Facing the Lockout, Madden and NFL Fans Seek a Common Refuge

At E3 this week, the sight I was least prepared for was that of Ray Lewis in full Baltimore Ravens uniform: eye-black, skullcap, gloves, wristbands, everything. This was an appearance for Madden NFL 12 but to him, it didn't look like it was for show. Lewis looked ready to play right there, ready to go in the two seconds it would have taken to strap on his helmet, clenched by the facemask in his left fist.

A game-day ready Ray Lewis, on display outside of his natural habitat, is like a cobra exhibited outside of its: fascinating and a little frightening despite the tightly controlled circumstances. There are very few instances where that man puts on that uniform and does not unload a Sunday-quality hit on someone before he removes it. I found myself wishing something ridiculous would happen so we could see him in action, like 11 bandits bursting into the Orpheum Theater and taking hostages, challenging everyone to a goal-line stand to save their lives.

The real reason Lewis caught me off guard was because this appearance, like Peyton Hillis' Times Square cover shoot for Madden NFL 12 could be the only time all year we see NFL players in public representing the league that has locked them out. Not unless the two sides agree to new labor contract terms or a court steps in, and neither appear likely right now. And come Sept. 8, the league's opening day, the only NFL games we'll be watching could be those played on an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3.

I was curious if the appearance of players in league attire, carrying one of its primary symbols, the Lombardi Trophy, required any special agreements. No, EA Sports president Peter Moore told me later. In fact, EA Sports' original idea wouldn't have used the players (except maybe Hillis, as the cover star). They approached Dan Lauria, who gives an acclaimed performance as Vince Lombardi in the current Broadway playLombardi to deliver a fire-up-the-team speech in person. When a prior commitment kept Lauria out of L.A. on Monday, they filmed the speech and put it in a trailer shown throughout E3.

So Madden's plan B brought players and league to a rare joint appearance, outside of a courtroom anyway.

If the two sides have a rupture in their relationship, they have a common and strong one in EA Sports. Both the league and the player's association are licensors of the video game, and naturally wish to see it sell well, as that means royalties paid to them. Madden's promotional activities have gone on unhindered, the same as its development.

But it's easy to see EA Sports as the children hurt by an unhappy marriage, loved very much by two sides that can't stand each other. And there will be some pain this year. Electronic Arts has prepared its investors for bad news in the quarter Madden releases and thereafter, saying it could see losses that scale up the longer the lockout wears on. Some analysts have pegged the potential damage in the high eight figures if the entire season is lost, though EA Sports earlier this year reconfigured its licensing agreements with both the NFL and the NFL Players' Association, and it says their more favorable terms will provide protection enough down the line.

Still, this is not going to be the year when casually interested NFL fans are likely to pick up Madden either for the first time or after a few years' layoff. No GameFlow, no Madden IQ, no weapons or quarterback vision are going to bring them along. And that reality is reflected in the design choices EA Sports' Tiburon studio made coming into this edition.

"The lockout's certainly been a topic of conversation," producer Phil Frazier told me on the E3 floor. "In a year with a potential lockout, we wanted to be sure we kept our most passionate fans happy. In a year in which we may have no NFL, we didn't want to do any gimmicks."

The list of changes reads like a love note to the hardcore fan, because really, a fully realistic injured reserve roster is not the kind of it's-in-the-game thing you expect to hear Andrew Anthony touting in a TV commercial. But it (and the expanded roster limit necessary to deliver it) has been something Madden diehards have demanded in forums for years. Franchise mode gets a raft of community-requested features, from the ability to trade draft picks, to the ability to switch (or add) the teams you control at the end of a year, to a more convenient way to practice with the team you've built up six years in.

Maybe these features make sense, conceptually, to casually aware fans, but they have the most impact on the lifers.

Madden also is tuning its camera angles to more closely resemble a football broadcast, particularly on special teams plays. Field goals, for example, are now shot from a high end-zone angle behind the kicker (typically the view you see on the replay of a kick) and kickoffs are shot from the 50 yard line instead of the end-zone (though a return to the traditional view is an option). Madden's beefing up its pre-game extravaganzas, with mascots, and cheerleaders and fireworks and all the stuff we won't see if the stadium gates are locked Sept. 8. The alignment of Madden's presentation with TV broadcasts and game-day pageantry makes a lot of sense if we won't be seeing either in real life.

Pop psychology has it that Madden actually stands to gain something in a lockout, because with no football—and especially no fantasy football—fans will flock to the video game as a surrogate experience. That may be true on an anecdotal level. On the whole, in sports game publishing, licensed simulation titles are relevant, compelling purchases largely because of real world events in and excitement for the leagues they represent.

If there is a silver lining, then it is the circle-the-wagons mentality this lockout has forced on EA Sports, now fully aware of and committed to the need to please its lifelong customers. I suggested to Frazier that if hardcore fans were seeking refuge in Madden, then Madden was also seeking refuge in the hardcore fans. He agreed.

"These are deep philosophical conversations you and Frazier have," Moore quipped, before turning serious. "We've been staring at the specter of a lockout for two years. We started our discussions with the National Football League and the NFLPA 18 months ago. They recognize the uniqueness of our situation. We're not a beer company or a mobile phone company that can move its marketing dollars somewhere else. We actually build stuff that carries the shield. And that is a very different thing than smacking the shield on a can of beer."

Madden is a series that has, of course, faced no direct competition for six years now, opening it to criticism that it can ignore or deprioritize its community's wishes because there's no alternative to swoop in and provide it in another game. Well, now we're going to find out how much the team at Tiburon really cares.

"The team knows that they're building something that may be the only place that you get the NFL," Moore said.

But that means the gun to EA Sports' head is not the threat of a canceled NFL season; it's the threat of a underwhelming release in NFL fans' hour of maximum need. I know Ray Lewis was gameday ready, gameday authentic on the stage in L.A. And I hope this video game is just as ready to knock me on my ass, too.