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Making Madden a spectator sport

EA's Madden Championship commissioner Matt Marcou says the publisher's esports strategy is driven by more than selling copies

Electronic Arts continues its esports efforts tonight as an hour-long special about the Madden NFL 20 Classic is airing in the US tonight on the CW network. While the 400-person double-elimination tournament wrapped up September 1 in Arlington, Texas, EA's Madden Championship Commissioner Matt Marcou tells he isn't worried about viewers being able to look up who won because the publisher isn't approaching the program like a traditional esports show.

"Instead of doing a straight sports broadcast, we tend to do a bit more of a lifestyle or experiential piece," Marcou says. "This year we're formatting it a little bit closer to a reality TV show where the competitors will be sharing their thoughts as their advancing through each stage of the competition."

This will actually be the third time a Madden Championship Series special has aired on the CW, and Marcou says they've always leaned more into a lifestyle approach than the more standard live event coverage EA has produced for partners like the NFL Network or ESPN. So far they've found that approach pays off; the first CW Madden special in 2017 was the most-viewed esports produced piece on linear television, Marcou notes, and last year's numbers were also strong.

"We think the lifestyle experiential one is a better format for attracting casual fans and non-Madden players, and gamers of any variety," Marcou says. "It helps to humanize the experience they're watching, even though they don't play the game or compete at anything. They understand the human elements of trying to be your best, or being frustrated and happy and stressed all at the same time."

He adds, "For this particular exercise, it's not of the utmost importance that we get the mothers of America to want to play Madden, but if they can understand the story and be entertained by it, and be more receptive to their family playing Madden, that's a win for us. We're trying to showcase the culture and the stars of Madden because we think it's compelling content."

Marcou says people don't need to know Madden to appreciate the drama.

Having had a number of years to see what works and what doesn't when bringing esports to linear media like broadcast television, Marcou says his biggest takeaway is that Madden (and other traditional sports games) just translate better to TV than other big games.

"We believe that because the rules of sports video games are simpler and more well-known, especially to an American audience," Marcou explains. "Even if you've never played football or put on pads or played Madden, you could probably follow along as an American just based on your overall exposure to the sport and the clarity of the rules on the field. For MOBAs and other shooter games, you really need to play the game to understand what's going on outside the shouting, screaming, and eventual crowning of a winner."

"For any sport to stand on its legs, it needs to generate revenue through viewership revenues and merchandising. And that involves having more fans of the product who are not players"

As for what could be better, Marcou says it's still early days for esports and the field hasn't fully grown beyond its roots.

"Esports really grew up with digital natives on Twitch and other platforms," Marcou explains. "One of the reasons that happened was it was a path of least resistance to get esports content out. It was very difficult in the early days for those in the esports industry to navigate relationships with bigger linear partners. It was too early.

"Now that clearly esports has demonstrated its reach and value, the value has been proven and linear partners are more receptive to the notion of having content on their channel. There's been a learning curve over the last three to four years where there's been more honest efforts from EA and other companies... You're seeing an evolution on both sides. The production of digital content is maturing, but I think the theories around linear content are also evolving to cater to a younger audience who may not have the same attention span they have in the past."

Marcou says coverage of Madden competitions as live sporting events will remain EA's priority, but it still plans to invest in the lifestyle approach as a way to expand the audience beyond those for whom a Madden Classic grand final would be appointment viewing.

"Whether it's through a lifestyle production or a sports production, we're seeking more ways to appeal to casual gamers, casual football fans, your average American, because we feel that is the path to greater business success...

"For any sport to stand on its legs, it needs to generate revenue through viewership revenues and merchandising. And that involves having more fans of the product who are not players. I personally have never played on a football team with pads and the full gear, but the NFL is my favorite sport, and that's true across America. There are only so many people who have played football in that capacity, but they can still be fans and enjoy the game."

The Madden NFL 20 Classic will air on The CW tonight at 8 p.m. Eastern and Pacific.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot in the US.