From the Ref’s desk: In The Booth will be a new series of pieces discussing presentation values in sports video games. Commentary, graphics packages, instant replays, and more will be covered in this series.

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One of the things that I remember most about my first Electronic Arts 16-bit sports game– John Madden Football— was the EASN intro sequence that preceded the main menu when first booting it up. The TV screens that created a kind of video wall animated the background as still images of baseball, football, basketball, hockey, and other sports surrounded it on the intro screen for the game.

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The idea of a sports network-style presentation intrigued me as a budding sports video game fan at a young 19 years of age. NES sports games had very rudimentary presentation packages. There were score overlays and a few stat lines, but rarely did they carry that TV-style presentation that connected me with watching sports like I did back then.

Pre-game analysis was an EASN staple. John Madden, Ron Barr, and Bing Gordon took their turns hosting “pre-game shows”. Team matchups were highlighted, with bits of general analysis for each team in terms of their skill sets, strengths, and weaknesses.

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EA’s introduction of user-controlled instant replays was a step in the right direction. While many people often used instant replay as a way to rub it in when playing against friends, I liked to use it to relive special moments. As a very recent example, I was playing John Madden Football ’93 recently, and a pass that got tipped and looked to be incomplete was somehow snatched out of the air by my receiver. I just had to see it again, if only to try and understand how it happened. Instant replay was great for EA’s NHL games, too– especially in later years (beginning with NHL ’94), after a sweet one-timer set-up or breakaway chance on goal.

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The EASN brand dominated the 1992 and 1993 sports years– or 1991 and 1992 in calendar years– for Electronic Arts. While it was a smart brand concept, it was a little too close to ESPN for the Worldwide Leaders down in Bristol, Connecticut. A name/trademark infringement suit was filed against Electronic Arts by ESPN in 1993, and EA settled out of court. According to former EA employee Michael Wilde, “As part of the settlement, EASN changed its name to EA Sports, and in return ESPN gave EA free media time. EA Sports’ first TV campaign was on the air and quickly established EA Sports as the leader in sports video games.”

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Electronic Arts didn’t miss a beat with the brand name change, and EA Sports remains as the dominant brand in sports video games 23 years later. EA also kept working on its sports network-style presentation as the years went on. Thanks to CD-ROM used by the PlayStation and Saturn, EA implemented full-motion video introductions and pre-game shows, as well as running commentary. Seeing James Brown in the studio running down each week before handing off to Pat Summerall and John Madden in Madden 97 was closer to a sports game telecast than ever before. NHL ’98— one of my favorite hockey games of all time– has commentary from Jim Hughson and Daryl Reaugh that blew my mind back in 1997. (Also, the intro video is amazing.)

The 1998 sports year also saw EA Sports use Ernie Johnson as its studio personality for NBA Live ’98 and PGA Tour ’98, as well as giving Verne Lundquist commentary duties for NBA Live ’98. In addition, NBA Live ’98 used the NBA on TBS broadcast graphics package for in-game stat lines and scores. This marked the first time that EA used another network’s graphics package.

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As for EASN, the story came full-circle in 2005, as Electronic Arts and ESPN signed a 15-year deal that allowed EA Sports to integrate ESPN content and graphics into its games starting in 2006. Although ESPN had won the battle a dozen years prior, EA eventually won them over. Interestingly, though, EA rarely used ESPN graphics packages for its games. The last few years of the NCAA Football series was the exception to this rule– along with NCAA Basketball 10, which was a presentation tour-de-force.

In this modern era of sports video games, where we’re about to see weekly commentary updates for Madden NFL 17 and where Visual Concepts and SCE San Diego continue to set the bar high for basketball and baseball video game presentation values, it’s interesting to look back 25 years at the early attempts from Electronic Arts to bring the feel of watching a sports network home. Presentation in sports video games has come a long way over that span, and In The Booth will be looking at bits and pieces of that progress in the coming weeks.

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