Flags Are Down, and the Maker of Madden NFL Faces More Than a 15-Yard Penalty

What’s an online gamer to do when he thinks he has Patrick Mahomes as his Madden NFL quarterback but the performance by the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback more closely resembles Mitch Trubisky? Well, he sues, of course.

Electronic Arts finds itself embroiled in a lawsuit stemming from versions of the enormously popular versions of Madden NFL as well as its NHL and FIFA games since 2017. The plaintiffs are alleging deceptive practices and false advertising leading to gamers spending more money on the games.

Madden NFL is the gold standard of sports gaming

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If video-game manufacturers held their own version of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, then Madden NFL would be on a record run of “best in show” awards. The EA Sports game is annually among the best-selling titles in the industry. When new versions are released each summer, NFL players brag about their high ratings or bemoan low ones.

The brand, the only video game licensed by the NFL, owes its name to Hall of Fame coach John Madden. When initially approached about being associated with the game, Madden insisted that as much authenticity as possible be built into the software. The gaming community took an instant liking to Madden NFL because of the nuances, and each generation of the game has brought additional upgrades.

Now, however, a lawsuit alleges Electronic Arts has broken faith with gamers by inducing them into buying enhancements that don’t always produce the desired effects.

The court battle will begin after Super Bowl 55

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Timing being everything, the initial court conference between lawyers for the plaintiffs and Electronic Arts is scheduled for Feb. 12, 2021, which is five days after Super Bowl 55. The case has landed in the hands of Joseph Spero, the Chief Magistrate Judge of the federal district court in San Francisco. According to Yahoo, Spero is also presiding over a class-action suit by minor-league players seeking better pay from Major League Baseball.

The gaming case, Zajonic vs. Electronic Arts, was filed by three Californians but potentially could evolve into a class action covering gamers who purchased football, hockey, and soccer versions since 2017. The lawsuit argues that EA systematically makes its games progressively more difficult and even dictates outcomes by overriding the skills of the gamers. They argue this is done to keep users more engaged and causes them to seek an edge – potentially by buying it.

EA’s first line of defense will likely be its terms of service and end-user license agreement language that require grievances to be settled in arbitration rather than through court filings. The same language seemingly rules out class-action suits.

If the court case remains alive, EA will point to its games being fully functional without any additional purchase other than the gaming system hardware.

Player packs and loot boxes highlight the Madden NFL dispute

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After buying Madden NFL and the other disputed games, gamers are able to purchase player packs, also referred to as “loot boxes.” The player packs unlock a player card, which can improve a gamer’s team. However, the court complaint notes a randomness to the loot boxes.

Sometimes it can have the effect of trading Le’Veon Bell for Derrick Henry, which no gaming enthusiast would mind. Other times, it’s more like cashing in Carson Wentz for Kirk Cousins – a move that might look good on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays but perhaps not on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. And – as in real life – no one wants to take that gamble on Sundays.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs are likely to argue that the randomness not only detracts from the realistic action on which EA has made its reputation but also amounts to a form of gambling that might not be permitted. EA already faces a separate lawsuit contending that the loot boxes violate California’s ban on slot machines.

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