Westhead: CFL's quest full of virtual pitfalls
Cyber league costs real money to make
Dec. 15, 2005. 08:39 AM
Forget for a moment about an expansion team in Halifax or a U.S. television contract. The best idea floating through the halls of the Canadian Football League's headquarters these days would help the league elbow its way into even more coveted territory: the hearts and minds of teenagers across the country.
In recent months, the CFL has been in exploratory talks with several video-game makers in a bid to create a CFL-sanctioned game that would feature the league's 110-yard field, three downs and nine teams.
League officials rightly believe there would be no better way to bolster Canadian pro football's popularity amongst 12- and 13-year-olds than by letting them use a joystick to draw up signature plays for the likes of Damon Allen on a computer screen.
There's no doubt a league-branded game could help the league on several levels. The NFL, for instance, generates millions of dollars a year in video game-related licensing revenue.
Electronic Arts Inc., the California company that makes the popular Madden NFL game, named for former Oakland Raiders coach and TV commentator John Madden, in December 2004 agreed to pay the NFL roughly $400 million (U.S.) over five years for the right to be the league's exclusive video-game title. That means no other football game can feature NFL uniforms or player names.
The CFL is betting that with the chance to play a cool three-down football video game, Canadian teens who have been weaned on Madden NFL, which has sold more than 40 million copies a year and generated more than $1.5 billion (U.S.) worth of retail sales since its 1989 debut, might become more familiar with Allen and other CFL stars.
And by increasing the exposure of the league's marquee players among teenagers, the young fans might forgo Michael Vick, Ben Roethlisberger and other NFL jerseys for those of local stars.
You'd think it'd be a snap for Electronic Arts â€? which has also signed a deal to make a game for the minor-league Arena Football League â€? to tinker with the guts of its game engine to come up with a CFL version. Lop off one "down," add 10 yards to the field, make it wider and add nuances like no-yards penalties.
Not so. Games makers and CFL official Jim Neish say developing a CFL game costs at least $5 million (U.S.). What's more, even if the league's sponsors like Rona, Sony and WestJet Airlines helped to cover the cost of a CFL game, the league still wouldn't be home free.
It simply hasn't been able to find a producer willing to take the time to invest in a CFL title. Trouble is, with Microsoft and Sony both unveiling new games systems that feature high-definition graphics, most game producers are going full out to create titles for their new machines.
Game makers are skeptical that the CFL game would garner enough sales, especially in the U.S. market where Electronic Arts also makes a college football title, to make its development worth their while.
Even if the CFL finds a company to make a game, it's still possible that the exercise could wind up as a headache. In its NFL arcade-style game called Blitz, for instance, Midway Games Inc. allowed players to commit after-the-whistle hits. When the NFL demanded Midway tone down the game, the company subsequently severed ties to the league.
Still, the CFL continues its pursuit of a video-game licence. And while its plan is a novel way to try to bolster the league's revenue, it will likely remain a victim of unfortunate timing.