(Note: The below article contains rumors and speculation that have not been confirmed by Konami)
For nearly two decades, Fox has broadcast the English Premier League in the United States. It’s become such a staple for soccer fans in this country that watching the sport is often synonymous with watching the Fox Soccer Channel. So -- you can imagine my shock when I came to find that Fox had lost the E.P.L. license completely. In a huge money move, NBC outbid Fox by nearly four times the amount that Fox was willing to pay (roughly $85 million a year). It’s both a statement on the rising popularity of soccer in the US as well as reaffirming that licenses matter more than ever. It also drills the point home that money talks loudly (both domestically and internationally), and the best way to kill off the competition is by creating a monopoly on the resources available.
SORRY, BUT YOUR CONTRACT HAS EXPIRED
If you ever doubted this, just ask Visual Concepts. As many of us still have very fond memories of the NFL 2k franchise, a franchise that for years seemed to stiff-arm Madden on its way to the end zone. Yet Electronic Arts, like NBC, has lots and lots of money. They also do not like to lose, which Visual Concepts found out the hard way. After releasing NFL2k5 in July 2004, arguably the best football videogame of all time, and riding high on the wave of killer sales and glowing reviews, they discovered the NFL had signed an exclusive deal with EA Sports (revealed to the masses in 2005). Suddenly, it no longer mattered how much better NFL2k played. Without the NFL license, Visual Concepts couldn’t compete and thus the franchise crashed and burned (for now anyway, let’s keep our fingers crossed for the future). With this, EA proved a point. Licenses are important, and if you can’t beat your competition on the field beat them in the licensing department. In other words, if a girl can skate better than you, hire a man with dark clothing and a crowbar.
IF IT’S IN THE GAME, WELL…IT’S IN THE NAME
And it’s not that EA is so atrocious. They’re a business, and a business is about making money. For every success there’s a failure, and for every win there’s a loss (so to speak). EA knows about that too. For all its capital and power, EA doesn’t always get what they want. Take the NBA for example – an area EA has been getting clobbered in for years by Visual Concepts (sweet revenge, I suppose). The battle between the two companies has grown so lopsided that EA Sports had to shelve games in back-to-back years to avoid public humiliation. Part of the reason is because the NBA refused them an exclusive license (and you can bet EA tried to acquire it). Due to this, EA actually had to please fans with its gameplay in order to win back its market share, something it just couldn’t get right this console generation. EA hopes to change all that with NBA Live releasing later this year on next gen, but still, it makes you wonder. What would have happened if EA was able to get an exclusive NBA license this console generation? Would anyone have bought an NBA 2k game without an NBA license? Sadly, probably not, no matter how good the gameplay. If you need another example, go and look at the sales of the 2007 Visual Concepts release All Pro Football 2k8. For all intents and purposes the game’s gameplay was great, and Visual Concepts worked around the clock to sign as many retired players as possible, but it didn’t matter. Gamers failed to show up. Nobody wanted a football game devoid of the NFL (NCAA games exempted).
WHAT GOES AROUND COMES BACK AROUND
EA was on the receiving end of this fate as well when the UFC (offended by EA’s stance on MMA) chose to walk away from a deal with them and hand their license exclusively over to THQ and Yuke’s Games. UFC Undisputed 2009 went on to move huge quantities. In reply, EA sports, seeking to prove a point, released EA MMA the following year (superior gameplay, minus the UFC license). The only point they proved was that licenses trump gameplay every time in the world of sports videogames. Fittingly, after years of the UFC and THQ having an exclusive deal (and Dana White heaving hate onto Electronic Arts), EA and the UFC made nice, landing them the new exclusive to create future UFC games after THQ went belly up (the first of which release next spring for next gen systems). This shift by the UFC left fans scratching their heads at the one-eighty, but the truth was simple, money brings everyone to the table.
