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The Moment Madden NFL Killed NFL 2K Forever

Industry veteran Mike Mika recalls the moment EA obtained exclusive rights to the NFL license, and the fallout that followed.

News by Kat Bailey, .

It's been more than a decade since EA snapped up exclusive rights to the NFL license and put NFL 2K out of business, but the industry is still feeling the impact even today.

Mike Mika witnessed firsthand the fallout from EA's famous transaction, which he likened to a "nuclear bomb" in a new ESPN 30 for 30 Podcast covering the history of Madden NFL.

Mika, currently the head of development at Other Ocean, has been involved in one way or another with the development of dozens of games going back to the 90s.

NFL 2K5 remains one of the most beloved football sims ever made.

"It became this fractured thing," Mika remembers of the early 2000s, when Madden competed with games ranging from NFL Gameday to NFL 2K. "I remember it being a huge fight for attention because you have all these people licensing the NFL, and then trying to get their attention and time to help promote their games. And so it became a bloodthirsty war at that point."

Mika, who was the studio head at Backbone Entertainment at the time, says he recalled hearing stories of athletes who would license their likeness for NFL 2K, but not for Madden. In a shocking move, ESPN NFL 2K5 was released for a mere $19.99 at launch, forcing EA to slash the price of Madden 2005 to $29.95. Madden was falling behind Visual Concepts.

But then everything changed. Mika says he was in the midst of working on a proposal to port NFL 2K to GBA when the news hit that EA had obtained exclusive rights to the NFL license.

"It was like a nuclear bomb going off in the game industry. I knew things were bad because the call we were supposed to have got canceled immediately. It was weeks until we heard from them again," Mika says. "All these people who assumed they would be able to renew their license with the NFL had to drop everything they were doing. You had development houses cancel their games, and some places go out of business. Overnight, Madden reclaimed the throne without having to lift a finger on the development side."

As a result of EA obtaining exclusive rights to the Madden license, Visual Concepts was forced to kill the critically acclaimed NFL 2K series, which remains a sore spot for sports fans to this day.

Madden 18.

Take-Two Interactive would later respond by purchasing the exclusive multiplatform rights to the MLB license, killing EA's well-regarded MVP Baseball series in the process. Unfortunately for Take-Two, the deal was disaster from the start, and MLB 2K was mercifully put of its misery in 2014.

These days, there are only a tiny handful of licensed sports game still remaining—a far cry from the days of the early 2000s. But thanks to microtransaction-driven modes like Ultimate Team and NBA 2K's MyPlayer, EA and Visual Concepts are doing just fine for themselves.

ESPN's 30 for 30 Podcast covers the entirety of Madden's development history in a neat little 40 minute block, and includes a new interview with the man himself, who is still involved with its development even at age 81. You can listen to the whole thing here.

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Comments 6

  • Avatar for ChairmanYang #1 ChairmanYang 5 days ago
    EA is a scummy, value-destroying company. This article reminds me that they've been that way for a long time.
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  • Avatar for pdubb #2 pdubb 5 days ago
    Man, this is a sore spot. I can talk about 2K5 for days. It didn't help that the Madden from 2006- roughly 2013 varied from hot garbage to barely tolerable left overs.
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  • Avatar for WiIIyTheAntelope #3 WiIIyTheAntelope 5 days ago
    @ChairmanYang They've been this way since the very beginning. EA is the same company that got their first major push into consoles by reverse engineering the Sega Genesis piracy protections and then threatening Sega that not only would they start producing unlicensed games, but they would share that tech with everyone who was interested, unless of course they got a sweet deal on licensing fees that nobody else publishing games for the Genesis got.

    Ea has always been the scum of the gaming world.
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  • Avatar for Mikki-Saturn #4 Mikki-Saturn 5 days ago
    Yeah, I remember when this happened thinking that there might be an FTC investigation or something, it sounded so anticompetitive. I much preferred the variety back then. I really liked the 2K series and I also liked the more arcadey stuff like Blitz. The fact that everyone was making NFL games meant the developers had to adopt various approaches in order to differentiate themselves. But after this that all ended and I can't recall that I've bought a football game since.
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #5 NiceGuyNeon 4 days ago
    I remember when this happened, and I find it more interesting than infuriating. It's easy to call EA a monstrous company over securing the license, but they were looking out for their bottom line. I think if I were in their position and I had the ability to exclusively take a license from others I'd do it too. It makes perfect business sense.

    But there were so many sports games back in the day. I remember EGM had a dedicated review crew for sports games because you had Madden, NFL 2k, NFL Fever, NFL Blitz and NFL Gameday and that's not counting NHL, MLB, NBA, etc. Now it's simple, you want football? You're buying Madden. The fact that the competition was killed and the sudden drop in quality is what was the worst. For a while there just wasn't a good football game available, and no alternative, no arcade entry, nothing. You lose choice as an informed consumer and that's what hurts us, though the alternative is we still have a choice: is this football game worth buying to me? So far my answer has been no and I've felt fine about it.

    The major fallout I see from it, that's impacted my purchases the most, is we also lost a lot of those arcade sports games like NBA Street, NBA Ballers, NFL Blitz, etc. That's been a bummer because I have always enjoyed the arcade sports style games over the traditional entries. I can still competently play a sports game but I only play vs with my friends locally. In general they're gone outside of the occasional Nintendo release like the brilliant Mario Strikers or something transcendent like Rocket League.
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  • Avatar for MetManMas #6 MetManMas 4 days ago
    I've never been a big sports fan, but I know it must've sucked to have a company that produces an inferior product purchase exclusive rights to an entire sports league's game adaptations, effectively killing the competition.

    On the subject of American football, gonna go pretty off-topic here but I'm still very, very, very disappointed that that there's never been a Super Mario Gridiron game. The guy's done golf, tennis, fútbol (i.e. soccer), baseball, basketball, hockey, volleyball, dodgeball, horse racing. He's teamed up with Sonic for both the summer and winter Olympic Games on multiple occasions,* he has a very successful go kart racing series (and a way less successful F-1 Grand Prix), he even got his DDR on one time. But no football, never football.

    And it's not like Nintendo of Japan doesn't know that US football exists. Chargin' Chuck appeared way back in the SNES era and returned in Super Mario 3D World. Heck, Mario gets a football player outfit in Super Mario Odyssey. And it's not like EA owns Football the Sport, just the NFL rights.

    For Rosalina's sake, give the Jumpman a damn pigskin tossing game already! Whatever their flaws, if there's one thing Mario is good at it's making sports games far more appealing to those of us who find them boring. And even if I don't like the NFL, I would like to like US football.

    * Also seriously just give Mario and Sonic a frickin' damn platformer. We're already well aware of how the two compare at Olympic events and beating the crap out of each other, please cross the streams already. I have faith that the talented devs at NIntendo could make Sonic and 3D actually mix well, given the chance.Edited 4 days ago by MetManMas
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