Exclusive Licenses: It's in the (Worst Interest of) the Game

DScotCorrespondent IJune 7, 2009

For the first time in a while, I fired up Madden '09 last night to resume my Detroit Lions dynasty.  I’m on my sixth game of my second season, playing at home against the Cleveland Browns. 


On around the Browns’ second offensive series, I notice that their center is wearing the jersey No. 15.  I assume it was their draft pick that year, so I don’t think much of it.


After all, when I signed defensive end Tyson Jackson as a free agent after the draft (huh?) he started out with the No. 9.  I mean, EA has only been making the Madden series for 20 years.  I’m sure they’ll get around to fixing the jersey number anomaly someday soon. 


After a couple of series of witnessing Cleveland’s new center stonewalling my defensive tackles, easily flicking away blitzing linebackers, and holding off stunting defensive ends without breaking a sweat, I got curious as to who this surefire rookie of the year was.


It turns out he wasn’t a rookie at all.  In fact, he is a seven-year veteran by the name of Dave Zastudil.  Now, for those of us who are unable to rattle off the Cleveland Browns’ roster by memory, let me give you a hand.  He’s their punter.


So, in Madden’s 20th year of existence spread across countless gaming systems, EA still has a glitch that causes a punter to line up at center.  Not only that, but he is dominating.  I know the Lions suck, but come on!  Seriously?  God, I hate EA sometimes.


How does this happen?  Simple.  They have no competition.  Why don’t they?  Let’s take a look back.


Back in 2004 2K sports shocked the gaming world by releasing NFL 2K5, not only earlier than Madden, but for the bargain basement price of $19.99.  Though it had flaws of its own, it was still quite possibly the best value since Manhattan Island.  For the first time in years, EA’s game-making manhood was challenged. 


How would EA respond? By pulling the equivalent of a school boy taking his ball and going home.  They signed an exclusive deal with the NFL giving them the only company with the right to make NFL games for five years (before renewing that contract for another five years a couple of years later). 


They also signed a deal becoming the only company licensed to make college football games.  So really, not only did EA take the ball and go home, they rolled up the playing surface and tore down the goals.


2K sports soon struck back in a relatively small way, inking a deal to become the only third-party game producer for Major League Baseball.  What exactly does that mean?  It means that if you own an X-Box 360 and want a MLB video game, your only choice is the MLB 2K series.


In turn, EA acquired the exclusive rights to produce a licensed college basketball game.  This led me to consider buying up every copy of College Hoops 2K8 I can find and store them in a safe deposit box in case something happens to mine.  I would rather tear my own thumbs off than play EA’s March Madness series. 


Kudos to David Stern, who nixed any efforts by any game developer to acquire exclusive rights to make NBA games.


Kudos also to Gary Bettman, who has screwed up his NHL league so bad that nobody really cares who makes those games.


The sports video gaming industry has also thus far avoided collapse upon itself, as EA has thus far been unable to broker a deal to buy Take Two, the parent company of 2K games.


This article is not intended to espouse the virtues of one company over another.  Both 2K and EA have their merits.  2K is widely considered to be the better developer of basketball games. EA has the edge in hockey games; and, until the exclusivity deal, was recognized as the leader in baseball games. 


The better football game debate will spark more heated exchanges between 2K and EA fanboys than a meeting between the Crips and the Bloods.  Well, it the Crips and the Bloods were folks who have actually uttered the phrases “pwned,” or knew what the hell “All your base are belong to us.” means.


The point is, it really doesn’t matter which company is really better.  What matters is that there is no incentive to improve.


Do you think if EA had competition in NFL football gaming, they would continually allow a glitch where a guy will run straight out of bounds on patterns in the flat, or a 5 yard drag pattern somehow always resulted in a 2 yard loss?  Probably not.


Would they year after year produce a college football game that is so cheesetastic in its on-line play that it has resulted in the deaths of approximately 42,800 controllers at the hands of angry gamers every year?  Doubt it.


Would 2K annually produce a baseball game that has players looking like Hannibal Lector wearing the cop's face?  I say no.


Just look at what has happened in the NBA games.  EA decided to start from scratch on its Live series for the latest installment because it got tired of getting its butt kicked by 2K.  That would never, ever have happened had there have not been any competition forcing them to re-evaluate what they do.


Exclusive licenses are the single worst thing to happen to sports gaming since Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Basketball.  Gamers who love sports games are left with fewer choices than ever, and stuck with games that are considerably less innovative than they could be. 


What really gets me is that, even as I right this, I am anxiously awaiting the arrival of NCAA Football 10.  I already know what’s going to happen.  I’m gonna play a season or two, get fed up with the same glitches that have been around for years, and stop playing it.   I’ll swear that I won’t get suckered in again (until NCAA Football '11).


What does EA care?  They have absolutely no reason to try to better their game other than to update a roster and introduce some new gimmick.  They already have my money.  And, thanks to exclusive licenses, they have nobody who will be trying to compete for it.