This year's NFL offseason has seen been characterized by an unusually large number of high-profile trades and signings, and some of that intrigue appears to be spilling into the world of video games. Legendary quarterback Joe Montana will lend his name to Joe Montana Football 2016, an upcoming competitor to the hugely successful Madden series from Electronic Arts (NASDAQ:EA).
Rumors are circulating that the game will be developed by Take-Two Interactive's (NASDAQ:TTWO) 2K Sports wing and published by Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) as an exclusive for Xbox One and Windows 10. The widely circulated "leak" on the upcoming game suggests it will feature the NFL license, which would make it the first non-Madden game to be backed by the football league in more than a decade. How likely are these rumors to be true? And what could Joe Montana Football mean for EA and Madden? Let's see.
The recent swell in hype for Joe Montana 2016 comes courtesy of an alleged leak posted anonymously on the Operation Sports message board. The poster claimed the game will feature current NFL teams and players, that its graphics and gameplay will put Madden to shame, and that the title will launch this August on Microsoft's new platforms. The poster said EA's deal with the NFL only prohibits other third-party publishers from making games with the league license, and that first parties such as Microsoft are still able to produce and publish NFL games on their platforms. Following the widely publicized anonymous post, Joe Montana posted on Twitter an image of the game confirming the project was being built with Unreal Engine 4.
Fuel for the fire
In 2004, EA signed a 10-year exclusivity deal with the NFL that effectively meant the publisher had no strong competition in football games. When the end date for the agreement arrived, rumors and speculation suggested EA might lose its exclusivity clause. The games publisher renewed its deal with the NFL, but whether it was still the only company allowed to use the license was never explicitly stated.
Does it add up?
Based on the available information, there's good reason to doubt Joe Montana 2016 will make use of the NFL license. The quarterback has been teasing the game since July 2014, and it seems likely the poster on Operations Sports combined previously released information with some fictional embellishments. The photos and videos of the game that have been published feature no NFL teams or logos, and there would seem to be little reason to announce a game that features such a powerful and recognizable asset without making that association clear, if it were real.
A new NFL game from Take-Two and 2K Sports would be big news, the type of announcement that would have been better publicized through a reveal during the Super Bowl or on draft day than via the slow trickle of news that has come through Montana's Twitter account. The July release date predicted by the anonymous poster suggests a reveal-to-release timeline that seems too short for a game that would mark the return of 2K Sports' return to NFL games.
Microsoft's deal to promote its consoles and tablets with the NFL has also been put forth as a potential indication that the company has, and will pursue, special rights to publish games with the league license, but I don't think this checks out. Microsoft has worked closely with EA in this console cycle, partnering for hardware-software bundles and playing exclusive host to the EA Access digital distribution platform. Taking aim at one of its partner's big properties would be an aggressive move from Microsoft.
Additionally, EA's silence on whether it retains sole rights to make NFL games isn't a great indicator that it no longer has exclusivity. The company received a fair amount of criticism for securing sole rights to the National Football League license, and it's possible EA no longer views announcing the specifics of its contracts as beneficial.
Betting the odds
Neither developer nor publisher have been announced for Joe Montana Football 2016, but if the quarterback's Twitter feed can be trusted, there seems to be a good chance that 2K Sports and Take-Two are involved. Montana retweeted an image featuring his digital likeness alongside the 2K Sports logo, and another account associated with the game has posted references to past 2K Sports games.
Yet, without the NFL license, Joe Montana Football probably doesn't pose a big threat to EA and its football franchise. 2K Sports and Take-Two have previously attempted to battle Madden without the NFL license, but found little commercial success. EA should worry if the leaks prove true and Take-Two and Microsoft are teaming to challenge Madden with an NFL-licensed game, but I would not bet on that scenario.