NFL, EA Sports Set New Benchmark for League Esports Efforts

All 32 NFL teams are involved in the Madden NFL Club Championship

The NFL and EA Sports are expanding into the esports business. Their Madden NFL Club Championship will involve all 32 teams and marks the first time a U.S.-based sports league has committed so completely to the world of esports.

“We’ve been looking at esports for a couple of years and working with the owners on it,” says Chris Halpin, chief strategy officer/SVP, consumer products, NFL. “There are a few trends like the size of the fan base, demographics, and it is a competition of skill with drama, high stakes, and fan energy that all connect well with what NFL owners know about.”

The Madden Club Championship is the first time an entire U.S.-based professional sports league will be engaged in esports.

Fans of all 32 NFL clubs will have the chance to qualify between now and Oct. 16 in the Madden Ultimate Team Championships, moving up and down leaderboards with the hope of being one of the final 32 team representatives.

“It’s a dream of tens of millions of people to represent their teams, and the future champion is playing right now not knowing that, in a few short months, they will be world-famous,” says Todd Sitrin, SVP/GM, EA Competitive Gaming Division, EA Sports. “And the teams are bringing assets to the table, like NFL players, that no one else can bring.”

The eventual winner takes home a cash prize and two tickets to Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis.

Sitrin notes that competitive gaming has been a part of EA for a long time and even Madden competitions date to 2002. But the competitions were sporadic, and there did not seem to be an overall strategy on the part of the NFL and EA Sports.

Demographics are always a concern to sports leagues, and Halpin says the Madden tournament is a way to reach younger fans who are watching esports on Twitch and YouTube: “Partners of the clubs can reach a younger demographic, and, for fans, it is a chance to provide really exciting feedback.

“What we’ve seen,” he continues, “is that the Madden community can make stars out of the players and then activate around that and create a great back-and-forth connection.”

The Madden effort also promises to do something for the esports community that most competitions have not done: appeal to those who might not be a hardcore fan of a game like League of Legends or Counter-Strike.

“We’re in a unique position because many people already understand the rules of the game and there is a real-world connection to the league and team that makes it a more accessible experience,” says Sitrin. “And we are seeing broadcasters jump in and partner with us because it’s a unique way for fans to root for and support their team.”

The NFL Network, for example, saw “off-the-charts” year-over-year audience growth for a time slot in January when a Madden Final was aired on Super Bowl weekend.

“Within TV, there are examples of growth in young audiences, and that is a trend that will continue,” says Halpin. “And EA has made investments to make it more spectator-friendly with faster replays and making it more immersive.

The challenge now is to see whether the NFL and EA can get tens of millions of Madden fans engaged enough so that, no matter their skill level, they compete for one of the 32 spots.

“It’s about more than just the competitions,” says Sitrin. “We care about storytelling and will have content between the games. We want to tell stories and create unique content that makes a healthy ecosystem.”

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