Suddenly, EA Faces PlayStation Competition

By Mike Musgrove
Thursday, November 9, 2006

I know nothing about sports, and I find most sports video games about as easy and fun as performing brain surgery. But I love an underdog -- and that's what game developer 2K Sports is. At the moment, the game company is positioning itself for a run at the biggest game company around: Electronic Arts.

2K Sports didn't have any titles ready at the launch of the last PlayStation, but this time around it's hopping onto the upcoming Sony console early. In the past year, the company has earned good reviews of its titles for the Xbox 360, and now it hopes to play catch-up on the PlayStation, which some see as EA's home turf.

Sports fans who know their way around a game controller tend to associate six-year-old PlayStation 2 with EA Sports -- the company's Madden NFL game is one of the best-selling titles year in and year out. But the PlayStation 3, scheduled for launch Nov. 17, is unclaimed territory, representing a fresh opportunity for other game makers.

Some 2K Sports folks came to town yesterday to show off their new sports titles for the PS3 and the Xbox 360. Alas, it was a painful meeting for everybody: The PS3 they lugged from New York didn't work, so neither I nor the sports-game-loving comrades I brought along got to see the darn thing in action. D'oh!

For what it's worth, the company's College Hoops 2K7 game for the Xbox 360 worked, and impressed my colleagues Roger Newkirk and Kerry Flagg. Longstanding EA Sports fans, they both said the game looked good enough for them to reconsider their loyalties. It's due out in a few weeks and will beat a similar title from EA Sports to the market by a few months.

Of course, every cutting-edge sports game looks startlingly realistic these days, so game makers are working to figure out what sort of other crazy features they can add to lure sports fans. College Hoops 2K7, for example, comes with a "Chant Creator." The company recorded crowds screaming thousands of words that gamers can string together in a customized cheer.

Cool or cheesy? I dunno. I kinda liked it.

The PS3 has some neato new features, and 2K Sports is trying to differentiate itself by taking advantage of them. The upcoming console, you see, has a motion-detecting controller that senses how players are moving their hands as they play a game.

In 2K's NBA 2K7, players flick the controller to make free throws. In NHL 2K7, players can jerk the controller with their wrists to body check other players; if you're controlling the goaltender, you can whip the controller to one side to defend against an incoming puck.

Sports titles account for about 16 percent of the video game industry's annual sales. They're especially valuable to game makers because they typically require only modest updating. When it's time for a sequel, most titles get remade from the ground up, software-wise.

For EA Sports, at least, sports titles have become an "annuity," said David Cole, principal analyst at research firm DFC Intelligence.

"You get a good franchise going, and boom, everybody's going to buy it every year," he said. "It's been the key to EA's growth overall. . . . Nobody's been able to really match them on that front."

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