Stick Jockey: It’s In The Game — Take It Or Leave It

Stick Jockey: It’s In The Game — Take It Or Leave It

He’s a fight promoter and a guy with an outsized personality, but however serious Dana White was when he said these things, he still said them. The president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship called EA Sports a joke. He threatened to blacklist fighters who appeared in its old mixed martial arts video game. He declared that he would and that he did kick EA Sports’ arse.

Sometime in the past two weeks, his lawyer was on the phone with EA Sports. “You know what would be cool is if, when we announce this, Dana would come down and we’d announce it together,” Andrew Wilson, the label’s chief, said. White, overhearing that on speaker phone, said “Yeah, I’ll do that.”

However happy White is or isn’t about partnering with someone he said disrespected his sport years ago, who knows, really. It probably helps that EA Sports is under different leadership, and Wilson is its new boss, less than a year into the job. Wilson’s also a big MMA fan, and has trained in Brazilian jiu-jitsu with the Gracie family, so maybe that gave the two something in common.

But the truth is that White and the UFC really didn’t have much of a choice. Not if they wanted to continue making money on video games. The truth is that, when EA Sports is involved, none of us really have much of a choice. THQ is simply the latest sports publisher to walk away from a very costly licensing payment. It’s still a deal that can make someone money, but EA Sports appears to be the only publisher left with shoulders broad enough to make it work.

2K Sports still has NBA 2K, of course, a year-round bestseller, but it is looking like that label’s sole surviving title once its deal with Major League Baseball expires. Sony will continue to publish MLB The Show exclusively for its platforms. Codemasters publishes the F1 racing series; Eutechnyx and Activision are together on a series of NASCAR titles. Konami is hanging on with Pro Evolution Soccer, primarily on its home turf of Japan, but the once-dominant football title shows little sign of growth there.

Sports video gamers are, like the UFC’s Dana White, doing business with EA Sports or not at all.

And that’s it. In everything else, you are, like Dana White, doing business with EA Sports or not at all.

At E3, when I noted to Wilson the disappearance of his label’s rivals and colleagues, I asked him if that made him uncomfortable. “Now, why would that make me uncomfortable?” he said. It probably wasn’t a good question, but it reflects the differing perspectives. I come to this from the community side; I can’t write a single thing about Electronic Arts without hearing intense distrust and loathing of something so monolithic. And now it is even moreso in the sports genre.

Wilson probably doesn’t see it that way. He and EA Sports are in this to win, and the acquisition of the UFC licence is in every sense of the word a victory. It shows again that, in the exclusive licence era, the only sports publisher who has had any kind of sustainable success under those terms is EA Sports.

Wilson was quick to point out that the label has plenty of competitors in the mobile space, and others in social games and online browser-based titles (although one, Quick Hit Football, recently said it would not renew its licence with the NFL). He’s right about that, and however resistant the hardcore sports gamer is to the idea, that is where the growth is in video game development and publishing. Right now, though, those channels are not entirely relevant to the sports discussion, which is still largely simulation titles played on consoles.

The fact sports video games are so heavily tied to consoles as this hardware generation winds down is also heavily influenced by EA Sports’ prerogatives. Though PES and NBA 2K have PC versions, this year you only find EA Sports on that platform in FIFA. The core North American team sports, the ones most identified with the “It’s in the game” tagline nearly two decades old, have vanished from the PC largely because EA Sports has decided they can’t the development and support costs.

Maybe EA Sports doesn’t deserve to be the sole target of so much gamer angst, I told Wilson. But the angst is there because gamers, from what I am hearing anyway, feel uncertain and powerless in this relationship, especially as they’re asked to spend more on video games through downloadable content, and see their ability to sell or trade in used games under threat. These are things in which they don’t have much of a say.

“Gamers absolutely have a say,” Wilson said. “They have a choice to purchase or not to purchase.”

Take it or leave it isn’t much of an alternative, I suggested. “But that’s still a pretty big say,” he said. “That has a profound impact on the way people do things.”

Sure, and it did for THQ. But if MMA fans are similarly unimpressed by EA Sports’ first UFC offering, where would they go? If EA got rid of that licence, who would pick it up? No one comes to mind. Not under licensing terms that, increasingly, reflect conditions only someone the size of EA Sports can meet.

Stick Jockey is Kotaku’s weekly column on sports video games.

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