It is one of the oldest licenses in sports video gaming and one of the most valuable marks in sports marketing. And it's the grand prize in a contest to develop a mobile game.
The NFL Players Association is offering its group license — the rights to use the names, numbers and likenesses of the more than 1,500 active football players it represents — as an open-ended incentive to any developer to come up with a solid mobile game concept using it. The players' union, which has reaped annual payouts in the tens of millions of dollars from the Madden NFL series, announced the bounty in a "Mobile Madness Challenge" put forth at the end of last month.
The NFLPA was one of the first players' unions to license a video game, beginning with Tecmo Bowl on the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1989. That game was licensed by NFL players but not the league itself, meaning it could use real players' names but not the logos or names of their teams. Despite that it became an iconic title in console video gaming history.
For the record, the NFLPA's contest and the offering of its group license have nothing to do with the union's deal with Madden NFL, which remains an exclusive pact for the console video game market. The NFLPA says the contest isn't a hint the union is getting out of that deal any time soon, either and, when asked the union declined to describe the terms of that deal or when it expires. Electronic Arts said in January it has "a number of years left" on those agreements.
But the promotion is an acknowledgement, said Steven Scebelo, the union's vice president for licensing and business development, that the presumed expense of an NFLPA group license often keeps developers, particularly mobile and independent studios, from even inquiring about its availability.
"We hear a lot of 'I'd love to develop a sports video game, but it costs X amount to get in the door,'" Scebelo told Polygon. "That's the barrier we'd like to break down. Of all the sports properties out there, some might look at us and be scared off, from a price tag standpoint."
The current era of big-budget console sports video games have seen fewer titles than ever before, owing to increased development costs and the advent of exclusive licenses. Of North America's so-called four big sports leagues — the NHL, NFL, Major League Baseball and the NBA — only one, the NBA, has two full games made by competing publishers. Additionally, arcade-style derivatives — games like NBA Jam, or NFL Blitz, for example — disappeared completely in 2013. A rekindling of the RBI Baseball franchise will come to Xbox One this year, but it is self-developed by MLB, which has no licensing partner for any game on an Xbox platform. The MLB 2K series, whose contract with MLB made it the only non-console maker allowed to publish an MLB-licensed video game since 2006, did not renew its deal this year.
The mobile space is untroubled by exclusive arrangements struck nearly a decade ago, well before that market was viable. Yet still its licensed sports properties tend to have league marks only — the license that permits use of team logos, colors and names is wholly different from the one that permits the use of real players.
The NFLPA's "Mobile Madness Challenge" is a foray into that territory and an attempt to grow the union's business there.
"We've identified a number of different areas where there's growth potential and we haven't maximized the value of rights to our license," Scebelo said. "Mobile is one. Toys are another. We were at Toy Fair [in New York in February] for example. This is something we've thought could help us break through, because there's no clear mobile games leader [among licensed sports games.]"
A cursory scan of the iTunes app store turns up one title with NFLPA group licensing — Madden NFL's free-to-play adaptation for mobile devices. The rest have league licensing but feature generic players, the inverse of the early days of licensed sports video gaming.
"We feel through Electronic Arts that we have the authentic 11-on-11 experience pretty well handled," Scebelo said. "We're happy with the way this is developing and growing."
This mobile development bounty is a way to see what else developers have in mind, big or small. Prodded for an example of what the NFLPA might look for, Scebelo mentioned the deal that brought Usain Bolt, the world record holder in the 100 meter dash, to Temple Run 2 as a playable character.
"We think there is an opportunity to work, creatively, with the attributes of our players," Scebelo said. 'They're fast, strong, intuitive; the skills they have lend themselves to a variety of games.
"I think we've got the latitude to develop quite a few different games in this space," Scebelo said. "This is one way for us to come up with a game. We are not looking at this contest resulting in a be-all and end-all NFLPA-licensed game."
Whomever the union chooses, they'll get a full group license and access to the NFLPA's social marketing operation to promote it. The promotional site pointedly mentions this is an all-comers affair — major studios are encouraged to give it a shot, too. Anyone thinking about pairing this concept with an NFL league license — so that the NFLPA players appear in their actual uniforms — is welcome, too.
"The message is we're open to creative ideas and solutions, and we're interested in developing many things," he said. "Our attitude is not one-size-fits-all."