Over the last decade, Electronic Arts has looked to grow the Madden Championship Series to new levels through several strategic initiatives.
Those efforts include the introduction of Madden Ultimate Team (MUT) in 2014, five years after the game developer launched FIFA Ultimate Team, as well as new game modes such as Superstar KO deployed in September.
This year, EA also notably changed the dates of its four major tournaments in the Madden Championship Series to align exclusively with tentpole events during the NFL season. That meant events coinciding with the NFL’s opening weekend, playoffs, Super Bowl, and the draft in April.
The intent here is to further grow interest in the Madden esports league by better capitalizing on the eyeballs the NFL draws as North America’s most-watched sports league, according to Matt Marcou, EA’s Madden NFL competitive gaming commissioner.
Similar to EA’s FIFA Global Series, Madden’s major tournaments require players to qualify online and compete in live competitions for grand prizes. The most prestigious of those aforementioned majors, the Madden 20 Club Championship, concluded earlier this month.
“The Club Championship started as a trial with eight teams,” said Marcou. “We’ve since expanded the concept into a major where we have all 32 NFL teams represented as the number of players and sponsorship interest has grown.”
The Madden Club Championship stands as the league’s most reputable contest for two reasons, Marcou said. The tournament has both the most players and highest prize pool of any tournament in the Madden Championship Series. That includes the Madden Bowl held each spring, where the best Madden player is determined for that season.
Under the current Club Championship major format, players create their own Madden Ultimate Teams and pick one NFL franchise they want to represent in the competition. This differs slightly from EA’s Madden Classic major held in August, as an example, which permits gamers to compete with only players on a single team’s active roster.
Exactly $703,000 was handed out to the top 128 players in the Madden 20 Club Championship in December, a record for the competition. The winner, Michael “Volterax” Bryant, representing the Arizona Cardinals, took home $100,000.
“It takes about five months to resolve the competition,” said Marcou. “The top 512 players play in online tournaments. From there, 128 gamers are invited to our Redwood City, California studios to play in live tournaments where the champion is crowned.”
EA says that viewership for the Madden 20 Club Championship is on par with totals for the Madden 19 Club Championship, but would not disclose specific numbers since tracking for its linear TV broadcast has not been completed. The tournament was primarily broadcast online on Twitch.
During the Madden 19 Bowl tournament earlier this year, however, the esport generated more than 2.5 million views and a peak audience of 97,000 spectators. The peak amount of viewers represented a six-fold increase year-over-year, according to EA.
The NFL in an email said that it is only at the halfway point of the Madden Championship Series season, but early signs indicate that the changes made to the esport league’s major schedule have been positive for viewers and players alike.
“We saw record registration numbers for both the Madden Classic and Madden Club Championship this year,” the NFL said. “We are looking forward to the upcoming tournaments aligned to both the Super Bowl and draft to complete our assessment and understand the full impact of this change.”
Still, while viewership of Madden competitions is increasing, it still sits well behind other popular esports games.
Fortnite game developer Epic Games said in August that the Fortnite World Cup Finals peaked at 2.3 million viewers across YouTube and Twitch. Meanwhile, DOTA 2 racked in 1.9 million concurrent viewers for its The International 2019 team competition last summer. Grand prize payouts for Fortnite and DOTA 2’s premier tournaments also topped out at $3 million and $15.6 million, respectively.
“In terms of viewership, most traditional sports esports are a fraction of what titles like League of Legends and Counter-Strike get,” said Will Partin, director of research at Power Play, a video game and esports consulting agency. “But it’s important to recognize that Madden is carefully integrated into the broader NFL ecosystem. Major sports leagues look at esports not necessarily as standalone money-making entities, but initiatives for deepening fans’ connection to football, basketball, etc.”
The NFL has become instrumental in the growth of the Madden esports league. In addition to offering financial support, the NFL also serves as an advisor to the game developer helping forge marketing partnerships to grow revenue.
This season, Snickers served as the official presenting sponsor of the Madden 20 Club Championship. Pizza Hut, the NFL’s official pizza sponsor, also became EA’s official virtual stadium rights holder.
All revenue is split between both organizations and, on occasion, individual teams, according to EA.
“Esports is a hot topic right now, but keep in mind that the size of the entire esports industry is less than the value of the least valuable NFL franchise,” said Patin.
The Buffalo Bills are currently valued at $1.5 billion. By comparison, the entire esports industry is expected to surpass a $1 billion valuation for the first time this year, according to gaming industry researcher Newzoo.
“It’s that kind of support from the NFL that has allowed the Madden League to get blue-chip sponsors like Starbucks and Snickers,” he added. “The opportunities for cross-marketing are also significant. Again, it’s important to see the Madden league as a product within the broader NFL ecosystem.”
Despite EA’s FIFA game series having more of a global appeal than Madden, sales for both titles increased double-digits in 2019, the company said. New players on Madden specifically also grew 12% in the company’s fiscal 2020 second quarter ending September 30.
EA further reported in October that the amount of franchise mode games played on Madden doubled to more than 100 million after the developer released the game on August 2. Users for its MUT game mode also increased by 20% in the quarter.
“The number of people who play Ultimate Team [on Madden and FIFA] are very similar. The number of people who spend in Ultimate Team is very similar. And the timing of how people play relative to the sport’s season is similar,” said Blake Jorgensen, EA’s chief financial officer, on an earnings call with analysts.
What FIFA has is the advantage of a much longer season, he concluded.
“You get full nine-plus months with FIFA where you’re not getting that long of a season in Madden,” Jorgensen said. “But we’ve done a good job of extending the events, post the Super Bowl to try to keep people engaged around the combine and draft.”