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What’s next for the sports gaming scene as the NFL and 2K announce new partnership?

Eric Berry, Jordan Reed

For more than a decade, EA Sports has dominated the football gaming market with exclusive rights to the NFL in the digital sphere.

Millions of dollars flow into the company’s accounts every August as the latest installment of the Madden NFL series gets released on PlayStation and Xbox, and with a l lack of competition, many fans worry about the idea of the game’s developers getting complacent.

But, this wasn’t always the case. Back in the early 2000s, there was a battle in the trenches between EA Sports and 2K Sports when it came to NFL games, and the rivalry was fierce.

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The virtual war hit its peak in 2004, with EA Sports developing Madden NFL 2005, widely recognized as one of the company’s best Madden releases, and 2K Sports giving fans ESPN NFL 2K5, also regarded as one of the better football games of all time.

NFL 2K5.jpg

Then, the NFL and EA Sports signed their first exclusivity deal, giving the latter sole control of league-sponsored football games. Fast forward more than 15 years, and EA Sports still holds all the cards as it relates to the NFL’s virtual presence on Playstation, Xbox and PC.

Many of today’s gamers haven’t lived in a world where EA Sports isn’t the top dog when it comes to football games, but that may soon change. Why? Because the NFL announced a multi-year partnership with 2K that will allow the gaming giant to return to the football fray with “non-simulation football game experiences.”

“We’re thrilled to be back in business with the NFL in a partnership that will span multiple video games centered on fun, approachable and social experiences,” 2K President David Ismailer said in a statement.

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Based on those terms, 2K won’t be competing with EA Sports anytime soon, and the Madden franchise is safe to operate without any fierce competition. But, that doesn’t mean 2K won’t be able to provide football fans with entertaining alternatives to the Madden experience, similar to what the company created when they released NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 in 2018.

“EA SPORTS is the exclusive publisher of NFL simulation games, and our partnership with the NFL and NFLPA remains unchanged,” EA Sports said in a statement after the announcement of the NFL’s new partnership with 2K. “Our commitment to NFL fans, which spans almost 30 years, has never been stronger, and we’re having our biggest year yet.”

“We’ll be building on that momentum with more new and different experiences, on more platforms and with new ways to play, in the years to come.”

Madden QB

EA Sports may take comfort in the lack of direct competition for now, but another interesting news nugget signals a potential changing of the guard in a few years: EA Sports’ deal with the NFL will reportedly expire at the end of the 2021 season, meaning the first quarter of 2022.

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If the NFL decides that they want a change of pace and want to go in a different direction, they could easily switch gears and sign on with 2K Sports as their exclusive rights holder for NFL video games. In the long run, it could lead to better-looking likenesses for the league’s players, more realistic gameplay, and even more celebrity collaboration as it relates to soundtracks and content, similar to ESPN NFL 2K5. 

From an esports perspective, a potential new exclusivity deal could also have a massive impact on pro players and their futures. The football gaming scene could transition from the Madden Championship Series to an entity similar to the NBA 2K League, which has made waves in esports since its inaugural season in 2018.

That shift could allow for more opportunities for gamers, and give them a chance to take advantage of a new spotlight with a new developer at the helm.

All in all, even if the NFL decides not to go with 2K as its exclusive rights holder, it could be a move that motivates EA Sports to improve its product with the Madden franchise.

Similar to a football team bringing in a second quarterback to stir up a quarterback controversy, the NFL could make this type of move to encourage EA Sports to put their foot back on the gas pedal, rather than turning on cruise control as it relates to Madden Ultimate Team content, the game’s Franchise mode, and its online servers.

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If it doesn’t improve, gamers could see a similar situation as fans saw with the Tennessee Titans in the 2019 NFL season. Marcus Mariota didn’t cut it, so Ryan Tannehill stepped in. The end result? An impressive push deep into the postseason, and a newfound interest in the team as a whole.

Could the NFL be doing the same thing with their own Mariota (EA Sports) and Tannehill (2K Sports)? Time will tell, but it’s a move that could change the landscape of the sports gaming scene in a big way.

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