LOS ANGELES -- The best-kept secret in sports video games? No doubt it was the EA Sports announcement that they signed an exclusive, multi-year, multi-platform licensing deal with the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
And according to Andrew Wilson, the executive who heads up EA Sports, the main reason the deal never leaked prior to Monday’s news conference is because of how late the contracts were signed.
“The ink was still wet when we walked on stage,” Wilson told me with a laugh, discussing the signing that left the video game industry stunned, as after years of UFC president Dana White bad-mouthing EA Sports and trying to bury the company he saw as competition, he was on stage giving Wilson a bro-hug.
I caught up with Wilson later that night at a private EA Sports party to talk about the new partnership, the return of “NBA Live,” and a possible deal with Major League Baseball. Here’s what he had to say.
Jon Robinson: What was it like behind the scenes trying to keep a lid on the UFC signing before the press conference?
Andrew Wilson: Not bad, huh? [laughs] I’ve had a tremendous relationship with those guys for a long time, but we couldn’t work with them because they had a relationship with someone else. But as soon as it became apparent that they were looking for someone else, we knew it made sense to start reaching out. They’re an amazing organization. I’ve been a fan of MMA for a long time, and this is the one sport I know more about than any other sport that we make games for. So it was really hard to keep the secret, but I didn’t have to keep it very long because we just recently got it done.
Is this the game that makes you want to step back down from your executive role and get your hands dirty in development?
There’s a bunch of guys who really want to build this game, but there are two minds because they’re like, “Do we really want to build it when we know Andrew is going be in our lunch every day?” It’s a give and take, but yeah, this is one I’d like to go back and make games for.
What’s the release window for the first EA Sports UFC game? Will it be a launch title for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox 720?
We just got this deal done, so we’re going to get through E3 first. It was fortuitous that we got this done before the show because it gave us a tremendous platform to announce it, and in all honesty, I’m going on vacation after E3. But when I get back, we’re going to meet with Dana, we’re going to sit down with the team and discuss the strategy of what this will look like in the future. And, of course, the next generation of consoles, when that comes, and if we believe what we read, that’s not too far away. When that comes, this will be a great title for that. Then I think about mobile and social, and the UFC fans are more connected than any other fans of any other sport out there around the globe, so the social and mobile area makes total sense. Then I think about Asia, Brazil, and Eastern Europe, there are all these countries with free-to-play markets who are just rabid, rabid UFC fans, and there is a lot of opportunity there. This is not going to be a one-trick play for us. This is a global deal. It’s cross-platform, it’s cross-geography, and more than likely, multiple business partners.
EA Sports stumbled in the past trying to produce a MMA game with a second-tier promotion in Strikeforce. How big of a difference will it make in sales and for the EA Sports brand to finally partner with the top promotion?
We loved our relationship with Strikeforce, and UFC now owns Strikeforce, so we’re going to be working with them still, so that’s fantastic for us. But let’s face it, the UFC is the number one MMA brand in the world. They have world-class athletes, world-class fights, and they put on great shows. And without tooting our own horn, I think we’re the world-class sports interactive brand, so I think the relationship is the right one. I’m amazed it took us this long to pull together, but it has, and good things come to those who wait.
Switching gears to “NBA Live,” after the whole “NBA Elite” debacle, how important is it for EA Sports to get this right with your first game back? Are you in jeopardy of losing basketball consumers forever if it fails?
Here’s the nuance to that: I was part of the “FIFA” rewrite, and while we got most things right the first year out, we didn’t get everything. We got more of it right the second year out, and by the third year, we had a near 90-rated game. So this is a long-term view we have with this. I expect our team to have some pretty cool stuff, and they’re going to get most things right. Are they going to get everything right? Maybe, maybe not. But I think they are going to make great headway. This is not a one-year deal, this is a long-term deal. We want to be in NBA forever, and we’re going to do whatever it takes to make sure we are a proper player in the space.
Will we see another “NBA Jam” game in the future as well?
Absolutely. One of the things we figured out is just doing everything every year just to make some money at it doesn’t make sense. So we’re listening to gamers. In the last year we did “Blitz” because gamers wanted it, we did “SSX” because gamers wanted it, “FIFA Street” because gamers wanted it, and as soon as people start screaming at me again that they want “Jam,” we’ll go for it again.
“Madden 13” looks like it could be the best “Madden” since “Madden NFL 2005” thanks to the all-new physics engine. “FIFA” struggled a bit last year when they introduced their new physics engine, and there ended up being some crazy plays with bodies flying all over the pitch. How do you avoid the same thing happening with “Madden 13”?
I don’t want to say that it won’t happen, because this is physics, and when you add new physics to a game, crazy stuff happens. Now 99.999 percent of the time, that crazy stuff is the same crazy stuff that happens in the real world when you get 300-pound men running at each other at pace. So that rare time when you see something random, we’re going to do our best to fix all of that stuff. I think the “Madden” team learned a lot thanks to what happened with “FIFA” last year, and they’re doing a lot on the tuning. Will we get everything? I hope so. Is there a chance you’re going to see some randomness? Perhaps, but I think the payoff for having these new physics in “Madden” is more than worth it.
You made the surprise announcement about the UFC license, when I thought the surprise might be a new deal with Major League Baseball.
I can’t do all the deals all the time, Jon. There’s only one of me. (laughs)
The 2K Sports third-party exclusive with MLB recently expired. Are there current negotiations taking place between EA Sports and Major League Baseball?
No, we’re not. Do I like baseball? Absolutely, I’m a huge baseball fan. But right now, we’re focusing on the franchises we’ve got. We’re focused on doing the UFC, and making it big and global. Is there an opportunity for us to do something with baseball one day? I hope so. But are we doing anything with baseball today? It’s just not something we’re working on right now.