National Post (Latest Edition)

Series of challenges keep CFL on video game sidelines

Sm all Canadian market, aging fan base lack app eal for industry giant EA Sp orts

- Dan Barnes

During its sporadic attempts to licence a video game, the Canadian Football League usually has tried to entice the industry gorilla, which has occasional­ly meant spurning the underdog.

It’s a strategy that has never been supported by the size of the Canadian market.

“I used to say back in the day and still say it: ‘ There is nothing wrong with Canada that another 50 million people wouldn’t fix.’

“From a market point of view, that’s the problem,” said former CFL commission­er Tom Wright, who had discussion­s with undisputed industry leader EA Sports during his tenure.

“The market just wasn’t there. We couldn’t run a pro forma P and L that came remotely close to pencilling. With the CFL as it was then and I imagine to a certain extent is now, there wasn’t a ton of discretion­ary money that was set aside to make the investment required. They’re expensive and I’m talking multimilli­on- dollar expenses. In order for ( EA) to even consider it, we had to provide certain guarantees that a certain number of copies would be sold.”

And that’s where the gambit would always fail.

Wright was in the big chair between 2002- 07, Mark Cohon from 2007-15, and he too entertaine­d the idea of a video game as an audience engagement tool.

“Really didn’t have many productive conversati­ons about a video game,” Cohon said in an email on Tuesday. “Although a great idea, many companies viewed the opportunit­y as too small, given our market. Maybe things have changed as gaming has become more ubiquitous.”

Not so much. EA Sports’ officially licensed Madden NFL franchise roars along as the category behemoth — sales reached 130 million units and revenues exceeded US$ 4 billion by 2013 — and other football games carve out a niche where they can.

Last week, Peterborou­gh, Ont.- based Canuck Play launched the 2020 edition of Doug Flutie’s Maximum Football, which offers Canadian, American and American college rule sets for game play, but isn’t licensed by the CFL, NFL or NCAA.

Madden NFL 21 for the Xbox One and Playstatio­n 4 platforms retails for US$ 79.99, Maximum Football for $ 29.99. Madden is a so- called triple- A gaming experience; Maximum Football is not. Electronic Arts, the public parent company of EA Sports, has thousands of employees and massive studios in Florida, California and British Columbia, and routinely reports $ 5 billion in net annual revenues.

Canuck Play, a private company that doesn’t divulge sales figures, has six employees and new office space in Peterborou­gh. Company founder David Winter is still the only employee writing code.

“To put this in perspectiv­e, the annual budget for Madden is an eight- figure budget. The annual budget for Maximum Football is a six-figure budget,” said Winter. “They’re the 500- pound gorilla in the room, they have a business partner with billions of dollars behind them. We’re the underdog for sure.”

However, Winter said the 2019 Maximum Football game beat sales projection­s and he’s pouring revenue back into the company, looking to hire three or four triple- A developers, focused as he is on elevating the look of the game as it moves to updated platforms next year.

Canuck Play also recently announced a licensing deal with Football Canada that allows gamers to play as one of 10 provincial teams in Canada Cup tournament mode. In addition, Team Canada will be featured in future updates.

“I believe that this game is really going to take off over the next three years,” said Football Canada president Jim Mullin. “This will be a game for football- first people. Certainly, the closer for me was the ability to draw up your own playbook and use it in the three-down game. Here’s a resource that can keep our young athletes engaged with the game and engaged with their teams during this pandemic.”

And what’s in it for Canuck Play?

“The biggest benefit to us is Football Canada and Jim have a lot of contacts in the football world, and it’s an opportunit­y for us to perhaps get some doors opened to add other partners that maybe weren’t accessible to us prior to that,” said Winter. “It also helps us further our mandate of growing the sport in the country.”

The CFL has done business with Winter in the past, as the league and CFL Players Associatio­n licensed CFL Football ’ 99, a PC game produced by his former company Winter Valley Software.

