'Madden' game kicks off big digital push for EA

Screen image from Madden 15
Source: EA Sports

The "Madden" football franchise may not be the crown jewel at Electronic Arts anymore, but it still shines pretty bright. And this year, EA is counting on that shine to help it launch the company's boldest digital push to date. 

"Madden 15," the 26th installment in the long-running series, officially hits store shelves on Aug. 26, but superfans of the game were able to start playing on Aug. 21 by subscribing to EA Access, a just-launched Netflix-like service that lets fans play back catalog EA games and get early looks at new titles for $5 per month or $30 per year. 

EA Access Subscribers will get a six-hour preview of Madden 15, via Microsoft's Xbox One console. (Sony opted against offering EA's service, which could compete with its own upcoming PlayStation Now game streaming service.) To further drive traffic to the service, EA opted not to make a free demo of this year's Madden game available to fans, as it has in the past. 

The publisher is hoping that short taste of the game will boost sales. The release of each year's Madden game marks the beginning of the holiday sales period for the videogame industry. It's typically heralded by avid fans (some of whom go so far as to call in sick to work so they can play) and a major marketing blitz by EA.

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But the celebration surrounding the game hasn't been quite as raucous recently. Last year's "Madden 25" (named to celebrate the game's 25th anniversary) saw sales drop amid the transition from the Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 era to the Xbox One/PlayStation 4. (First week sales of "Madden 25" came in at 1 million units, versus 1.65 million for the 2012 version of the game.)

The gamer indicator
The gamer indicator

That ongoing hardware shift could impact the sales pattern of "Madden 15," as well. 

"The timing of sales is going to be different this year," says John Taylor, managing director at Arcadia Investment Corp. "In the past, a large percentage of Madden demand was fulfilled immediately after release. This time, I think a larger percentage will be sold when people buy new hardware for the holidays. I expect Madden to be a really strong gift item."

Some analysts believe "Madden 15" could drive hardware sales as much as other big releases. 

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"It's important for the industry," says Billy Pidgeon, an independent analyst that covers the videogame sector. "This could have an impact on hardware sales. We're still in that portion of the console cycle."

It's not just physical game sales EA investors will be watching this time around, though. 

In 2010, EA introduced a new feature to the Madden franchise called Madden Ultimate Team, a cloud-based fantasy football league that incorporated Madden gameplay and card collecting. Fans quickly embraced the game mode—and have been spending increased amounts of cash on those collectible cards each year. 

In fiscal 2014, the Ultimate Team modes in all of EA Sports' games generated $380 million—with Madden showing year-over-year growth of 90 percent. As digital revenue (which topped $1.8 billion overall at the company in FY14) become a more important part of EA's bottom line, Madden could become even more valuable to the company. 

It's also worth noting that for the first time in its history, this year's Madden will be the only football game available for console systems. EA sewed up the exclusive video game rights to the NFL and its Player's Association in late 2004, effectively dealing a deathblow to competing pro football games from other publishers, but a court victory by college athletes last year put an end to EA's NCAA college football franchise. 

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Analysts, though, don't think the lack of the NCAA game will give "Madden 15" any sort of significant sales boost. 

"We've seen Madden demand be really stable for the last several years," Taylor says. "It goes up a little and down a little, but the numbers that have been produced have been remarkably predictable. I don't see any reason that would change with this."

—By Chris Morris, Special to CNBC