Sports Ads: Everything You Want in a Video Game — and LessS

In the cinematic opening to every game in Madden 10, the team logos slam to the turf, game-of-the-week style. Then comes the Snickers promo. "Prepare for CHOMPETITION." OK, I - forgive me - Snickered at that the first time.

Then boothman Tom Hammond pipes up, informing us that this broadcast is sponsored by, of course, Snickers, and to "play like a CHOMPION." And as a final reminder at the coin toss, Snickers tells us "CHEWS WISELY."

All of this follows a Snickers ad on the loading screen. For sports fans who like stats, that's four direct advertising messages, three of them puns, before you even snap the ball.

To be fair, the rest of the Madden game experience is not as cluttered with advertising as this kind of run-up would make you expect. Sprint sponsors your drive summary, Burger King has some kind of "Quickies" popup triggered by certain plays. I'm not sure what bothered me about the Snickers ads. I'm vaguely feeling that it's Hammond's stone-handed delivery, and the fact I still haven't accepted him yet as the voice of a franchise helmed by such Sunday and Monday mainstays as Pat Summerall, Al Michaels and John Madden himself.

But this does make me wonder how much advertising is too much, and if, in a genre already blessed with gamers who equate advertising to realism, someone's going to end up killing the golden goose. Not anytime soon, of course. But Electronic Arts and 2K Sports are paying zillions in licensing, their production budgets aren't getting much smaller, and they're selling titles at a pretty hard $59.99 price point that was fixed three years ago, in better times.

In-game advertising might overall be a novelty that isn't likely to take off in a crap economy. But in sports, it represents a quasi-network sports buy for certain brands, at a stone-cold bargain compared to a real in-game mention. And damn for sure it's going straight to their demographic. What you're seeing now is not so much the sale of visual real-estate on the playing field. Look around, a lot of the scoreboard ads are for false companies (Sprint remains one of the real sponsors.) That's because this messaging is largely ignored. Where you're seeing the growth, and hearing the kickback from fans who feel their loyalty to buying a $60 title every year should be enough, is in the mentions where gamers are truly a captive audience. Pre-game. Halftime. Gratuitous sponsor mentions by the announcing staff.

Proponents say that the ads are content germane to the game experience, and in some cases mimic what you get in live broadcasts anyway - Pontiac's Keys to the Game and Old Spice Red Zone are two from college football that - because they were grounded in reality - enhanced that experience.

Critics point to a marketing maxim that premium generally means advertising free. And when I watch an NFL broadcast, it doesn't have loading screens and coin tosses sponsored by candy bars, so the argument that the Snickers oversaturation is nothing you don't see in a real NFL game isn't literally supported.

So here's an idea that, admittedly, comes off a little naive. But it draws on the other sector of growth and innovation, and that's paid DLC. And God knows, Madden has enough of it, which I'll get into later next week in my review. But rather than pay to cheat or enhance a franchise, maybe we could pay to control our environment.

How about a DLC enhancement that allows a player to skin his stadium with a certain sponsor? In franchise mode that has a certain amount of realism, doesn't it? Give it a franchise-mode effect that boosts your ability to do things financially. That's much more palatable than base cheating.

Maybe choose from three dozen sponsors, and trick your stadium that way. Paying to see advertisements? Believe me, at a nominal enough fee, some people would still go for it. Especially if the sponsors are interesting, ironic, funny, ultra-realistic, whatever.

But here's the big gamer payoff - if this chit also comes with a "no-advertising" option. Turning off the crap and the creep and the invasion of your eyeballs' real estate.

I realize that to advertisers, they'd demand to pay less if there's an installation base they know is or can opt out of their message. Maybe some sponsorships can be hardwired to the game, and the publisher can stratify its advertising pricing. Base fee gets you in the game but doesn't guarantee delivery to everyone. Hard cash on top of that gives you one guaranteed shot every time someone plays.

But with a DLC chit to modify or turn off ads, publishers like EA could get revenue from players who are happy not to have their eyeballs bombarded; they'd get revenue from players who are happy to have their eyeballs bombarded; and they'd have a more diversified ad portfolio to sell.

It's a back-of-the-envelope idea, but I think it's one worthy of - forgive me - Snacknowledgement.

Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It runs every Saturday at 10 a.m. U.S. Mountain time.