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NFL and EA Sports | How to win friends and influence people

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 21: L-R Nick Jonas plays Madden NFL 13 with Kyle Johnson at the EA SPORTS Pigskin Pro-Am Eve on June 21 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images for EA Sports)

  • Fifa 17 gamer and influencer introduces fans to EA Sport’s Madden NFL 17 game
  • Madden video game offers easy entry point to NFL for new fans
  • NFL offers access to famous players in return

“Hello guys and welcome to another video… I want you to come on a journey with me from rookie to pro.”

So, went the introduction to a video that YouTuber Bateson87 posted on his channel in July 2016. It might sound like a promo clip for Hard Knocks or a new reality TV series charting the story of a greenhorn’s attempts to cut it in major league sport, but this was actually a video about one man’s attempts to master EA Sport’s Madden NFL 17 computer game.

For the uninitiated, the opinions of Bateson87 carry a lot of weight in the gaming community. Known in the real world as Jamie Bateson, the 30-year-old from the English Lake District has made a career out of posting videos on social media of himself, principally playing the computer game publisher’s more popular Fifa soccer title. He has more than 497,000 followers on Twitter and his YouTube channel has over a million subscribers. In other words, he can certifiably be described as an influencer.

The ‘journey’ that EA Sports and NFL UK would like Bateson to take his followers on is one in which they transition, like the gamer, from playing Fifa 17 to Madden NFL 17 and eventually discover the game of American football through his channel. He switched to playing the NFL title as part of a year-long marketing campaign by the two companies that culminated in a game against Miami Dolphins defensive end Ndamukong Suh at a party in London just one week before the Super Bowl. Where other parts of the sports industry might worry about losing audiences to video games, the NFL is using them to connect with new fans.

“Whether it’s in the virtual world or the real world, the crossover of [American] football and football is something that’s going to be hugely appealing for us,” says Sarah Swanson, head of marketing for NFL UK at the party. “You’d be hard pressed to find somebody who lives here in our target market – and our target market’s pretty broad, but specifically a young male –  who isn’t a football fan and wasn’t a Fifa fan and didn’t already buy and play Fifa.”

Mutually beneficial

Swanson describes the relationship between EA Sports, Bateson and the NFL as one that was mutually beneficial: Bateson was provided with access to NFL and EA Sports assets and in return he was able to give access to his digitally native audience. The marketing campaign started when EA Sports invited the gamer to test the new version of the Madden title at the Orlando Studios where it is made and provided him with free copies of the game to give away on his channel.

“One of the reasons we picked Bateson was he had a small knowledge of the sport, so he didn’t come in as a complete novice, he understood the basics and the whole point of it was he could take his followers on a journey,” says Shaun White director of communications for EA Sports. “So rather than him just being an expert, and playing it and just losing people, it was like they could go along with him.”

As well as encouraging habitual Fifa players to buy the Madden title, Swanson says this also provided a neat way for the NFL to help neophytes to understand the complicated rules of American football.

“The easiest way to learn how to play Madden is to sit next to someone who knows how to play Madden and have them teach you. If you already play video games your learning curve is going to be much faster,” she says. “At a basic level, [gamers] understand how the consoles work in a way that you’re not going to understand if you watch a football game blind for the first time.”

White says there is a mobile version of the game that is even more accessible. “It’s very much a pick up and play so you can get the basics very easily, so for people who are new to the sport, that’s been a good entry point for them.”

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Promotion

All of the parties stress that Bateson was not paid to play the title and was given free rein to promote it in his own way. Swanson says the NFL and EA Sports realised that anything inauthentic would have quickly been picked up by the gamer community.

“One of the things that is really important to us, and I think to EA Sports as well, through this whole process is that it needs to be really authentic,” she says. “If Bateson had started to play and he didn’t like it, we wouldn’t have moved forward. It’s important that it’s genuine fandom or it really doesn’t work, so with Bateson, it’s authentic, it’s him on his channels.”

Instead, the NFL gave him the access to play high profile players from the real sport – a prime example being Bateson’s pre-Super Bowl match with Ndamukong Suh.

“We create opportunities, we create access, so when we had players over, last summer, we hooked him up to play with some of them, so Victor Cruz from the Giants was here and he played against him,” says Swanson. “Like tonight he’s playing with Suh and he puts out a piece of content about it. We’ll make sure we let the Dolphins know, we’ll make sure we let Suh know from a social perspective, so that that goes out but again more organically.”

Audience

Speaking to Bateson at the event, it appears that the NFL and EA Sports put themselves in the hands of someone who had a deep understanding, not only of the makeup of his audience, but also an acute sense of how to communicate with them. He knows, for instance that 66 per cent of his fans are based in the UK and that 33 per cent are based in the US.

“The Americans aren’t so keen on an Englishman commentating over a game of Madden which is understandable because I think the English people look the same when Americans commentate over a Fifa game,” he says.

Although his results on Madden against professional gamers, and even NFL players, have been mixed – he lost to Suh, for the record – he has gained new followers out of this sort of access to the game’s luminaries.

“It helped me and I was helping [my followers],” he says. “I was enjoying it and they seemed to enjoy it, and I got an extra following from it.

“A lot of people ask how much are you paid to play this game but I’m not. I enjoy anything I can do to get into the behind-the-scenes part of the game, and when EA put the project out to me it sounded awesome.”

When Swanson is asked whether the marketing campaign was a reaction to fears the NFL is losing audience share to eSports, she argues that this is less of an issue for the UK branch of the business. In fact, she thinks Bateson provides a template for NFL fandom in the country. His principal interface with NFL is the Madden video game and then he snacks on programmes like the NFL Hard Knocks series.

“Here, because of the time zone issues, because of when our games are on, we have really avid fans who have been with us for decades, who stay up to watch our games and they are wonderful, avid, passionate fans,” says Swanson. “We’re probably not going to lose those guys to eSports no matter what.

“The sort of fan we’re trying to bring into the sport is a new kind of fan anyway. I think you can still be just as avid of a fan but have the ways you engage with the sport be different. So, the ways you engage are by playing Madden and playing fantasy football and watching highlights online and maybe not sitting and watching full games week in week out.”

White says EA Sports and the NFL share data insights gleaned from the game and, so far, the results are positive. Madden sales are up 14 per cent year-on-year, but Swanson gets a more anecdotal sense that the NFL has benefited.

“People are constantly saying ‘gosh, you guys are everywhere, everybody’s talking about the NFL,’ and I think a lot of that comes from the influencer space,” she says.

“The more people who are in that world, who are doing something with Madden, doing something with the NFL, coming to a party like this on Super Bowl weekend, the more you start to become part of the conversation which then, I hope, is self-fulfilling. It feels like it’s getting bigger, so it gets bigger.”

More tangibly, Bateson can attest that one young fan has already come on the ‘journey’ with him. He says his four-year-old son now sports a Seahawks jersey.

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