HEY, THAT’S MY EXCLUSIVE
The point here is that no matter how great Pro Evolution Soccer’s gameplay is with the FOX engine, EA is doing their best to end Konami’s long loved soccer franchise by pursuing every club and organization around the globe with money in an attempt to essentially purchase themselves a monopoly. The good news, however, is that world soccer is neither the NFL nor the NBA. There isn’t one league with 32 teams. Soccer is massive and worldwide, with licenses to hunt down across the entire globe, which EA is starting to understand more and more. Konami was savvy in picking up exclusives for the UEFA Champions League and the Copa Libertadores, but how long can Konami hold onto them? Even more frustrating for PES fans, is the question of how long before EA is able to get the exclusives themselves? If the rumors are true, FIFA 2015 could feature both tournaments (though not necessarily exclusive). We’ll have to wait and see as deals and paperwork are constantly being negotiated and signed.
WHAT’S IN A LICENSE?
Though, as challenging as it is for Konami to maintain a foothold in the world of licenses with EA dumping more and more money into the pot (remember -- FIFA is their cash cow), they must be commended for what they’re doing with what’s available. Like the little engine that could, Konami is securing the best options available. The English Premier League and The German Bundesliga are out of the equation for the foreseeable future, (though “rumors” have circulated that the GERMAN LEAGUE will return in PES 2015 -- not the Bundesliga mind you, but at least a German league with the real players, fake teams and fake kits. Again, we’ll see), but many other leagues have popped up on Konami’s radar. Potential deals for the MLS, the Russian Premier League, and Mexico’s Liga LX league, as well as several Asian and Middle Eastern leagues have all been rumored, and it at least seems like Konami is in talks with these organizations. The J-League also looks to be featured in all versions of PES this year, not just the Asian version (though not yet confirmed). Additionally, from what I’ve heard, Konami has done a good job keeping the licenses they had in PES 13 (not an easy task). It’s a challenging process for Konami that requires assessing numerous variables: league popularity, console install base in the country, previous year’s sales in the country, and piracy must all be looked into and accounted for before jumping into a lucrative deal with a league. The many extenuating factors render this a daunting task. The good news is that Konami spends a lot of time focusing on the licenses it acquires. Instead of getting the Argentinian Primera Division as just a name on the box with generic feeling players and official kits, Konami spends a lot of time crafting the league, building key players to feel unique and creating teams to have their own styles, as well as an atmosphere you’d see on match day in that specific league. It’s a testament to the specificity Konami puts into each particular league. You can start a season in a league you know nothing about and, after a season behind the controller, feel like you have an understanding of not only the key players, but the styles and even the derby/rivalries in that league.
IN SOUTH AMERICA THEY LIKE SMOKE AND FLARES
Konami has always done a great job of making each league and continent feel different and unique, and in PES 2014 this trend should continue. From the flares and smoke of the South American Copa and league matches to the chants and mosaics in the European competitions, Konami always add the little details to keep their licenses fresh. Even miniscule leagues become memorable experiences and viable options to use. (Chile anyone?) When Konami announced the acquisition of the AFC Champions league, a lot of people in Europe and the US didn’t seem to care, but based on Konami’s track record, I’m sure they will bring this event to life this year. Adding details and elements that for a noob like myself (who admittedly has never watched a single AFC game), I’ll probably learn all about the pageantry and key teams of the AFC (as well as the atmosphere) just by playing the mode in PES 2014.
Now that’s how you properly utilize a license.
ENOUGH TO GO AROUND
So while FIFA may be on a tear right now putting as many leagues (and teams) on the back of the box as possible, Konami is working hard to secure a diverse portfolio of international cups and leagues and above all else, making them count. In a way it boils down to a matter of preference. Five leagues that feel essentially the same, or a single league in which every single player and team are completely unique? For me, I think that even if Konami made an MLS or J-League Soccer game with only 30 teams , as long as every player and team was individualized, we’d probably still enjoy the game if the gameplay delivered (in the end that’s the amount of teams you have in an NFL and NBA game anyway). Still, as FIFA nabs more and more licenses, it becomes increasingly important for the PES community to pull together in creating option files. It’s equally important that Konami tries to keep the licenses they have and not get priced out of licenses by EA locking up more exclusives. The good news is, in soccer, there are enough licenses to go around. EA buying Konami out of the market is a ridiculous notion, and highly unlikely to occur.
Just ask the Fox Soccer Channel.
Because while we Americans will be watching all our E.P.L. games this year on NBC, there’s still only one place we can watch the UEFA Champions League…