A Rugby Fan Scores a Try in EA Sports' Top JobS

Some executives, when they take over, try to keep it low key. The big leather chair and better office is good enough for a while. No need to go erasing all memory of your predecessor, especially if he's still lurking about the corporate campus.

That's apparently not Andrew Wilson's style. "Yes, we're still very cordial," the new EA Sports boss says, tongue-in-cheek, of his relationship with the old one. "Until I paint over his red meeting room and turn it blue."

That would be Peter Moore's cherished "Anfield" conference room, named for the home grounds of the outgoing chief's beloved Liverpool FC. Wilson backs Chelsea FC. Although not quite on the level of Roman emperors chiseling one another's names off of triumphal arches, Wilson sounds like he's scheduled Anfield for symbolic demolition, assuming he can secure the permits.

"I don't think he's given me approval to paint it blue yet," Wilson said, "but we are at a point where not being red is OK."

These are the biggest changes in the direction of video gaming's dominant sports publisher and you'd only notice them if you worked at Electronic Arts' campus in Redwood Shores, Calif. This is what Moore, the four-year president of EA Sports who is now EA's chief operating officer, intended when he wrote Wilson's name down in the line-of-succession plan some time ago.

They are both intensely interested sports fans. Wilson, when he was at EA Canada in British Columbia, recounts waiting at the Canadian border with an Australian passport, on a daytrip to see the Seattle Mariners play, as an experience that demonstrates his commitment. Both men are extroverts and apt salesmen in a position that faces plenty of cameras, and both speak, if not with a British accent (Wilson is Australian), then at least not with a Yank's.

A Rugby Fan Scores a Try in EA Sports' Top Job
Andrew Wilson, Executive Vice President of EA Sports

Wilson comes to the office from a development background, and though he was executive producer of FIFA during that series' resurgence, he's had his share of humbling experiences as well. Wilson recalls his time in Australia, a decade ago, building a rugby video game and coming to the states to pitch it to EA eminences like (former CEO) Larry Probst, John Riccitiello (now the CEO) and Don Mattrick. "I thought rugby was going to be the biggest sport in the world, when I watched the news" Wilson said. "I thought to myself, 'Why hadn't Larry Probst heard about it?' It's when you realize what a big, wonderful world it is out there."

Rugby had an OK run on the previous console generation, counting four North American releases, but it had nowhere near the acceptance Wilson figured, in an appraisal colored by the fact it's also his favorite sport.

"I think most sports fans look at all sports with some level of curiosity," Wilson said, and he'd assumed that applies to trying video games. "Even curling, you can watch and say, 'Wow, there really is technique in curling.' But there's a steep learning curve to do it. It's not that people don't want to watch, or don't have the curiosity or passion about new random sports, but without knowing the rules or understanding what it is the different positions are out there trying to achieve, when you watch these sports the best case is it's bewildering, and the worst case is you're made to feel dumb."

Being made to feel incompetent is toxic for an interactive sports experience such as a video game, and Wilson has long since recognized that is an unbreakable law, like Newtonian physics. The sports fan's curiosity still is there, but philosophically, Wilson wants EA Sports to appeal to it in a different way, not across sports necessarily, but across modes of consuming them. In the most platform-agnostic way possible, which is a very EA thing to say, considering the publisher views itself as the arms supplier in a console war, not a sympathizer to any side.

"My wife and I were watching the Padres and the Giants play; the Giants came through and won, my phone bleeps and I got an alert: 'The Giants win,' and then I can read a match report, a pontification as to why it went down, good or bad," Wilson began. "No longer am I just sitting in front of the TV looking at one medium to get my sport fix. So when you think of video gaming and its asynchronous nature, it means that things like mobile devices and the connected world become more important to you."

To extend the vision, rather than simply playing a game of Madden or NHL and getting the result, good or bad, and ending the experience there, a gamer would then tap into a larger community in which he or she can see how their team is performing, virtually, how its rivals are performing, how that performance looks relative to real world events, and so forth. This is the motivator behind features like EA Sports Football Club, for FIFA, and to some extent the new Online Communities, and Fantasy Football integration, in Madden NFL 12. All of these features are multimodal, accessed in some way through social networks, other websites, mobile applications, or the console game itself.

Put another way, EA Sports doesn't want to be part of the buffet in a sports fan's media consumption—NFL football on Sunday and Monday; Fantasy football trades on Tuesday; Madden Online Franchise on Wednesday, web and TV content throughout. EA Sports wants be its own buffet, having faith in fans' willingness to consume as much as they can about their favorite sport. Wilson is now the head chef planning the menu, with courses served in Facebook, mobile devices and all major platforms.

We're seeing this not just in associated content but in gameplay also, in something like FIFA on the iOS devices, where two iPhones are controllers in a game run by an iPad that's connected to a high-definition screen. And the results won in the mobile version of the game will have a persistence that's felt in its console version and elsewhere.

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Wilson doesn't pretend he has all the answers as EA plunges ahead to offer its own network of content the way a cable TV sports channel would. He's also standing somewhat on the shoulders of giants. A lot of EA Sports' direction has been laid down by those before him, Moore especially. But he does enjoy thinking about the big picture, and knows now that, even if his original call on Rugby was off, his gut feeling as a sports fan is reasonably centered and balanced with what he knows as a video games executive with a decade's more experience.

He's still a curious fan, too, admitting that while he knows the mechanics of American football, he doesn't understand the context that makes college football such a uniquely compelling story on its own. "I think I should go take a class in windsurfing at Stanford, just so I can immerse myself in that atmosphere," he jokes. "It's less about running backs, quarterbacks and linebackers, and more about longstanding rivalries because of things that happened decades ago."

Why Stanford? Other than the fact it's nearby, Wilson can't say, really. But come to think of it, Peter Moore's adopted college team is California, the Cardinal's principal rival.

A Rugby Fan Scores a Try in EA Sports' Top Job
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays.