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NFL, EA Sports double down on esports events

The NFL and EA Sports are beginning to expand esports events, and soon all 32 NFL teams could have Madden esports representatives.

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Since the early 2000s, the NFL and EA Sports have invested in competitions around the Madden franchise on a grassroots, local and regional level. The partnership between the two organizations has spanned 28 years and is starting to take a more formalized shape around more-publicized events, like this past weekend’s Madden 17 Club Series Championship.

NFL Chief Strategy Officer and Senior Vice President of Consumer Products Chris Halpin called the regular programming of esports events over the past year, which included eight league teams having Madden gamers compete for cash prizes, a “long-term investment” for both the league and EA. 

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When asked if the consistent scheduling is leading to a bigger future initiative between the NFL and EA, like what is occurring with the NBA 2K eLeague, Halpin said there could be the long-term potential for all 32 league teams having Madden representatives, though no specific details were provided regarding the chance of a league itself.

“Madden competitive gaming is a key channel to engage fans to get to younger demographics who love the NFL and then give them an opportunity to show what they can do and also at the same time, learn from the best players,” Halpin said. “I think we’re focused on building the narratives, the stories around the top players, the identity, the competition and providing that aspirational element for the millions of Madden players out there. Then, by the way, as part of our international growth, Madden is a fantastic channel for developing international fan bases…We’re focused on investing behind it internationally with EA. 

“I think longer term, it’s continuing to flesh out the year-round competitive gaming series and tour and then also potentially building towards a setup where maybe all 32 NFL teams have their own Madden teams that are representing them and playing on their behalf.”

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Saturday night’s Madden 17 Club Series Championship crowned Seattle Seahawks representative and Madden gamer Michael Clark as the $20,000 winner, who will now compete in the 32-person Madden 17 Championship later this month in Burbank, Calif.

As the NFL’s Halpin explained, competitive gaming around Madden is a “big point of focus across the league, top down, and with our owners.”

“The popular press likes to view a lot of these Major esports platforms as overnight sensations when there’s 10 to 15 years of history and organic development behind them,” he added. “We’re starting from a position of strength given the popularity of the NFL and Madden. We’re focused on building and continuing to drive forward that competitive gaming energy and structure behind Madden.”

Added Todd Sitrin, Senior Vice President and GM of the Competitive Gaming Division (CGD) at EA: “There’s been growing interest across the broader industry and competitions around video games. More and more people have been investing in it and building it. It was starting to get to a scale where…we were looking at in 2015 (when EA formed the Competitive Gaming Division), it was becoming clear to us that players out there wanted to compete.”

Sitrin said that there was an opportunity, especially around millennial and Gen Z audiences whose consumption habits have clearly shifted to mobile and digital, to provide a different way to interact with, engage and watch Madden.

“We saw that there was an opportunity to make the competition around video games more accessible, and I don’t think you can find too many things more accessible in America than NFL football,” he added.

According to Sitrin, EA is specifically focused on the player engagement side along with the spectator standpoint in order to create a sustainable esports community that can fully support a 12-month calendar for Madden, the gaming organization’s largest franchise in North America. Through consistent communication with the world’s top players, EA has placed an actual metric on “player satisfaction.” A player management group within EA handles day-to-day relationship with players to help better assess its strategic growth as it develops new products and new Madden competitions.

In connection to the NBA and 2K, how both organizations are creating the first esports league powered by a U.S. professional sports league, Sitrin said EA in particular hasn’t had any conversations with either organization about what they’re formalizing, best practices and if there’s the potential for a mirrored leagued between the NFL and EA.

“We look at what everyone is doing in the marketplace, whether that’s League of Legends, Dota 2, CS:GO, NBA 2K—we look at all of those things,” Sitrin said.

“We can see what they’re doing, what’s successful and what’s not. We take the best of what we see out there and apply them to our unique circumstance. In our case with Madden, we have a real-world sport that’s going on, and we want to connect NFL fans and players to that.”