A pair of gamers recently decided to sue Electronic Arts over the Madden NFL franchise. The suit alleges that after securing exclusive videogame rights with the NFL, NCAA and Arena Football League in 2004, which essentially forced 2K Sports from the genre,EA took advantage of its virtual monopoly to inflate the price of 2006 version of the game by almost 70 percent. It goes on to say that EA’s actions add up to “blatantly anticompetitive conduct,” and seeks damages for anyone who purchased an EA football title since August 2005 as well as a return of profits resulting from the deal and an annulment of all related contractual agreements.
It’s an interesting spasm against an intractable corporate juggernaut, made more so given that EA now finds itself under the FTC magnifying glass as a result of its struggle to swallow Take-Two Interactive. But is this latest footnote in EA’s litany of supposed bad behavior really worth anything more than a glance and shrug?
Yes, EA is a soulless monolith. Yes, it eats the souls of the studios it assimilates – and there have been a few good ones among them. Yes, the Madden NFL franchise is a tired old beast that, despite Peter Moore’s insistence to the contrary, is about as far removed from “innovation” as a game can be while still making use of the English language. Moral indignation aside, though, I have to wonder what exactly it is EA has done to earn itself a berth in civil court.
I should make two things clear right away: I am not a lawyer, so I speak from a position of litigational ignorance, and I’m not an EA fanboy (if such a thing even exists anymore) so I have no reason or desire to defend the company from the gibbering hordes of gamers whose interest in the case begins and ends with a vague yet hot-blooded desire to stick it to The Man. I’m simply a disinterested observer who fails to see any substance to this case beyond a couple of gamers pissed off at having to pay overly high prices for a half-assed product.
Which is of course where the whole thing starts to fall in on itself. You don’t have to pay excessively high prices for it. You will not starve, drown, be shot or stabbed, immolate, strangulate, exsanguinate or otherwise suffer life-compromising consequences if you don’t play Madden 2006. Or 2007, or 2008. And there are numerous perfectly reasonable alternatives: You could, for instance, keep on playing last year’s Madden game. Or you could pick up a copy of 2K’s All-Pro Football 2K8. You could go even outside and play some real football over the weekend and maybe work off some of that GTA gut.
You could also, if you’re the open-minded sort, switch sports; perhaps play some baseball on your 360. That’s certainly not going to be a problem, as long as you’re willing to pay 2K Sports’ price for Major League Baseball 2K8 – currently $59.99 at EB Games, rather more than the current price for Madden NFL 08. 2K Sports holds the exclusive rights to produce official MLB videogames, you see, a deal they made in 2005 at the expense of previous license holder EA Sports. Yet surprisingly, or perhaps not, there’s been no hue and cry whatsoever over the exclusivity of that particular arrangement.
If 2K Sports had been able to similarly procure the NFL license, it likely would have been met with little more than curious indifference, and perhaps a muted cheer from some quarters over EA’s flagging fortunes. If a top-notch game had failed to follow, it would have tanked on the sales charts and quickly slipped from notice, much like the previously mentioned and non-officially-licensed All-Pro Football 2K8.
Such an outcome would presumably leave a hefty number of disappointed sports game fans but I very much doubt that litigation would be the result. 2K gets attention for everything Rockstar does, and is largely ignored for everything else, but it’s never been characterized as “evil.” Electronic Arts, on the other hand, has. Often. On a good day, the company is regarded as indifferent to the interests of gamers; on bad ones, rumors are whispered that its game manuals are printed on the flayed skins of dead kittens.
Unfortunately for the pair behind this suit, “EA sucks” isn’t grounds for civil action. Electronic Arts may play hardball with the football, but it’s not doing anything that isn’t being done by everyone else in business: Taking steps to secure and advance its position in the marketplace. Did EA executives feel just a wee touch of glee at the prospect of turning the screws on their 2K counterparts? Probably. But licensing deals are all about gaining exclusive rights at the expense of the competition, and in an industry that relies as heavily on high-profile licensed products as ours, they’re not just commonplace, they’re essential.
And if EA wants to charge 50 bucks for its game, what of it? We’re not talking about food, fuel or shelter here; Madden NFL 08 is one videogame among many and EA is free to charge what it wants for it, just as consumers are free to not buy it. That’s an important point as well, and pretending that John Riccitiello popped by the house one day and put a gun to our heads to force us to buy his game isn’t going to fool anyone. People buy new Madden NFL games year in and year out because, pissing and moaning notwithstanding, they think they’re worth the price being charged. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work?
Indifferent consumer reaction to major EA Sports releases across a wide enough audience would definitely get the company’s attention. Games are business – we talked about this earlier, remember? – and what matters in business is money. If consumers really are sick of paying HBO prices for CBS shows, the smart move would be to stop throwing money at EA. A significant decline across the company’s flagship titles would raise a few eyebrows and might even serve as a catalyst for real innovation. But with more than 4.5 million unit sales worldwide for Madden NFL 08, the likelihood of that happening seems awfully slim; and two guys looking for legal redress in lieu of a sufficiently friendly price point just looks foolish and futile.
Andy Chalk lives in Canada, so maybe he just doesn’t “get” this lawsuit business. Feel free to contact him to explain why he’s wrong.