A scene from 'Football Heroes'
By John Gaudiosi
May 30, 2014

After watching the success that independent developer Imangi Studios has had with its Temple Run franchise, which has been downloaded over 170 million times across mobile devices, executives at NFL Players Inc. (NFLPI), the marketing arm of the NFL Players Association, saw an opportunity for their 1,800 players. What piqued NFLPI’s interest was the partnership with Olympic gold medalist sprinter Usain Bolt, who was added to the free-to-play Temple Run 2 as a 99-cent downloadable character, which showed the marketing potential for sports celebrities in games. It also showcased that a small development team – Imangi has a handful of employees — could break through the tens of thousands of game apps and succeed.

The NFLPI has tackled what it sees as a huge opportunity in mobile gaming and a way to separate its players from the annual success that Electronic Arts’ (EA) Madden NFL franchise affords them. Madden has generated more than $4 billion over the past 25 years and that’s a business the NFLPI respects and appreciates. But the proliferation of smartphones and tablets has opened up new opportunities for its players.

“We wanted to explore outside of the sphere where people always associate with us in games, which is Madden 11-on-11 football,” said Steve Scebelo, NFLPI vice president of licensing and business development. “We wanted to see what else could be done with 1,800 players in the video game space.”

NFLPI Business Development Manager Ricky Medina and New England Patriots running back Shane Vereen attended the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco this past March to kick off a contest and entice game makers of all sizes to create an original mobile game based around the NFLPA license. Despite the tight deadline of needing to get a finished game out in time for the start of the upcoming football season, 20 game submissions were received.

Run Games, the independent Los Angeles developer behind the free-to-play arcade action game, Football Heroes, emerged victorious. Football Heroes: Pro Edition will launch September 4, coinciding with the opening weekend of the new NFL season, on Google Play (GOOG) and Apple’s App Store (AAPL). The game will be available on the Amazon App store by Oct 8. The company has won a free one-year NFLPI mobile game license. Run Games also gets $10,000 in marketing credit on Activate, the new digital initiative from NFLPI that connects companies with players and their social media fan bases.

Vereen, who has 70,000 followers on Twitter, noted the power of the social footprint of professional athletes. “Numerous players have millions of followers going back to high school, college and the pros who tune in and hang on to every Tweet,” he said. “Even if just a certain number of players can put the word out, fans can see the name of the video game and know that I’m interested in it.”

Although all three finalists delivered interesting game concepts, Scebelo said Run Games won out, in part, because they could deliver a game in time for the season and they had a multi-year business plan for growth post-launch. Football Heroes, which launched this past January on iOS, has over 1.4 million players. Michael Marzola, president and creative director at Run Games, said that he knew the arcade take on the sport of football was a hit when he saw over 7 million games played in one week. Through the sale of in-game micro-transactions (think of the boosts available for a price in Candy Crush Saga), which come in the form of player packs that introduce new formations and special moves and abilities, as well as generic players to the mix; Run Games was able to pay for the cost of development in just three weeks. The studio was also able to expand its team and focus on the NFLPI contest.

While Madden focuses on simulating the 11-on-11 gridiron game, Football Heroes: Pro Edition will offer eight vs. eight gameplay and a side-view reminiscent of the classic Tecmo Bowl franchise. In addition to adding real NFL players, the game will keep its arcade premise. Gamers will be able to literally catch fire as they run for a touchdown and see the ground shake as they go in for a tackle. There’s also a deep role-playing game element as gamers can build up their players’ abilities over time, as well as add new players to their roster.

“When we released Football Heroes, fans kept asking us for their favorite NFL players,” said Marzola. “That element of having real players on the field is going to be a huge boon for the game. The new game will feel more true to the game of football with elements like on-side kicks, 2-point conversions and timeouts. We don’t want to lose arcade feel because people responded to that. ”

Come this fall, football fans will have two distinct free games to choose from. Run Games will continue to support Football Heroes on iOS. But because the game includes Looney Tunes-style violence, including the ability for players to fight, the Pro Edition will offer a toned down gameplay experience aligned to the NFLPI brand.

Football Heroes is an important product to us because there are no restrictions, it’s an arcade over-the-top game,” said Marzola. “To have the NFL players in the game and the kids that follow them, the behaviors of the characters need to work for both parties. Fighting doesn’t seem very appropriate and the gameplay has to be a reflection of how the players want to be viewed. This creates a space for our two games. We don’t want to just re-skin the Pro Edition game.”

Unlike Madden, which includes the NFL license and the use of official team names and logos, both Football Heroes games will bypass this license and allow fans to create their own original teams – right down to the ability to download logos from real high school teams. The Pro Edition will prevent the use of any real NFL logos or names, but players will be given a lot of customizable tools to build up their own team and take them onto the field.

Ultimately, there may be more than one winner in this contest, at least in terms of taking game concepts into the real world. Medina said that both runner-ups in the contest could work in the mobile gaming space and that the NFLPI will talk to the developers. One finalist was a world builder game similar to Clash of Clans, where gamers run their own football team and build everything from the stadium to the community around the team. The other game was a manager-style game that allowed gamers to take a player from rookie to the hall of fame. Through a series of mini-games and role playing game elements, gamers are able to steer the career of their player. All of the on-the-field football action in this game is simulated, not played.

“We did receive some ideas that fell outside anything we had ever thought of, including an episodic NFL player story game and an endless runner game,” said Medina. “We had some puzzle apps and more traditional football games, as well.”

Scebelo said the NFLPI would replicate this contest in the future, and not just for games. This approach could translate to toys or publishing or sporting goods. The ultimate goal is to spur creativity and grow the brand.

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