Jul 26, 2021 - Technology

EA Sports is in expansion mode

Two screenshots, one of a man and another of two football players mid-tackle
EA Sports general manager Daryl Holt (left). Photo illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios. Photos: EA Sports

The biggest player in sports video games has plans to get even bigger — on mobile, in football, maybe even with basketball again — EA Sports general manager Daryl Holt said in an exclusive interview with Axios.

Why it matters: Sports gaming doesn’t get much press, but it’s a surging market with increased competition and lots of players up for grabs.

  • EA says it now reaches 230 million sports gamers, and it's trying to increase that to 500 million over the next five years.
  • The expansion will involve “new business models, new geographies,” and a sustained offering of sports gaming content to players around the clock, Holt said.
  • Part of the plan is to link players to each other. “We're creating very much a social aspect and social networks within our games,” he said.

Between the lines: EA is known for its success with American football (“Madden NFL”), soccer (“FIFA”) and pro hockey (“NHL”).

  • Earlier this year, EA announced plans to get back into golf, college football and baseball
  • It also recently extended its UFC deal and bought a studio that makes Formula One games.
  • The competition isn’t resting: Rival Take-Two is ramping up its golf offering and plans to resume making NFL games after many years off.

In the U.S., EA Sports’ flagship is its “Madden NFL” series, which remains popular but got hammered by reviewers last year.

  • Holt oversees the series and says this year’s game, “Madden NFL 22,” should run better, citing “a responsibility for us to deal with craftsmanship in terms of bugs or any issues of instability.”

On mobile, EA’s realistic sports games do fine, but more casual, quick-play options tend to top the charts.

  • The company is leaning into that with the recent pickup of Playdemic for its “Golf Clash” game and of Glu Mobile, which has an MLB game.

What’s next: EA Sports’ long-running business model involves annual releases, but much of gaming is moving toward fewer releases that are expanded upon more often — hence the reason there’s always new “Fortnite” content but never a “Fortnite 2.”

  • Don’t expect the cessation of annual “Madden” games soon, but Holt said EA is mindful of this shift toward perpetual service-related games, just as it is aware that there’s an annual cyclicality to the sporting calendar.
  • “I think it is an evolution that is happening around the gaming industry in different ways,” Holt said. “How we unlock the big beat of sports into that type of a service, I think we'll see over the course of the future.”

The most conspicuous hole in the EA Sports portfolio is basketball, where its once-annual “NBA Live” console series has skipped five of the last 10 years.

  • Take-Two dominates with its “NBA 2K” series, which is one of the industry’s most successful franchises.

What they’re saying: “We've got some next-generation HD basketball projects that we have been talking about and designing and working on,” Holt said, using “high definition” as shorthand for non-mobile games on console and/or PC.

  • But the company has yet to announce an official return to the format, only continuing to expand an existing “NBA Live” mobile game.
  • EA Sports last announced a deal with the NBA in 2011. Asked if there’s an NBA deal now, Holt said, “Definitely around mobile. And then we're in discussions about what we want to do on the HD front.”

Fun fact: EA also still owns the rights to “NBA Jam,” the arcade classic it picked up over a decade ago, though it last released a game in that series in 2011.

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