By the end of April, Xbox Live's Indie Games channel will see a very unusual first: The service's first sports title licensed by a professional league, and backed with the sponsorship of a major brand.
NLL Lacrosse 2010 will be the pro sport's video game comeback nine years after its one and only console release. The game, a licensing partnership between the National Lacrosse League and Crosse Studio - which published last year's Inside Lacrosse College Lacrosse 2010 - will feature the league's authentic rosters, teams, uniforms, and a season mode culminating in the NLL's Champions Cup playoffs. It also features the sponsorship of Reebok Lacrosse, a primary NLL sponsor. The game will cost 400 Microsoft Points, or $US5, and is due for release by April 30.
That combination makes NLL Lacrosse 2010 a rarity among even the rare simulation-quality sports titles on the two-year old Indie service, of which last year's College Lacrosse 2010is probably the best example to date. Crosse Studio's owner, Carlo Sunseri - himself a former college lacrosse player and current coach - commissioned Jonathan "Fritz" Ackerly of Triple B Studios to build that game, which was downloaded more than 100,000 times in its first four months, with 26,000 full purchases resulting from that.
The reception for and the financial success of College Lacrosse 2010 (screenshots pictured) encouraged Sunseri to approach the National Lacrosse League about lending its name and support to a full simulation quality game.
The NLL, which licensed 2001's Blast Lacrosse for the original Playstation, had since been talking with developers about the possibility of another retail release, but was repeatedly told the size of the lacrosse market didn't justify such development costs. But the Indie Games channel seems perfect for a growing, albeit niche sport, with zero distribution costs, lower risks and, not insignificantly, developers who are passionate about their projects and personally grateful for the opportunity.
"It was like a match made in heaven," NLL commissioner George Daniel told Kotaku. "We got someone who is a lacrosse player, and he's already developed a lacrosse video game, showing incredible entrepreneurial skill and passion. He's developed an emerging business and an almost overnight audience and he's serving it, and that's what we do, too."
"I would have never imagined the success of truly getting that many people playing lacrosse in such a short amount of time, from all around the world," Sunseri said. "The fact 100,000 people have played a lacrosse video game in their living room and been exposed to a great sport, that's what I'm most impressed with. And getting out a National Lacrosse League Game, that is a dream come true."
Daniel said his league has often heard from fans asking when it'll ever get a video game. "We have a young fan base, and we know they're playing video games," Daniel said. "We've felt we should have a video game as much as anybody, just to market ourselves. Other big licensed properties, like TV (exposure) we don't really have that, so we probably need (a video game) more. We recognise that, yes, you want to sell games and make money - but you also want the opportunity to market and brand yourself."
The NLL didn't sell a licence to Sunseri; it assigned him the rights in return for a portion of the game's sales, structured according to a tiered arrangement. So Sunseri gets to focus his resources on developing the game, while the NLL has incentive to market it through its own channels and drive additional sales.
The game is built on Ackerly's College Lacrosse 2010 engine with, of course, several notable differences. The first is that the NLL plays indoor "box" lacrosse with teams of five. The collegiate game is on an outdoor field with 10 players a side. NLL Lacrosse is a faster paced game with more continuous play.
"For someone who doesn't know anything about lacrosse, our game's easier to understand and follow," Daniel said. "We have a smaller field, the ball doesn't go out of bounds - it just hits off the boards. We have more continuous play and less stoppages. It's much easier for video game flow."
Reebok was brought to the venture by the NLL, so its branding and equipment will be featured in-game. "They enthusiastically wanted to participate in it," Daniel said.
Sunseri is still focused on pushing the game out by an April 30 deadline, so he hasn't reflected much on just how far above Indie weight classes this project is hitting. He doesn't want to stop here, though. Sunseri is investigating what it would take to develop a Lacrosse game for release over the main Xbox Live Arcade service, and then also for PlayStation Network. He's also interested in approaching the NCAA's Collegiate Licensing Clearinghouse to bring its authentic colleges into a future version of College Lacrosse, which currently features generic teams.
"Once the game is released and on the market, I think I'll be able to look back on it and appreciate everything that has gone through this experience," Sunseri said. "I couldn't have gotten this experience anywhere else, and I'm really proud of what Fritz and I have done, building this game for Xbox Live, and it's our goal to continue to make more games."