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Take-Two returns to NFL gaming with new licensing deal

Take-Two Interactive's "NFL 2K5," the last release in a previous licensing relationship with the NFL that has now been revived.

The National Football League has signed a multiyear video-game licensing deal with New York-based Take-Two Interactive, bringing the parties back together for the first time since 2004 in an agreement calling for multiple game titles.

Take-Two, makers of the perennially popular “NBA 2K” game series in basketball and parent of 2K Sports, also previously had a highly regarded series of NFL games, peaking with the “NFL 2K5” that is still regarded as one of the best football video games ever produced. After that game was released in 2004, the NFL signed an exclusive rights agreement with competing game developer Electronic Arts, maker of the iconic “Madden NFL” game series.

That exclusive NFL-EA relationship has continued for more than 15 years. But the new Take-Two alignment calls for the creation of several non-simulation titles that will cover game categories such as casual and arcade play.

“Expanding the NFL’s presence in the world of gaming has become a focus for the league as we look to grow the next generation of our fanbase and reviving our partnership with 2K was a natural step in that effort,” said Joe Ruggiero, NFL senior vice president of consumer products.

The NFL’s deal with Take-Two for now still protects EA’s simulation game exclusivity to continue to producing “Madden NFL” titles. But those simulation rights expire following the 2021 season. Industry sources said multiple parties, including Take-Two, have expressed interest in gaining the simulation gaming rights, and the latest deal can thus be viewed as a potential step in that direction.

The new non-simulation NFL products from Take-Two are slated to be released sometime in calendar year 2021, and the company’s fiscal 2022. But specific game titles, developers, or release dates won’t be released until a later date.

“We’re thrilled to be back in business with the NFL in a partnership that will span multiple video games centered on fun, approachable, and social experiences,” said David Ismailer, 2K president.

Take-Two’s NFL rights cover league intellectual property such as team names, and logos. But it does not include any player names or likenesses, assets that will require a separate licensing agreement with the NFL Players Association. The company has not said whether it has, or is acquiring, such a license. 

The terms of EA’s contract with the NFL have not been public. But on the union side, the relationship has been a lucrative one, not surprising given that “Madden NFL” in its history has reached more than 200m people across console, mobile, and computer platforms and has been one of the most popular titles in all of US video games. In 2018, EA paid the NFLPA $56.8m in royalties and player marketing fees.

EA, for its part, said in a statement it was unmoved by Take-Two’s re-entry into the football gaming space.

“EA Sports is the exclusive publisher of NFL simulation games, and our partnership with the NFL and NFLPA remains unchanged,” the company said. “Our agreements have always allowed for non-exclusive development of non-simulation games on various platforms. Our commitment to NFL fans, which spans almost 30 years, has never been stronger, and we’re having our biggest year yet. ‘Madden NFL 20’ is the most successful game ever in the franchise, and new modes like Superstar KO and our Madden NFL esports broadcasts are growing the fan base. We’ll be building on that momentum with more new and different experiences, on more platforms and with new ways to play, in the years to come.”