'Madden NFL 11' fans upset over in-game ads

Blogosphere up in arms over Old Spice promotion

"Madden NFL 11" won't be released until Aug. 10, when it will be greeted like a long-awaited summer blockbuster, with retailers staying open late and fevered players lining up to buy it at midnight.

But a month before "Madden NFL 11" ships, a controversy has erupted in the blogosphere over how much in-game advertising is too much.

Since 1989, when the series was first developed by Electronic Arts, it has sold about 85 million units worldwide and generated more than $3 billion in revenue, according to EA Sports. The NFL-sanctioned chart-buster is easily the No. 1-selling football video game.

The hubbub started on the EA Sports blogs about a month ago when a screen shot of innovations in "Madden NFL 11" was inadvertently leaked. It included some expected improvements, like new QB rankings and a new kicking engine, as well as extra commentary. But it was an addition at the end of the list that received the attention: a ranking called Swagger, described as "a unique new rating sponsored by Old Spice to quantify a player's personality ... reflected through in-game celebrations."

Translation: It will weigh a player's tendency to show off in the end zone after a touchdown.

Apparently, while Old Spice is "the official deodorant and body wash" of the NFL (Swagger is the name of one of its product lines), for many gamers this addition, which stands out in a cheesy, pirate-style font followed by the Old Spice logo, plain old stinks. Unlike games such as "Grand Theft Auto" and "Resident Evil," which are riddled with advertising, this game seems, by the reaction, to be for purists and sports connoisseurs.

The controversy raises an interesting question: What is an "authentic" gaming experience? Certainly, the NFL is all about sponsorship and co-branding; the real-world games seem to have a commercial interruption every three minutes and sponsors sponsoring sponsors.

But here's how a blogger at Kotaku.com described the difference between ads and, well, the Old Spice sponsorship coming out in "Madden NFL": "You often see things like, 'Here's the Coors Light starting offense, brought to you by Coors Light.' But you don't hear, 'Kyle Orton's got a Doritos completion percentage of 57.8.' "

Another guy blogged, "What's next -- a hot wife rating?"

"This is a big deal," one gamer said. " 'Madden' is by far the only sports game that is so realistic and complex. It allows you to understand parts of the game you didn't have access to before. You can be the player and the coach. So, it took all the complexity and made it accessible." A thing like Swagger, he continues, "is the opposite. It takes things that are unmeasurable, that we don't really care about, and forces it into the game."

The irony here is that the encroachment of a supposedly more subtle form of advertising, branded content, made bloggers so furious that many claimed they would rather watch a plain, old-school interruptive TV commercial in the middle of the "Madden" game. And Old Spice advertising is well thought of, at least within the industry.

"The Man Your Man Could Smell Like," starring the bare-chested, hunky Isaiah Mustafa, who played football for the Seattle Seahawks -- and whose strange, staccato speech has come to define dude culture -- just won a Grand Prix award at Cannes.

It's actually a compliment both to the "Madden" franchise and Old Spice marketing that people feel this passionately about the game and are so familiar with the ads that they can quote from them, which some bloggers have.

As one anti-Swagger commenter on Kotaku.com put it: "I just want a secret combination of key presses that will make the quarterback say, 'I'm on a horse!' "
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