Imagine if Tony Hawk owned the rights to all of skateboarding, and he forced everyone who wanted to make a video game about it to call it "rollersmashing" to avoid infringing his trademark. Well, that's the kind of stranglehold that the National Football League and Electronic Arts
One of the more ludicrous results is that Foxborough, MA-based Quick Hit, which debuted an online football role-playing game in October 2009, has had to tiptoe around the NFL. It does this by using fictional team names and avoiding the names of active players, sticking mostly to names of retirees that fans might still remember. The Quick Hit site even includes a disclaimer saying that "Quick Hit and Quick Hit Football are not affiliated with, endorsed or licensed by the National Football League, any National Football League team or the National Football League Players Association."
Up until now, that is. In the run-up to next week's giant E3 gaming expo in Los Angeles, Quick Hit is announcing today that it has struck a multi-year deal with the NFL allowing it to use the names, logos, colors, uniforms, and helmet designs of all 32 NFL teams. That means Quick Hit players will be able to base their simulated teams on their favorite actual teams, from the Patriots to the Packers. Users will also be able to adopt playbooks similar to those followed by the actual teams. At bottom, it all means Quick Hit's world will start to resemble professional U.S. football rather than some bizarre parallel-universe equivalent.
"When we started out, our vision was always three things," says Jeffrey Anderson, Quick Hit's founding CEO. "We wanted to build an authentic game, focus on a free-to-play business model, and bring the virality of social media and put that together into one beautiful product. This [NFL deal] goes to the heart of what Quick Hit is about, the authenticity."
Quick Hit isn't saying how much it's paying the NFL for the multi-year license. And the agreement does not extend to the NFL Players Union, meaning that Quick Hit users can't yet build their teams around simulacra of active NFL stars like Patriots quarterback Tom Brady or 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis. (EA still has an exclusive deal with the union for these rights, for its long-lived and lucrative Madden NFL series.) But the deal does represent an important crack in the nearly impenetrable wall that Redwood City, CA-based Electronic Arts has built around America's most popular sport.
To hear Anderson tell it, Quick Hit was able to strike the deal because the NFL realized that conditions have changed since the days when it forged its exclusive deal with EA. "Historically, they had all these different PC products, but then they brought it down to just one with the EA deal back in 2004," Anderson says. "That represented a big shift at the time, where you didn't have as many choices as a consumer. The choices became even smaller in 2008 when EA decided to abandon PC games and just focus on consoles. There has never been an official NFL football game out there for the Internet."
But with social online games like Zynga's Farmville and Mafia Wars winning over millions of users, many of whom don't even own consoles, the game market has clearly shifted, says Anderson. "This is an opportunity for [the NFL] to leverage the big changes going on in the wider digital and social-media world. We bring in the virality and the social gaming component. The digital team over at the NFL is a great organization, and they wanted to make sure that they were part of that—both to attract new users and to give their fans a different opportunity to interact with the brand."
But whether the NFL Players Union is equally far-sighted is a different question. I asked Anderson whether Quick Hit is in negotiations with the union. "No comment" was his answer. "That's not what we're announcing today."