Football guru changed the rules of vidgame biz

As industry legend goes, back in the late ’80s, John Madden wouldn’t lend his endorsement to an EA Sports football vidgame until its developers figured out how to program 11 guys on each side of the ball.

Launching in 1989 for the Apple II PC — with an NFL regulation 22 players on its virtual field — John Madden Football was just the beginning. Soon, Madden was challenging EA programmers for even greater detail, such as nuanced one-on-one matchups between individual players. Just what does happen, Madden wondered, when a speedy receiver lines up against a muscle-bound free safety?

Now on Madden NFL 2004, the latest version in the top-selling sports vidgame franchise, EA’s game coders have gotten so good at programming realistic offensive and defensive football formations, “a lot of these guys could get assistant coaching gigs in the NFL,” boasts Chip Lang, longtime marketing VP for the company.

With Madden NFL 2004 featuring the virtual likeness of almost every player, coach and official in the NFL — the beer salesman being about the only person not included — licensing is an elaborate and expensive process.

“The level of realism that the technology is allowing has really put an increased focus on how deep our licensing is,” Lang explains. “If you don’t have these licenses, you shouldn’t even show up.”

Games such as EA’s NBA Live 2003 and MLB 2003 from Sony PlayStation software division 989 Sports, require not only a license from the leagues their virtual worlds portray, but the unions that represent the players. Game officials, assistant coaches and stadium owners are also in the mix.

And it gets even more complex. For example, EA’s upcoming NASCAR Thunder 2004 requires more than 200 licenses, Lang says, with negotiations covering even the sponsorship stickers on the car.

With the console games business booming around Sony’s PlayStation 2, Microsoft’s Xbox and Nintendo’s GameCube, the leagues and the corporate sponsors realize games are a valuable platform to appear in, Lang adds.

“As you get smaller, it becomes symbiotic and there’s no money going back and forth. There’s no way we could make a profit if we had to pay for more than 200 licenses.”

Licensing cash, however, is considerable for star athletes who put their name in the game title and/or likeness on the packaging cover.

“It’s not millions, but if you’re a star athlete, you want your agent to get this for you,” says a 989 Sports spokesman, speaking of the company’s upcoming NFL GameDay 2004, which will feature San Diego Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson on its cover.

“The videogame business is very strong right now, and if you’re an athlete in any sport, it’s a great opportunity to get your image in front of a very vibrant, youthful audience,” says Peter Caparis, exec VP of sales and marketing for Impact Sports, which recently hooked client Alex Rodriguez, the Texas Rangers’ $250 million shortstop, into a starring role in Atari’s Backyard Baseball 2003.

According to Caparis, every such deal is different, “but more often than not, they’re in the six-figure range, mostly on the low end.”

Licensing fees do go higher, however. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series, from action sports specialist Activision, would never be the perennially top-five selling title it is without its namesake skateboarding icon.

According to Lori Plager, senior director of licensing for Activision, Hawk — a William Morris client — will make over $1 million for his contribution to the upcoming Tony Hawk’s Underground.

“It’s like casting a movie,” she explains. “Athletes are much more aware now that these deals are out there.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more