New Football Game Will Use Real Player Names, Despite Madden Exclusivity

The upcoming video game Football Heroes: Pro Edition will sport a license from the NFL Players Association, making it one of the only non-Madden game in a decade to include pro football players' names, according to the game's creators and the players' group.

This is a plot twist in the ongoing saga of EA's Madden NFL exclusivity, but one that astute sports gamers probably saw coming. It is a happy turn for indie game development.

Earlier this spring, the NFLPA launched a "Mobile Madness Challenge" to award a smaller game developer the opportunity to sell their game with a license to use the player's names. The winner was a small studio called Run Games, whose Football Heroes game is an arcade-y throwback to Tecmo Bowl with role-playing-game-like elements (you level up players!). The game will be reissued in the fall in a "pro edition" that includes around 1,800 player names.

None of this means that Madden is about to get console-scale competition, of course. EA's mighty franchise is the only American football game made by a major game publisher and has been since the rival NFL 2K series got squeezed out by EA's licensing deals a decade ago. Madden includes licenses for the NFLPA and, just as crucially, the NFL. That latter license gives Madden the right to include the names of pro teams, which Football Heroes: Pro Edition does not have.

Run Games' co-founder Michael Marzola described their Madness Challenge win as a "huge boon for our business." The thinking there is that licenses for pro leagues and players are expensive and usually outside the reach of small indies like Run. The NFLPA contest, however, was designed to give the little guy a chance to get some big branding. Football Heroes now has a players' license for the 2014-2015 season and a $10,000 credit to market the game through the players' social media firm Activate.

"We had incredible response to the Mobile Madness Challenge," the player's group's vice president of licensing, Steve Scelebo said in a press release, adding that it "gives us reason to believe the framework for issuing an industry-wide challenge offers growth opportunities across other categories of our NFLPI licensing business." Marzola said his game was one of hundreds in the contest.

Whether we will see more non-Madden games with the players' license remains to be seen. The NFLPA does currently count mobile gaming giants Gree and DeNA among its license holders. Run Games stands out for being so small and for having a flashy football game likely to appeal to the same types of twitchy thumbs that play Madden.

The non-player-name version of Football Heroes is available now for free on iTunes. The Pro Edition with the players will be out in September. Here's a description to whet your appetite:

"Football Heroes: Pro Edition" is a hard-hitting and fast-paced arcade-style, role playing game (RPG) evocative of classic arcade-style games like Tecmo Bowl and NBA Jam. In this edition, fans will construct the ultimate football team, selecting from more than 1,800 active NFL players to do battle online or head-to-head over Wi-Fi. Player's individual stats increase as you earn XP and you can level up your team by scoring touchdowns and making huge plays against your opponent. Players are also armed with incredible powers to use on the gridiron such as: Flaming Pass, Atomic Stiff Arm, Teleport Spin and Rocket Boots, just to name a few. All of these elements combine to make "Football Heroes: Pro Edition" a truly unique football experience."

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