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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."

So naturally, EA Sports has plans for PlayStation 3. The company is launching three titles at around the same time as the PS3 -- Madden NFL 07, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 07 and the boxing game Fight Night Round 3. The company also has some clever ideas for the PS3's new controller: In Fight Night, players can make an illegal move by thrusting the controller forward.

But while 2K Sports has been winning a solid rep for good games, some of EA Sports' biggest fans worry that the company sometimes appears to be slipping.

Consider EA's hoops title, NBA Live. Fan sites once dedicated to discussing the finer points of the video game now devote more time to documenting weird glitches. You really don't have to be a sports junkie to get a chuckle out of the game's screwy physics problems, such as a basketball that hits the court and sticks to the ground like a shotput. Some fans have posted video clips of the quirks on the video site YouTube.

One site, NBALive.org, recently posted an open letter to the company. "At one time, EA was producing the best titles money could buy and one had little reason to look elsewhere," the letter read. "Now gamers have a sense that if you want the best, it's not EA."

EA spokeswoman Tammy Schachter acknowledged that NBA Live has software issues, which EA plans to address by releasing a patch within a few weeks.

Some of the grumbling about EA started when the company struck an exclusive deal with the National Football League and the NFL Players Association in 2004, effectively killing the competition by ensuring that no one else got the right to use the NFL logo or player names.

Video-game fan Nik Carr-Voigt expressed another concern that seems to be going around: He is annoyed that EA seems determined to squeeze every penny out of him. The classic uniforms that were free last season on Xbox are not included in this year's Xbox 360 game, meaning he has to crank out a few bucks now if he wants that feature. He said that he has also been surprised at the number of goofs in the latest Madden title.

"They've made a ton of mistakes," he said. "I really regret spending $60 on it."

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