When Electronic Arts Inc. secured exclusive rights to make video games based on the National Football League last year, many industry observers figured it was "game over" for other makers of football-related games.
But instead of throwing in the towel, Midway Games Inc. chucked a Hail Mary -- and scored.
Frustrated by the restrictions the NFL had imposed on its "Blitz" line of football titles, Midway set out to develop the video game it had always wanted to make -- an over-the-top football soap opera replete with showboating players who revel in causing injuries, doctors who administer performance-enhancing "juice," greedy owners and scantily clad cheerleaders who look straight out of strip joints.
The story line for "Blitz: The League" is the work of a former screenwriter for "Playmakers," a gritty ESPN football drama that was canceled after criticism from the NFL. The game also features the voice of former NFL all-pro linebacker Lawrence Taylor, who had a history of substance abuse problems as a player and is also remembered for snapping the leg of Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann.
"It's the game the NFL doesn't want you to play," said David Zucker, chief executive of Chicago-based Midway.
Released in mid-October, "The League" sold more in its first two weeks of sales than Midway's last NFL-licensed football title, "NFL Blitz Pro 2003," has sold to date, according to Midway executives.
"They've proven if anything that EA doesn't have a complete monopoly on the category of football," said Geoff Keighley, a host on G4, a cable channel devoted to video games.
The game has scored with football fans, according to Keighley, because it is "a really good game on top of all the controversy."
"The League," which Zucker predicts will sell more than a million copies, is on course to be Midway's top-selling video game in North America for the year. It represents a bright spot in an otherwise lackluster year for Midway.
The company recently slashed its revenue forecast for the year from $200 million to $145 million, partly because of disappointing sales of games including "L.A. Rush" and "The Suffering: Ties That Bind."
The solid sales of "The League" may have caught skeptics by surprise but still pale in comparison with Electronic Arts' popular line of football games that bear the name of legendary football commentator and former coach John Madden. Praised by football fanatics for its detailed simulation, the Madden franchise has sold more than 46 million copies since its debut in 1989, generating revenue in excess of $1 billion for Redwood City, Calif.-based Electronic Arts.
Sales of "Madden NFL 06," released in August, reached 3.2 million in October, according to NPD Group Inc. In comparison, gamers snapped up about 135,000 copies of "The League" in its first 15 days on the market.
Because "The League" doesn't feature any real teams or players, Midway does not have to pay licensing fees to the NFL. Zucker declined to specify how much the NFL received from Midway under previous agreements but said a typical sports licensing deal ate up 10% to 12% of revenue. The company did, however, pay a one-time, undisclosed fee to Taylor for his participation in the project.
The Madden franchise required Electronic Arts to strike licensing deals with Madden, the NFL and the NFL Players Assn. The company declined to release details of the accords. Analyst Michael Pachter at Wedbush Morgan Securities valued the two NFL licensing deals at $150 million to $200 million over their five-year terms.
"With any license there's a cost, but overall we're very happy with the deals," said Todd Sitrin, vice president of marketing for Electronic Arts.
Sitrin predicts "Madden NFL 06" will end the year as the industry's top-selling video game. As for "Blitz," he said, "We haven't seen any impact on our sales.... The people who buy 'Blitz' have already bought Madden and will continue to buy Madden."
Electronic Arts plans to bolster its roster of NFL-licensed football games with new versions of its NFL Street franchise, an exaggerated, arcade-style game. The company also is preparing to release a football strategy title next spring called "NFL Head Coach."
Zucker won't say whether Midway is planning a follow-up to "The League." Analysts say it would be difficult to turn the unlicensed version of "Blitz" into a successful franchise.
"There likely won't be a market for Blitz 2006, since the players aren't real people and changing teams doesn't matter," Pachter said.
To bring the "Blitz" story to life, Midway hired Peter Egan, a writer from "Playmakers," a pro football drama that received favorable critical reviews but was canceled by ESPN after complaints from the NFL, which considered the depiction of the sport too seedy.
Egan and Zucker insist they have no hard feelings toward the NFL but acknowledge that creating an unlicensed game freed them to write a racier story than the NFL would have permitted.