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EA maintains exclusive Madden NFL license in multiyear renewal

NFL, NFLPA extend long-term deals for simulation football video games

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Von Miller of the Denver Broncos looks toward Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks in Madden NFL 20
Action from Madden NFL 20. This year’s game, Madden NFL 21, will be the 16th entry in the franchise since EA signed its exclusive contract with the NFL.
Image: EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts
Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Electronic Arts’ Madden NFL series will remain the only game in town for a while longer, when it comes to simulation football video games. The company announced Thursday that it has agreed to “multi-year” renewals of its exclusive licensing agreements with the NFL and NFL Players Association, shutting the door on the possibility that the league would open up the simulation license for other game publishers to enter the fray.

This ensures that EA will continue to hold what the NFL contract describes as “the exclusive right to manufacture, market and distribute NFL-themed realistic action simulation video games.” In other words, if you want to play a simulation football game with real NFL teams and players, your only choice is Madden — as has been the case for the past 15 years.

While the NFL’s renewal was technically up for a vote at Thursday’s meeting of league owners, an EA spokesperson told Polygon that the parties had agreed to terms ahead of time, and that the vote “is seen as a formality.”

Financial terms of the renewal were not disclosed. Asked for information about the extension’s length, an NFL representative confirmed to Polygon that the new contract runs for six years “starting today,” taking the agreement through May 2026. The rep also said the contract includes a provision for a one-year extension at the end. That additional year depends on EA hitting certain revenue targets, reports The MMQB’s Albert Breer.

As Polygon previously reported, the NFL’s old deal with EA was scheduled to expire in early 2022, at the end of the 2021 NFL season. The renewal will carry the Madden series through what would be Madden NFL 26. Assuming that EA’s typical cadence continues, that game will be released in the summer of 2025 — 20 years after Madden NFL 06, the first entry in the franchise under the exclusive contract. EA’s original agreements with the NFL and its players’ union were announced in December 2004, wiping out any and all competing products (including Sega and Take-Two Interactive’s beloved NFL 2K franchise).

In a news release, EA said that under its renewed arrangement with the NFL and NFLPA, it will also produce additional football games outside the simulation category. The company’s plans include “games in new genres with more forms of play and self-expression, available on more platforms, including expanded offerings for mobile players.” At the moment, EA publishes Madden NFL Mobile on Android and iOS, a free-to-play game that offers a simplified version of the simulation experience available on consoles and Windows PC.

EA also touted a closer relationship between the three parties, and indicated that that will make Madden more authentic, saying, “This partnership will also focus on design, visualization and development innovations to grow and deepen the world of Madden NFL, impacting how it plays and feels, and how players connect to the world of the NFL as it happens.” This could refer to something like the NFL app’s integration of Next Gen Stats, which grew out of a technology partnership between the league and Microsoft.

“The expansion of this partnership is not only about the continued success of the Madden NFL franchise but also the creation of new avenues for our fans to connect with the sport they love,” said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

“We have a shared vision to expand the fanbase of football through interactivity, and we’re thrilled to continue our strong partnership with EA SPORTS to bring this to life in more ways than ever,” said DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFLPA. The union’s renewal was facilitated by OneTeam Partners, which represents the organization in licensing rights for digital games. Ahmad Nassar, CEO of OneTeam Partners, said in a statement to Polygon, “This agreement positions the Madden franchise and the NFL players we represent for the next generation of gaming and gamers alike.”

The exclusivity in EA’s agreements applies only to simulation titles; the contract language says that “arcade-style games, youth games, and casual/mobile games” are open to anyone. Football fans frustrated with EA’s artificial stranglehold on the market might’ve thought they glimpsed a light at the end of the tunnel earlier this year, when 2K and parent company Take-Two announced the formation of their own deal with the NFL (for non-simulation titles). Alas, nobody will get a shot at making a Madden competitor anytime soon.

Joe Ruggiero, senior vice president of consumer products at the NFL, said in Take-Two’s news release that “expanding the NFL’s presence in the world of gaming has become a focus for the League as we look to grow the next generation of our fanbase.” Could one have taken that to mean that the league might be interested in exploring new opportunities, giving game makers other than EA a chance to showcase their talents — or would that have been reading into his words too much?

Apparently, it was. NFL owners are a conservative-minded group, and not necessarily just in the political sense. Once again, they were unwilling to pass up a known quantity — tens of millions in guaranteed revenue from EA — in favor of an uncertain future. It’s always easier to maintain the status quo, especially when it’s working for everyone involved. And it is: The most recent Madden title, 2019’s Madden NFL 20, is “the most successful game in franchise history,” said EA.

EA will provide a closer look at this year’s entry, Madden NFL 21, on Monday, June 1.

Update: EA’s five-year extension from 2021 to 2026 is worth $1.5 billion, with the split being “at least $1 billion to the NFL and $500 million to the players,” reports Darren Rovell at Action Network. Aside from the fees EA is paying to the NFL and NFLPA, the agreements include a total of $500 million in “marketing commitments,” according to Rovell.

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