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NFL, EA pact positions Madden for takeoff with future consoles

As the gaming world's landscape continues to change and a new frontier appears on the horizon, the NFL is sticking with its trusted partner.

The NFL, NFL Players Association and Electronic Arts announced a six-year renewal to their partnership on Thursday, marking what the partners called "the biggest and widest-reaching interactive entertainment agreement in NFL history."

The renewed partnership will keep EA Sports' Madden NFL franchise as the exclusive and authentic football simulation game, and also opens new avenues for the creation of games in new genres, expanded e-sports programs and additional entertainment experiences for fans across more platforms, according to the partners' release.

It's been a busy few months for the NFL in the gaming arena, with the league announcing a new partnership with Take-Two Interactive (2K) and continuing a partnership with Epic Games (makers of the incredibly popular Fortnite) earlier in 2020. The former prompted some to believe a change in simulation rights could be ahead, but Thursday's announcement cements EA and Madden as the sole publisher of authentic NFL simulation experiences.

"It was important for us to really position the Madden franchise for future investment in innovation, gameplay features as we move to new consoles, more gaming devices, cloud-based gaming, and EA, really, given the history and knowledge and the level of talent gave us the best opportunity to do that," Rachel Hoagland, NFL VP of gaming, e-sports and partnerships, told NFL.com. "So we're excited to continue to build the Madden franchise with them. It's our core offering.

"EA, for us, will be at the core, at the center of that realistic engagement for our most avid fans."

Madden has long been the crown jewel of EA's partnership with the NFL and NFLPA, and with the new generation of consoles coming before the end of 2020 -- a change-over that only happens once every six or seven years -- it was vital for EA and the NFL and NFLPA to secure the continuation of such a partnership. Past console generation change-overs saw drastic differences thanks to improved technology, with the PlayStation 3/XBOX 360 generation touting phenomenally upgraded visuals, and the following generation marrying those beautiful player models with improved physics and playability.

EA has spent plenty of effort and resources on ramping up for the upcoming release of the next generation of gaming consoles -- in which Madden is expected to be a launch title -- which could be the group that drastically changes the way gamers play their games.

"It's something that we think about together as we're about to enter the fifth generation of consoles, so just making sure we have the flexibility to think through what gaming experiences and gaming genres need to look like on that fifth generation of console," Hoagland said. "As we think about the gaming experiences -- cloud gaming, whether it's Stadia or Microsoft's solution -- is likely going to be very different from console or mobile, so we want to make sure those experiences are optimized for those platforms. So that's what I would take away from, when we talk about new genres and new experiences, how are we really going to optimize Madden for those platforms as we learn more about what's interesting to the gamer once they're released in market."

The grandeur of such an announcement is undoubtedly exciting, but as gamers are constantly exploring for the unseen reaches of their virtual world, so too exists a desire for more details. For now, that remains vague and for good reason: The gaming world continues to change at a rapid pace, making announcements of concrete plans difficult to execute without time spent in the renewed partnership.

An example of this rapid change: One of Madden's most popular modes is the brand-new Superstar KO. The three-on-three mode attracts casual gamers looking for a fun and engaging pick-up-and-play experience with their favorite NFL stars and was well-received by fans.

"For EA and for the NFL as well, whenever we put the fan in the center of what it is we're trying to do and we really lean into those fan insights and motivations to design the playing experience, that's when we see the best results and the biggest success," Hoagland said. "That's evidenced by the success of Madden 20 that we had this year. We put the fan in the center, we listened to what they said, the knockout mode 3 v 3 was something they really wanted and it's proving to be a really nice addition to the gameplay."

It was also a type of mode not seen in NFL games since the days of NFL Street, which came two console generations ago. The previously announced 2K partnership could fill this void in the coming years as Madden's focus remains on creating the best possible simulation of the country's most popular sport.

Increased participation in gaming as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic drastically increased digital distribution among gamers who simply couldn't go to brick-and-mortar stores to purchase physical copies of their games. It's a sign of a trend that is likely to continue in the years ahead, which will also place a greater demand on bandwidth and connectivity capabilities, Hoagland said. It's also a sign that gamers will look beyond the main two competitors in console gaming -- Sony and Microsoft -- and the NFL must prepare accordingly with a broader range of titles.

That's where 2K could come in with its non-simulation titles, beginning in 2021. Beyond that targeted date, games are in development, but not much can be revealed as the league continues to monitor the wants and needs of its fanbase.

"A lot of it is contingent on market dynamics and fan insights, but when we look at the size of the NFL fanbase here in the U.S. and knowing that more than 75 percent of those fans actually play games -- and they're different demographics, you have your Gen Z, your Millennials, your Gen Xers -- ideally the breadth of the portfolio two years from now would have key franchises that met the needs of those very distinct demographic groups," Hoagland said. "Still in the works. I think we've done a good job so far. What we've done with Epic really puts us front and center in our ability to reach Gen Z. What we will do with Take-Two will really well position us to reach a broad, more casual audience. Madden will continue to do a fantastic job meeting the needs of our avids, and then we'll probably fill in some of the gaps with mobile."

Hoagland referred to plans to create something similar to the popular mobile game Clash of Clans, but tailored to the NFL, when talking about the NFL's mobile gaming future.

As for the ever-growing e-sports segment, things continue to change there, too. Madden has seen an uptick in exposure with a lack of live sports programming in recent months, which has opened eyes to the possibilities of competition within the modern Madden game. Seeing NFL stars like Tyreek Hill, Derwin James, Tyrann Mathieu and Denzel Ward go head to head on the virtual gridiron only helped broaden the game's audience.

Don't expect Madden's exposure to go away any time soon. Thanks in part to this renewed partnership, you're about to see more Madden action on the screen of your preferred device.

"E-sports has completely had to pivot as a segment because e-sports historically was smaller, online tournaments that laddered up to big, in-venue events," Hoagland explained. "The entire industry has really had to rethink how it comes to life, how it drives fan and viewership engagement, and because of that reset, we've also had the opportunity to take a closer look at what our Madden e-sports efforts would look like. I think you'll see us do more tournaments more frequently to engage a much broader audience. We've actually benefitted from the gap in live sports content, because with our Madden content, we've been able to fill a really nice opening in the market from a content perspective, and we look to build on that."

The team at EA continues to work on improving its game, which should see plenty of innovations with the aforementioned leap to the next generation of consoles. It's a process that includes testing the game with its most dedicated players, some who have been playing the game for the entirety of its existence dating back to when John Madden himself was pounding the table for 11-on-11 football when only 8-on-8 had been created in a game at the time.

"Madden is meant to be the most realistic offering of NFL football for our avids," Hoagland said.

Thanks to this renewed partnership, Madden will move forward into the next era of gaming with all efforts dedicated toward the best possible experience for years to come.

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