Head of EA Sports on future of gaming

Andrew WilsonKevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesAndrew Wilson opened up on EA Sports’ plans for the near and far future in an exclusive interview.The future of video games may be in HD, but with the next generation of consoles right around the corner and people gaming more and more on their handheld devices, the future sure is unclear.

And it’s the job of Andrew Wilson, the head of EA Sports, to figure it all out. From iPhones to holograms to games connected with almost every electronic you own, Wilson has some big ideas in store for EA Sports.

I sat down with Wilson to speak about EA Sports’ plans for the future, how they plan to incorporate new media into their games, and where the gaming market will be ten years from now.

Zach McCann: You’ve talked about ‘Madden’ going social, and ‘FIFA’ has had the successful Football Club. How important is to you guys to play a role in gamers’ social media lives?

Andrew Wilson: When we look at our gamers, here’s what we know: Sports fans engage with sport from the minute they wake up to the minute they go to bed. And it’s not just while they’re watching the game, or Monday Night Football, or a Wednesday night baseball game. They’re engaging almost 24 hours per day. If they’re awake, they’re thinking about and engaging with sport. We don’t want to make it where the only time you can engage with our game is while you’re sitting in your lounge playing our game. We want you to be able to do stuff on your phone. We want you to be able to do stuff on Facebook. We want you to message, and text, and Tweet, and see what’s going on in the virtual world, which for many gamers is as important as what goes on in the real world. They want that same functionality of life, so it’s very important for us to deliver that.

Mixing video games with social media is still a new concept. How confident are you that people want to read updates on their Twitter feeds about their ‘Madden’ franchise? Are you sure this is something people want to do?

I don’t even post photos on Facebook, but I do spend time look at photos other people post on Facebook or other news that goes on Facebook. I think there are two parts to this. There’s going to be a lot of people who create a lot of content with what’s going on in their games, and there’s going to be much bigger audience who consumes that content. It creates that story. I don’t post much on my favorite football teams, or talk about my favorite UFC match, but I read a lot about those things because I want to stay in touch with the sports I love. And the same will be true here. When you look at FIFA’s being the furthest along, it’s obvious it’s engaged enough fans for us hitting record online days six months post-launch. That never happens. That tells you this concept of social, this concept of service, this concept of connection with other fans, is actually driving a deeper level of engagement in the long run of the season. We’re just going to keep going.

You’ve said before you want to connect every game on every platform. What exactly do you mean by that, and how far is EA Sports away from achieving it?

You’ve already seen stuff where you do things on FIFA on your mobile phone, and that turns up on your console game. What we’ve begun to realize is the notion that you get a Facebook update on your phone, and then you go back to your PC and it wasn’t there, would be absurd. If you logged into a friend’s PC and booted up your profile and it wasn’t there, you’d go, ‘What?’ You would think something was broken. And the same is true for games. So we want to make it so no matter where you access, you can get to what you’re doing in that world. Are you going to play a game from your fridge? No. But could you do some auctions and trades? Absolutely. We look at platforms and think about what’s the best platform to use inside that specific world.

So it’s all about using the cloud?

It’s all about the cloud. It’s moving more and more that way. The GM Connected mode in ‘NHL 13,’ that takes advantage of the cloud. EA Sports Football Club, last year, that put a bunch of content on the cloud. Connected Careers in ‘Madden,’ there’s a bunch of content on the cloud. I think the trap you fall into is they want you to be able to do everything on every device. And that’s when you fall over, because gamers will say, ‘It’s dumb to do that in my fridge.’ But do I want to check posts on my fridge? Do I want to see how my team is doing online on my fridge? Yes.

The gaming world is different than it was a decade ago. Back then you knew your sports game was coming out on these three or four devices on a certain date, and that’s what you did. Now there’s so much more to it, with people’s phones and tablets and social media websites. There’s so much more now. How do you contain what resources you use and what you don’t?

We look at the world of sport. Sport has existed at its very core, on the court or the ice, to compete with each other. And there’s a group of people who are a support to that existence. Sport has been that way for thousands of years. What’s changed is how people consume that sport. Sport hasn’t changed. In soccer, it’s always been 11-on-11 and coaches and referees. So looking toward the future, we try not to be distracted by how people are going to consume, and focus on what is actually the core of the experience. Once you focus on what the core of the experience is, and you’re not distracted away from that 11-on-11 football on the pitch or 5-on-5 basketball on the court, then when new ways of consumption come up, you can sort of focus on the core of how people take in the sport. We have that focus. It’s about, do I watch sport on my 50-inch TV, or do I watch it on my iPad, or do I watch it on my watch? You’re not going to watch it there because it’s stupid. And I’m not going to watch sports on my iPad if I can watch it on my 50-inch television. So you focus on the core, and then look at consumption habits and focus on them as they ramp up, and move away from them as they ramp down, and the peak investment is always at the core.

Obviously ‘Madden’ isn’t ‘Words with Friends,’ but do you see the mobile market ever taking over video games? What about sports games? Where do you see the long-term of gaming?

I think there are two things at play. One, I think there are always going to be a world where sports fans want the biggest and the best picture, physics, animation, audio experience possible, either on a big screen or a hologram that comes up from the floor. I think there’s always going to be a market for that, the HD or super-HD or ultra-HD experience. But at the same time, the mobile phone you’re currently holding in your hand has the same processing power a PS2 had. Just a few years ago, that was as good as we could do. I fast-forward three years, that mobile phone in your hand will have the same power as a PS3 or Xbox 360 today. Or a Mac. Then what happens, it’s not about the processing power, it’s about the size of the screen and what’s the right experience based on the size of the viewing area. That’s how we see it. I think the mobile is going to play a huge part, because we are not going to be bound by technology or the inadequacies of technology. PS3 games are better than PS2 games because they’re more powerful; it’s that simple. Right now, with the phone, we’re limited in our technology. But long-term we won’t be. It just comes down to how you use it. Screen size, time of the day, where you’re at — it really comes down to what’s the best experience for where. Will mobile play a big part? Yes. Does that mean people aren’t going to play games on giant screens with surround sound? I don’t think so. Maybe they’ll screen it from their phone to their television, but they’re going to want a big screen somewhere.

You’re always trying to stay ahead of gamers. How far down the line do you guys plan at EA Sports?

You’ve got me thinking here. I like this. We do it a couple ways. We have a couple of different types of meetings. Sometimes we have dream meetings, imagination meetings. We think about, ‘What can we do?’ What would a hologram coming up from your living room floor look like? How would you deal with that? How would you deal with a football pitch coming out of the carpet into your living room? We have those kind of dreams. And then we start to work backwards and think about based on what we’ve seen, the new technology and gaming of the last few years, where are we going to be for the next three years? Most of our business rolls in three-year strategic plans. We update every year because the world changes fast. Most times we’re thinking three years ahead, but that doesn’t stop us from thinking 10 years ahead because in our experience, that ten years, often turns up in three years. We start thinking crazy stuff and it turns up.

This is the second part of a two-part, exclusive ESPN interview with Wilson. He discusses EA Sports’ current generation of gaming here.

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