Just How Do EA Sports Stay Top Of The Game?
Written Sunday, February 05, 2012 By Lee BradleyView author's profile
“We’re in the business of delivering interactive sports entertainment at the very highest level.”
"An EA Sports branded football pitch at EA? It's in the game!"
EA Sports occupies a unique position within the industry, dominating almost every sub-division of an entire genre. American football, soccer, ice hockey and more - it leads the way with huge marketing spends, stellar cover stars and some of the best sports games ever produced.
But it’s not all trophy hauls and top of the table performances. EA Sports has its fair share of failures and criticism too. Accused of running series’ into the ground with constant, needless annual releases, and luring uneducated gamers merely through the strength of its licenses, the label struggles to gain the full respect of core gamers.
So just how difficult is it to stay top of the game? Would EA Sports achieve even a fraction of its success without its multimillion dollar endorsements? And how hard is it to churn out title after title, year after year? We spoke to some key EA Sports producers to find out.
“Each EA Sports title represents the very pinnacle of that sport,” says Grand Slam Tennis producer Thomas Singleton. “Whether it’s FIFA, NFL, NBA, NHL - the list goes on. Having those licenses is crucial.”
With Grand Slam Tennis 2, the label is making an aggressive move into a sport that it has thus far avoided. The game’s Wii predecessor was just a warm up. Now multiplatform, the series must directly challenge the seasoned pros of SEGA’s Virtua Tennis and 2K’s Top Spin.
To achieve that, EA Sports are going in the only way they know how. With top licenses and massive stars. “The Grand Slams are the biggest tournaments of a tennis career, the very pinnacle of the profession,” says Singleton. “Getting Wimbledon and the three other majors was huge for us.”
Rather than attach just one pro to front the project, Grand Slam 2 has plucked a number of the sport’s biggest names from throughout history. “We have the greatest players of the past and present, who’ve had meaningful experiences within the Grand Slam venues themselves. That’s our recipe for success,” says Singleton.
"Tiger Woods' indiscretion put EA in a bit of a pickle..."
It’s an interesting approach, one that perhaps relates to the history of EA Sports’ other titles. Now running for over two decades, the PGA Tour series adopted Tiger Woods’ name around the turn of the millennium. Yet in that case, tying the brand to one individual would have catastrophic consequences.
At 2:30 AM on Nov 27 2009, Woods drove his SUV into a fire hydrant and a tree, in the first of a series of public events that would unravel his career.
Following revelations of a string of extramarital affairs, his subsequent divorce and an extended break from the game, Woods has failed to regain his position at the top of the sport. As his success has slumped, so too has that of the PGA Tour games.
Once one of EA Sports’ best performing titles, experts calculate that series sales have dropped a massive 60% since Woods’ fall from grace. Tellingly, Tiger did not feature on the cover of last year’s game. He was replaced with a flag.
This year, however, Woods returns. Yet EA Sports’ language surrounding the star has changed. “It’s Tiger’s game and it’s his name on the cover. He’s our guy,” producer Mike DeVault told us. “But there are a crop of new golfers coming in, so having someone like Rory McIlroy on the front cover with Tiger… we all see that as a benefit.
“A huge interest for us is to make it more of an international game including more international golfers, with more international courses,” he continues. Once unthinkable, a shift in focus away from Woods is already underway.
There’s more to EA Sports’ success than glossy tie-ins and huge stars, however. The label consistently serves millions of fans, year after year. So exactly how do they do it? Todd Batty is well placed to answer.
"Batty has been part of the EA Sports team for over a decade."
Joining EA Sports as a QA tester over a decade ago, Batty has vast experience across the label’s various titles. Now a producer on SSX, his career has taken in spells on the NBA Live series, as well as NBA Street.
"Iterative sports design is a much different challenge to building a new IP,” says Batty. “It’s a very short development cycle and we have huge expectation from our fans to add a whole new game’s worth of content every year. The same amount of content you would find in a three, four year development cycle.”
EA Sports’ answer to that challenge is to throw numbers at it. “We have huge teams putting tons of features together in a very short period of time,” says Batty.
This production line approach has its downsides, however. Making games for the largest possible audience every year leaves little room for personal expression. “We can't do whatever we want,” says Batty. “You have a licenser and it’s a sim title, so we have to respect the sport and we have to respect what we do.”
“You get tired of making the same game over and over,” he says. “And then what happens is, you start putting in a whole bunch of stuff that reflects the games that you like to play, rather than servicing the game you’re working on.
“That started to happen to me at the tail end of my time with the NBA titles. I started throwing out some crazy ideas and I realised I had been working on them for too long. It takes the game away from the direction that the true fans of the games want.”
And that’s what it all boils down to. Despite EA Sports’ ups and downs, triumphs and disasters, the fact remains that it is uncommonly good at giving its fans what they want. Indeed, according to Forbes, EA Sports ranks in the top ten sports business brands on the globe, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Nike, Adidas and Gatorade. It’s worth an estimated $770m.
"Our secret?” says Batty. “It’s simple. We strive to give the fans what they're asking for, every single year. I think we do a pretty good job of that.”