but when the company added O.J. Simpson to the mix in 2007, gamers were outraged.

And since the company couldn't tie Simpson to the Buffalo Bills, it had to create a fictitious team. For some reason, it chose to include the man who had been accused of stabbing to death his ex-wife on "The Assassins," whose mascot made stabbing motions when the team scored.

The off-field activities of some players have come back to haunt EA as well.

The selection of each year's cover athlete for the “Madden” games has become a spectator sport for football fans. And in this age of social media, the company decided to let the fans vote for the 2012 edition.

Among the candidate was Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, who had fronted the game in 2004. Since that appearance, Vick had been convicted of taking part in a dog-fighting ring and served 21 months in prison (along with two months of home confinement).

While the NFL welcomed him back, many fans remain outraged at his actions – so when Vick made it to the semifinals in the vote for the cover position, then the finals, many were upset – even though it was a fan vote.

In the end, Cleveland's Peyton Hillis got the cover spot. But many wondered whether Vick's advancement came through actual fan votes or if it was a publicity stunt by the company in a year where the game was in danger of being overshadowed by a potential NFL strike.

"I would not be surprised if they were being controversial to make the news and punch it up," says Pidgeon.