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ESPN Scores With $850M EA Video Game Deal

Video-game buffs will soon be able to play football and other sports against friends thousands of miles away, with announcers from ESPN offering a live play-by-play call of the action.

Under a 15-year deal ESPN struck with top gaming company Electronic Arts last week, ESPN talent and content will be incorporated into EA Sports titles, beginning in 2006. ESPN will collect about $850 million in advertising commitments and cash from EA throughout the course of the agreement, which gives EA exclusive rights to all ESPN content for simulation in sports games.

The pact with ESPN follows the signing of last month’s exclusive five-year deal with the National Football League and its players association, which gives EA control over the licensed pro pigskin video game business.

EA’s Madden NFL 2005 game was challenged by NFL 2K5, a joint venture between Sega Corp. and Take-Two Interactive. Whereas Midway, 989 Sports and Microsoft punted on pro football games last year, NFL 2K5 — with a $19.95 price point — took a slab of Madden’s dominant market share, forcing EA to lower its retail $20 price to around the $25 mark.

ESPN will no longer produce its own video games under the EA deal.

The total sports network also licenses video games for the worlds of college football and basketball, the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball.

As part of the long-term deal, ESPN will incorporate EA video game titles and graphics into its live sports coverage by using video games to illustrate real-life replays. But ESPN talent won’t be required to plug EA titles directly to viewers, according to ESPN executive vice president John Skipper.

“We’ll keep it separate from editorial,” said Skipper. “We’ll look for places to do promotional things for EA. We already use video games to illustrate plays and other things, and we will incorporate that when it’s appropriate.”

ESPN will look to cut separate agreements with its talent to pre-record content for EA Sports titles, including voiceovers that could be used for automated pre-game shows and sideline reports, Skipper said. ESPN-branded graphics and news and information content may also flash across the videogame screens, Skipper said.

EA and other video game producers are developing an increasing number of titles for Microsoft Corp.’s Xbox, Sony Corp.’s PlayStation and other game platforms that allow users to play against other gamers, via a broadband Internet connection.

Skipper predicts that over the life of the EA contract, videogames will focus more and more on live, interactive games, with players matching up from remote locations.

“I think we can play well into that. If you begin to incorporate live elements into the game while you play — real-time scores, for instance — I think that’s one place the games will move,” Skipper said.

EA has also agreed to create simplified versions of its video games that could run on the ESPN Mobile telephone service, set to debut this year, Skipper said.