Will NFL Shutdown Torpedo Madden NFL 12?

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With the NFL embroiled in player lockouts, antitrust suits, and overheated rhetoric, diehard fans have one very pressing question: will EA’s perennial Madden NFL update happen this year?

Relax, Madden junkies — the answer’s an unequivocal “yes.” (Now, whether EA makes as much bank off of you is another question, which we’ll get to in a moment.)

“Fans of Madden NFL will not have their seasons interrupted regardless of when the labor issues are resolved,” said EA in a statement. “EA SPORTS will release Madden NFL 12 in August, complete with exciting new features and product innovation that will allow NFL fans to fill their desire for football.”

The publisher also confirmed that NFL players will still be featured in Madden NFL 12.

(Want to hedge your bets? Check out our Last-Minute Substitution: Seven Games to Help You Survive the NFL Lockout.)

If fact, the breakdown may have actually worked in EA’s favor. Last month, the company used the dispute to extend its NFL exclusive one more year (through 2013).

EA’s held exclusive rights to use NFL teams, venues, and players in its Madden games since 2004. Critics of that deal — full disclosure, I’m one! — have argued it eliminates healthy competition and incentivizes EA to do less with more, charging a premium for incremental features and play-style updates. We’re talking about a franchise that’s moved some 85 million units since its 1988 debut, for a whopping $3 billion in revenue, life-to-date.

That aside, let’s assume Madden NFL 12 appears in August as promised, and that EA was planning for its final NFL-exclusive version to go out with a bang. What about the lockout’s impact on Madden NFL 12 sales?

Expect lost sales and diminished margins from fans who’ll punish the industry for stalemating, says Lazard Capital Markets senior analyst Colin Sebastian.

“While EA has modified its contract with the NFL to help mitigate the impact, Madden is one of EA’s largest franchises, and we would expect a decline in unit sales as well as dollar sales as a result of the strike–in particular with a lost season,” said Sebastian during a call. “And so we would expect there to be a negative impact on EA’s revenues and margins.”

When asked if a lockout might encourage NFL fans to turn to a game like Madden NFL 12 in a remedial capacity, Sebastian said it was more likely the series and the football industry in general would experience “a backlash over player squabbling,” because league infighting “won’t resonate with fans.”

Wedbush Morgan analyst Michael Pachter takes a similar view.

“The longer the lockout drags on, the more likely it is that NFL fans will become alienated,” said Pachter in an email. “Madden is a great experience for gamers, but its sales are definitely correlated to the underlying popularity of the NFL, so if the popularity of the NFL suffers, it’s likely that sales of Madden will suffer.”

Still, says Pachter, it’s probably too early to call. While the lockout’s happening now, Madden NFL 12 doesn’t launch until August (though a special 3D version of the game ships in just a few weeks with the launch of the Nintendo 3DS).

“That’s a lot of time to fix things,” says Pachter, though acknowledging “most commentators don’t sound very optimistic.”

“My guess is that a complete cancellation of the NFL season would cost Madden around 50% of sales, and a delay of the season would be far less impactful,” argues Pacther.

“If the season is only delayed a week or two and fans aren’t alienated, there would be only a very small impact. If delayed through Thanksgiving (when the holiday selling season begins in earnest), the impact would be far greater.”

NPD Group’s Anita Frazier is more bullish about Madden NFL 12’s prospects, arguing on behalf of the franchise’s historical durability.

“It has a lot to do with when this is resolved, but Madden is one of the best selling and most reliable franchises in the video games industry, period,” said Frazier in an email. “Its appeal to a huge audience has been established for years and if there is any franchise I’d bet on to weather a storm, this is it.”

Whatever the case, even a dip in Madden NFL 12 sales could be serious for EA. Madden NFL is currently the company’s biggest single retail seller. According to NPD data, last year’s Madden NFL 11 took top 10 honors for 2010, slotting second only to rival Activision’s number one selling Call of Duty: Black Ops.

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