Why EA Sports’ Madden marketing blitz will look a little different this year
There are few more-reliable events on the sports marketing calendar than EA Sports plugging its latest “Madden NFL” video game every August with celebrity-filled, big production campaigns that resemble the flashiest of Super Bowl ads. DJ Khaled, Nicki Minaj, Kevin Hart and Paul Rudd are among the stars that have appeared in ads in recent years, with the brand replicating everything from a mini-musical to a movie trailer.
But this year, the marketer and agency Johannes Leonardo are plotting waves of content—rather than one big splash—in a bid to pump out real-time responses to what could be one of the craziest seasons in National Football League history with the pandemic casting a cloud of uncertainty over the league.
The effort, which kicks off today, stars actor Keraun Harris, a.k.a “King Keraun,” a TikTok and Instagram phenom whose skills at creating quick-hit comedic posts are expected to key a season-long campaign. “We wanted to create something that has a long-lasting effect—a platform more than a campaign or one-hit wonder,” says Omid Amidi, the agency’s creative director on the account.
The video game, whose marketing has long tapped into pop culture, is also seizing on a subtle but noticeable shift in the public persona of the NFL’s top stars. The idea, says Amidi, playing into the idea that today’s athletes are more into “creating highlights than soundbites,” is a departure from the over-the-top antics of previous-generation standouts like Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson and Terrell Owens, who infamously once conducted a press conference in his driveway, shirtless, while doing sit ups.
In Madden’s campaign Harris plays a “spokesplayer,” a made-up label meant to represent a consigliere-type figure to the game’s top stars, who, in the campaign's point-of-view, are more into their on-field performance than making a splash off of it. “He’s not a PR person, he’s not an agent, he’s more like this generation’s Worldwide Wes,” says Amidi, referring to William Wesley, the uber-connected but somewhat mysterious figure known for his deep relationships with National Basketball Association players.
The first ad shows the spokesplayer taking calls from Cam Newton, Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson—the cover star of “Madden NFL 21”—while explaining that he’s “here to remind you about these boys’ greatness, because they are too busy creating.” (The spot is full of Easter eggs, like a “clams” reference that flicks at Newton’s move to the New England Patriots.)
“This generation of Madden NFL players and NFL superstars, like Lamar Jackson, are defined by an ambition and confidence to ‘Go All Out’ on the field and leave their mark ... so much so that they don’t have time for all that talking,” Paul Marr, senior director of creative at EA Sports, said in a statement to Ad Age.
A season of uncertainty
The campaign comes as EA Sports, like all brands affiliated with the NFL, is about to enter a season that could put a premium on marketing agility. The league plans to play a full slate of games—starting with the Sept. 10 opener—but things could quickly deteriorate if there is a significant coronavirus outbreak.
EA Sports, like most video game makers, has benefited from the pandemic, with locked-down consumers upping their game play to cure boredom. Madden NFL 20, released last year, had what EA Sports CEO Andrew Wilson in a July earnings call described as “an incredible Q1, building on what is already the biggest year ever for our Madden franchise.” Marr says “unique players [are] growing by 30 percent year over year,” with “monthly average players reaching an all-time high.”
But while the game has been helped by the pandemic, things could turn quickly if the virus shuts down the NFL. Sure, more people could be interested in playing video games if there are not actual games. But part of the allure of grabbing the new versions is to keep up with the player changes in the league—which will be less relevant if no one is playing, points out Michael Pachter, a financial analyst who covers EA Sports for Wedbush Securities.
“The reason you buy Madden every year is that players change teams, so you want Tom Brady on the Buccaneers,” he says, raising the example of the star quarterback’s offseason switch. “Him playing makes Madden relevant. And if you own it cause you love Tom Brady, you’ve got to get the new one, because Tom Brady’s gotta be in the Bucs uniform.”
A legacy of marketing stunts
EA Sports pays big bucks for the exclusive rights to use the images of the stars in its simulation games. The licensing agreement with the NFL and its players union was renewed in May. The deal, which was first signed in 2004, has been a key to the sustained popularity of the game, whose original version debuted in 1988 and is named for the former Raiders coach and TV analyst whom most young players today probably don’t even recognize. Terms were not disclosed on its latest deal. The original five-year pact in 2004 was said to be worth more than $300 million.
The other factor in the game’s staying power is the annual marketing hype around the August release. “We always looked at Madden as a magazine subscription and how do we convince people to subscribe for the new franchise,” says Chris Erb, who spent 10 years at EA sports, including running Madden’s marketing from 2005 to 2010. In the 2000s, the idea was to “go from a video game launch to a theatrical launch and make it feel like a cultural movement,” says Erb, now the founder and CEO of gaming agency Tripleclix.
That led to an era of over-the-top campaigns that included a launch party in 2007 that featured Ozzy Osbourne belting out “Crazy Train” at the Hard Rock Rock Café in a performance broadcast on giant screens on Times Square. A year earlier, the game celebrated its release with an event in Madden, Mississippi—for no other reason than the fact that the town and game share a name.
In 2015, the campaign mimicked a blockbuster movie launch with a campaign called “Madden: The Movie,” which came from the agency Heat and starred actors Dave Franco and Kevin Hart in what Ad Age’s Creativity described at the time as a “crazy mashup of Mad Max, Fast and the Furious, Quentin Tarantino cliches with a dash of Jurassic Park.” (See below for a roundup of some of the game’s ad hits.)
Johannes Leonardo, which took on the account three years ago, has also gone to the A-List celebrity well: Minaj appeared in its 2018 ad that, like previous spots, included lengthy extended cuts.
But last year, the agency began experimenting with more short-form content, and “got our most results and traction,” says Amidi. In 2019, Madden was the third best-selling video game title in the U.S., trailing “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” and “NBA 2K20,” according to market researcher NPD Group.
This year’s approach is geared for quick-turn social content like an Instagram post earlier this week featuring Harris’ spokesplayer interacting with Jackson and his teammate Mark Ingram. The post was inspired by a press conference last season in which Ingram talked up his teammate, who had been downplaying his MVP candidacy.
The campaign includes traditional media buys on networks including ESPN and NFL Network. But “on top of the paid media strategy, ‘The Spokesplayer’ will also appear in more organic ways, like on player’s Twitter feeds, in some candid photography, gif reactions, team activity, and potentially some media appearances,” Marr says.
Says Amidi: “We wanted to create a campaign that would allow us to essentially react both in terms of what is happening in the season, if it happens ... but also what is happening within the culture itself.”
“We like to write things on the spot,” he adds. For that, the agency sees Keraun as the perfect partner. “It’s just easier with someone who has that magnetic flair, but also has the ability to improvise.”
Here's, a look back at some of Madden’s blockbuster ads: