In a world in which the recent trend has been toward exclusive contracts between video game manufacturers and professional sports leagues, it is refreshing to be able to report that at least one major North American sport is changing things up. The NHL and the NHL Players’ Association have agreed to nonexclusive contract extensions with both Electronic Arts and 2K Sports to continue to produce and update their NHL 06 and NHL 2K6 titles respectively, maintaining the options that gamers currently enjoy.
In December 2004, EA signed a five-year contract with the NFL for exclusive rights to publish games using NFL teams, logos, and players, freezing out the well-regarded and less expensive NFL 2K5 game. About one month later, Take-Two Interactive, owner of the 2K Sports imprint, countered with an exclusive agreement to use Major League Baseball teams and stadiums, leaving EA with nothing more than its NCAA title to attract baseball fans. At the time, it was widely assumed that the NBA and NHL would shortly follow the path to exclusivity, with many predicting that the future of sports video gaming would grow bleak as lack of market competition drove prices ever higher while stifling innovation.
Certainly, the forced march from the market undertaken by the US$20 NFL 2K5 game didn’t score EA much good will from the gaming community, nor has EA’s notable lack of significant additions to its Madden game since making its exclusive deal. The nonexclusive nature of the new hockey contract extensions is almost certainly good news for gamers, since it points supports the idea that perhaps the NFL and MLB contracts have not generated the windfall that EA and 2K Sports may have desired.
Since it is unlikely that the NHL or either of the game companies involved is supporting competition out of the goodness of their hearts, it stands to reason that that the economics of the situation have dictated that nonexclusivity is best for all parties. A contract with just one publisher needs to bring more revenue into the league than multiple non-exclusive contracts would have. In order to make a decent return on that rather hefty investment, the publisher must count on being able to grab a significant number of fans of the title previously offered by the competition. Apparently, that hasn’t happened, at least not enough to drive EA and 2K Sports into a bidding war over the NHL.
It’s possible that the NHL merely lacks the stature of the NFL and MLB with respect to commanding a top-dollar exclusive deal. However, with luck, this new pair of agreements will mark the beginning of a new trend—one in which competition returns to the world of video games, not only in front of the controllers, but behind the scenes as well.