The CFL wouldn’t get back into the gaming space until the fall of 2016, when the league partnered with EA Sports on a Madden Mobile game that incorporat­ed Joe Theismann, Jeff Garcia, Doug Flutie, Warren Moon and Mike Vanderjagt, former players with experience in both the CFL and NFL.

CFL executives believed the collaborat­ion would convince EA to approve downloadab­le content that would allow Madden gamers to play CFL rules with CFL players. But sources said EA wanted to see how the mobile game played out before committing to anything more, and in the meantime, encouraged the CFL to jump into the gaming space in other, affordable ways.

Around that time, Winter met with Christina Litz, then the CFL’S senior VP of marketing.

“We were on very different pages. I was talking about simulation football and they wanted an arcade game on the phone,” said Winter.

“They wanted something a young person could pick up, chuck the ball downfield and collect tokens. I wasn’t expecting that kind of a response. They decided that’s what they wanted and we never moved forward on anything.”

The CFL instead worked with another Canadian developer, Relish Interactiv­e, on CFL Football Frenzy, an arcade-style game for mobile and tablet devices. Aimed at youngsters aged eight to 14, it allowed gamers to play as themselves or as CFL stars in seven- on- seven action. According to the CFL, Frenzy is a great success, with 750,000 downloads.

Winter also had a brief conversati­on with Cohon about a console game, likely in 2015, but developmen­t costs were still too high for the market. The CFL ultimately took a pass, Winter missed out on $ 500,000 in venture capital tied to a licence, and was left to pay the freight himself on Canadian Football 2017, a modest product for Microsoft Windows and Xbox One.

“Having a standalone CFL video game, I’m not entirely sure there is a market that would sustain that and let it grow and allow you to get to the visual target people are looking for, as well as the feature set target people are looking for,” said Winter.

“That is very, very expensive, and there just isn’t a market that could support that type of project. It’s going to support something like a phone game because those are dirt cheap to make. They were looking for something inexpensiv­e to make and gets their branding in front of a younger audience. I understand the rationale behind what they were trying to do. They could also have done both.”

The CFL made a choice and will have to make another if they’re ever to get back into the simulation space. It appears that EA Sports, which didn’t respond to requests for comment on its dealings with the CFL, isn’t willing to play ball. So the CFL will have to partner with a developer like Canuck Play on a product that might not reach triple-a visual and graphic heights right out of the gate.

“They want to be partnering with that triple-a experi

ence, but I’m not sure they have the brand strength to do that. I know they don’t, because EA has always told me to go away,” said Winter, who worked for EA Vancouver from 2005-10 as a producer/designer.

The risk to the CFL brand is obvious if they go forward with a product that pales in comparison to Madden’s NFL game. The reward comes in reaching the demographi­c they are always chasing.

“It’s great for brand building, great for fan engagement, great for taking our sport to the next generation,” said Wright, who spent six years as the Ultimate Fighting Championsh­ip’s director of operations for Canada.

“The CFL always has struggled with the demography of our sport. It’s the opposite of the UFC, where it’s very young and tech savvy. The CFL tends to be older. As a potential marketing tool to that next generation it ticked all the boxes, but you just couldn’t make it pencil.”

A video game licensing deal hasn’t been a priority under current CFL commission­er Randy Ambrosie, who has instead pushed a global initiative as a potential revenue generator. But the league has to keep its options open, even if EA won’t play.

“We continue to consider opportunit­ies with other console video game developers including Maximum Football’s Canuck Play and Axis Football’s Axis Games,” Ambrosie said in a statement released to Postmedia on Monday.

“And of course, we’re interested in partnering with the CFLPA and others on any platform that we think ultimately works well for our fans and our business.

“We’re not in a position to announce anything new at this time, but we’re always looking for new and better ways to engage our fans, including video gaming.”

 ?? Azin Ghafa ri / Postmedia News Files ?? Improved fan engagement would be one of the goals for a CFL video game, but CFL fans tend to be an older group, whereas video gaming products target a younger audience.
Azin Ghafa ri / Postmedia News Files Improved fan engagement would be one of the goals for a CFL video game, but CFL fans tend to be an older group, whereas video gaming products target a younger audience.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada