What to Expect From Madden If a Lockout Cancels the NFL SeasonS

With a work stoppage in the National Football League increasingly likely, Electronic Arts has said that Madden NFL 12 will be published - but the company is assuming a lockout will wipe out the entire 2011-12 season.

"In terms of a planning assumption ... we've baked in the most conservative assumption, meaning no season," John Schappert, the Electronic Arts chief operating officer, said during a conference call with investors today. "We're optimistic it can be better than that, so there's an upside."

The NFL and its players' union are at odds over the current collective bargaining agreement; the NFL opted out of it in 2008, setting it to expire with the conclusion of this season. The players want to proceed under the currently negotiated terms; ownership is seeking salary concessions and an increase in the regular season from 16 to 18 games, among other terms. The league may lock players out if the two sides are unable to come to an agreement before training camp and the beginning of the regular season.

Armchair analysts might think a lockout, if not a good thing for Madden, would at least not be a bad thing, as football fans rush to the video game to get their pro football fix, in an environment whose franchise simulation mode never deals with the whiff of labor unrest.

But while a lockout may not be fatal to the product, much of Madden's value is entwined with the current season of play, if not dependent on it.

Foremost, the game updates its rosters and player ratings each week, factoring in the most current performances and injuries. This roster is the basis for the game's online multiplayer, a tremendous component of Madden NFL and an area of participation the publisher seeks to grow every year.

With no season, no roster changes and no player progression, multiplayer rosters will largely be a continuation of the 2010-11 season, less any retirements. The 2011 NFL Draft will go forward, so the latest crop of rookie stars will presumably be available in the roster shipping with the game.

Other aspects of the game may suffer from a lockout. This year, EA Sports introduced Madden Moments Live, a constantly updated series of challenges based on the real-world performances seen in the previous week. The Madden Ultimate Team card-collection/team management/online multiplayer hybrid also published card packs that celebrated top performers of recent weeks.

These features could be bought outright, so their absence could affect EA Sports' bottom line, and downloadable content has been a particularly robust revenue stream for Madden going back a couple of years. Players also could acquire Madden Moments Live and Ultimate Team card packs for free, using virtual currency awarded for online play. The absence of a real season creating new cards or highlighting emerging superstars could also deprive players of variety in the online game modes and depress interest in them.

EA Sports' most recent comment on labor unrest came during Madden NFL 11's launch, and said only that the publisher was "working hard with our NFL and NFLPA partners to develop contingency plans so that we may continue to enable fans to enjoy interactive NFL experiences during any lockout." With more than a year's warning, it's likely the game's Ultimate Team and Online project leaders have developed stand-ins for Madden Moments and Ultimate Team's top fantasy performer cards.

This is uncharted territory for a licensed American football video game. The NFL has not had a work stoppage since 1987, which predates the Madden series by a year. (The first video game to feature a full current roster of NFL players was Tecmo Bowl on the NES in 1989.)

Madden is a powerhouse brand and sales machine for Electronic Arts. The publisher may adjust its bottom line projections to investors to compensate for the disruption. Fans may seek refuge in a virtual league where the games go on. That doesn't mean a lockout will be painless for them, or EA Sports especially.