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It’s In The Game: Strikeforce & CBS Aren’t The Only Ones Gambling On Fedor

ea sports mmaThis Saturday night’s Strikeforce event on CBS is obviously huge for both companies. Strikeforce is making their debut in primetime, and they’ll be exposed to the widest audience in the organization’s history. Make no mistake, with this event Strikeforce is firing a big shot right across the bow of the U.S.S. Zuffa and entering the national stage as a very real competitor to the sport’s undisputed leader.

Meanwhile CBS is taking another chance on live mixed-martial arts, this time without ratings powerhouses like Kimbo Slice and Gina Carano. The success or failure of this event rests heavily on the shoulders of one stoic Russian heavyweight and his undefeated opponent. We’re already into November sweeps, and the network will be under pressure to deliver strong numbers if there’s going to be any hope of a second Strikeforce event in primetime. There’s still a lot of opposition to MMA out there, but by taking the risk CBS stands to be at the forefront of what is likely be the next big sports movement in the United States.

There is, however, a third company with a lot riding on Saturday night’s event. They’ve been hugely successful over several decades now, but they’re also just starting to be involved with the sport of mixed-martial arts. I’m talking about video game software giant, Electronic Arts.

Formerly the world’s number #1 third party software developer, EA has built themselves into the gaming industry’s leading provider of sports games. This is obviously due in large part to the unstoppable football juggernaut that is the Madden franchise, but the company also has several hit titles in the worlds of soccer, college football, golf, NASCAR, basketball, and more.

In 2010 EA will attempt to conquer a new avenue of the sporting world, one that is only recently gaining mainstream acceptance. EA Sports MMA is scheduled to be released sometime within the next 12 months. The game is being made without any support whatsoever from the UFC, and in fact the Zuffa machine has its sights set firmly on sinking the new game before it even hits. UFC President Dana White has already declared that he will not sign any fighter that has agreed to appear in the game.

There’s no mystery as to why this has happened. The UFC has already launched their own hugely successful videogame franchise, as THQ released UFC Undisputed 2009 earlier this year to raves from critics and blockbuster sales. The 2010 edition of the game is already in production and will be directly competing for sales with EA Sports MMA. As has been seen countless times in the past, Dana White has no problem with you until you come after his pocketbook.

EA has already announced that their game is going to be headlined by two of the sport’s biggest stars: Fedor Emelianenko and Randy Couture. The addition of Couture is a double-edged sword. On one hand he’s easily the biggest American MMA star to be included in the game. On the other hand he’s a fighter that is currently under a UFC contract. It remains to be seen how this will affect Couture’s promotional abilities in relation to the game. Will EA be allowed to put him on the cover? Could he appear in commercials for the game? The Zuffa lawyers are likely already drawing up scenarios to make sure that doesn’t happen, but there’s no way to know for sure at this point.

That leaves Fedor as the most likely face of EA Sports MMA. It will be his name at the top of the roster list. It will be his character featured in much of the in-game footage. It will be his face on the cover of the game.

So now the concept of marketing the game becomes easier or harder for EA depending on what happens this weekend. If Fedor can pull off the kind of performance that has won him over so many die-hard fans, then he’s likely to gain plenty of newfound adoration from those that tune in. Think about it. If you were being exposed to Fedor for the first time this weekend and he not only beat his much larger opponent, but made it look easy, wouldn’t you want to like the guy?

At the same time if Fedor should lose to Rogers (which is unlikely, but entirely possible) then his drawing power amongst the casual audience will be all but gone. He’s been hyped as the best fighter in the world, but if Rogers can pull of the same kind of upset as he did against Andrei Arlovski, what reason is there for fans to get behind Fedor?

Try to put yourself in the mind of a casual MMA fan. If you’re looking for a new game and you see one box with Fedor’s picture on it, and another with (hypothetically) Brock Lesnar’s picture on it, which would you choose?

The burden isn’t entirely on Fedor though, as CBS will need to pull in strong numbers if anyone is going to see the guy. Their marketing push for the event has left something to be desired, at least up until the last few weeks.

According to the EA Sports MMA Twitter page the first trailer from the game shown during the CBS broadcast. This will be the first public showing of any footage from the game, as screenshots and info has been handed out in small chunks to the media since the game’s announcement.

If EA is going to build any sort of buzz for their new franchise (especially since this far from the release date) then they’ll need people to see that footage and they’ll need those same people to get behind the fighters that are in it. Several other competitors from Saturday’s event (Jake Shields, Jason “Mayhem” Miller, and Gegard Mousasi) are featured in the game’s roster. If fans find their new favorite fighter amongst any one of those names, EA’s odds for success have already improved.

It also doesn’t hurt that Mauro Ranallo and Frank Shamrock will be on commentary, since they’re in the game as well (although Shamrock is included as a fighter). Don’t be surprised to see some extra mentions of the game throughout the event, especially since it’s all but certain that EA Sports MMA will be one of the night’s sponsors.

If EA hopes to have any success with their new franchise they’ll need these Strikeforce events to pull in plenty of viewers. Trying to market a new MMA-related product without the UFC’s support can be a nearly impossible task. Strikeforce will need to build their brand, as well as the Fedor mystique, if EA Sports MMA is to have any chance of being a success.

The war for consumer’s videogame dollars won’t really heat up until next year, but the battle begins this Saturday night.

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