Where Madden Plugs a Gap, Another Sees a Running Lane

In building a football video game without a full NFL license, Jeff Anderson discovered his toughest pitch wasn't to investors, but the press. "They'd say, ‘Don't you understand? You're not supposed to be making a football product. That's EA's job.'"

"I'd say, ‘I guess I didn't get that memo,'" said Anderson, CEO of Quick Hit Football, which will ramp up for the public as a free online game in October, advertising a combination of MMO and fantasy sports traits, and plant a flag in what Anderson considers huge customer territory, all without a full NFL license.

Foxborough, Mass.-based Quick Hit is a notable example of where the competition has flowed, like water finding gaps in the floorboards, in the fifth year of EA Sports' exclusive - and commonly reviled - licensing arrangement with the NFL. Quick Hit's zero-cost web-based game confronts EA Sports' Madden NFL franchise as a competitor where it suits them - price, download/file size, flat or unimpressive sales or platform absence. And in areas where Madden purely outclasses the startup - reputation, console presence or gameplay depth - Quick Hit then repositions itself as simply a free and casual alternative.

That said, "the NFL does add an air of authenticity," Anderson conceded. And were the opportunity available, his business would definitely be on the phone with the league. However, market research done by his company in its 18 months of existence found that fully-licensed authenticity does matter, but it is not a deal-killer, provided a challenger defines and pursues the territory correctly.

Anderson, in his forties, is the former CEO of the studio Turbine, and brings experience in dealing with high profile IPs. He said Quick Hit did two studies, of 1,000 guys each, about a year ago. "Both studied males in the 14 to 40 age range," Anderson said, "and we asked those questions, ‘Is the NFL important? How important are the players?'" Also, a few months back they put their product in front of a focus group and asked if it noticed the lack of real teams or licensing.

"We were surprised that there wasn't that sort of response," Anderson said. "We expected 90 percent to say, ‘You have to have the NFL.' It turned out to be a much lower number."

Anderson declined to say what percentage wanted the NFL, or if it was a majority. But it was low enough that his company went forward. "What we took away is that it's a valuable part, but it was not something that had to be included," he said, "and that's partly because we are not trying to appeal to the hardcore demographic. We're not trying to replace Madden as a product. But also, on the PC, they're not there."

Brandon Justice, the Quick Hit director of design and a veteran of Visual Concepts to 2005 and a producer in the Madden franchise to 2007, likens this to a pre-game matchup. No undersized team would run straight at a brick-wall defense up the middle. And yet no juggernaut can cover every gap.

But the objective is still there - end zone or audience - and then however it can be monetized. So a full license is a powerful means, but not the end, Anderson says. His company figures the casual/fantasy football crowd, multiples larger than a hardcore Madden installation base, is where the growth is. And he's running hard for it, in a free-to-play Web-based arena.

Where Madden Plugs a Gap, Another Sees a Running Lane

This is unlike many competitors in the Madden-exclusive era, which have gone after a slice of the console market, failed conspicuously, and have been all but driven into the wilderness. Midway's Blitz: The League, and its sequel, relied on outrageous subplots and scrotum-rupturing renegade appeal. Visual Concepts, the studio behind the much lamented ESPN NFL 2K5 - the last fully licensed title to compete with Madden - tried to hang in later with retired heroes John Elway, Barry Sanders and Jerry Rice in All Pro Football 2K8. All went straight into the value bin, and All-Pro closed after one year.

All-Pro Football 2K8 tried negotiating with retired players for their likeness on a one-on-one basis, to replace a standard roster. It was a Pyrrhic victory, paying a premium for Hall of Famers while telling customers they were getting yesterday's stars. Quick Hit went after current players on a one-by-one basis but found that such negotiations were capped by the NFL Players Association - they couldn't pursue individual deals with everyone, even if they had the time or money - so the company focused on licensing five current performers at commonly understood skill positions, offense and defense.

Another 100 all-time greats -outside the NFLPA's scope - round-out the lineup of likenesses. And like All-Pro 2K8, each deal had to be done individually, Anderson said, another opportunity cost posed by the lack of the license enjoyed by EA Sports. But unlike the console game, Justice argued this can still fit within Quick Hit's game design.

A fully draftable league could put superstars at every position and distort competitive balance, he said. Seeding a team with two all-pros or hall of famers and randomizing the rest of the lineup, according to team tendency, places more of a premium on playcalling, he said. and it encourages leveling up, either investing in players you have or discarding underachievers for ones with better potential. Plus, it keeps a diehard fan from being married to his franchise's awful history.

Where Madden Plugs a Gap, Another Sees a Running Lane

"If you're a Bengals fan, as I am," said Justice, the design chief, "they're terrible year in and out. On a console game, I can't make them into the team I want because of the roster they have at the beginning of the year."

Thus Quick Hit, whose closed beta is underway, focuses less on action and more on strategy, hoping to siphon from the millions in the fantasy football market who know more how to draft an elite running back but less how to weave him through the line off-tackle with a PS3 controller in Madden 2010. Games are won and lost against other players, or coaching AIs, according to a familiar fantasy-football scoring formula. Points earned from that can level up both players and the coach. Progress is maintained in a persistent league, somewhat like an MMO. If any of this fails to catch, here's the bottom line - Quick Hit tries to give a graphical representation to fantasy football, with play-calling thrown in.

The problem, of course, is Quick Hit seeks to do this without a full, accurate league roster, a fundamental of fantasy football. But Anderson and Justice are betting that the millions of hardcore NFL fans who play fantasy sports, and have no problem drafting superior players on competing teams, likewise won't balk at populating their squads with anonymous players with strong numbers.

All of this is conjecture. The casual, free-to-play market in the United States might present enormous growth but it is relatively unexplored - especially in sports - and is routinely shouted down by core players of any genre. Any game offered for free trails the assumption that it's not worth money, and therefore, not worth your time.

But in football, compared with a $60 title on a console, it's all you've got for now.

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