Madden NFL 21 debuts as Orlando's Electronic Arts employees work from home during pandemic

©Orlando Sentinel

Madden NFL 21 comes out this week amid the coronavirus pandemic. - Electronic Arts/Orlando Sentinel/TNS

ORLANDO, Fla. — Electronic Arts’ Madden NFL 21 was entering the final phase of development when the video game company’s employees suddenly had to work from home because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The move meant that traditions like gathering over pizza to test the new game had to change, said EA’s Daryl Holt, with the company paying reimbursements for pizza at home as employees took their gaming sessions virtual.

“Everything was more difficult,” said Holt, vice president and general manager of EA Sports Orlando, Austin and Madrid.

Madden NFL 21, produced at the company’s Central Florida studio, is set for worldwide release Friday.

The game comes out after EA reported booming business amid a pandemic that put the sports world, like everything else, in a state of flux. Still, the California-based business behind popular games like The Sims and FIFA remains on track to relocate its Maitland office to a new building in downtown Orlando.

“With real-world sports disrupted, EA Sports has become the center of the emotional connection to sports, and we’ve brought millions of new, returning and existing players into their own personal sports stories through our games,” CEO Andrew Wilson said on a July 30 earnings call.

Executives at EA believe the company can fill an appetite for sports even as live games continue to change because of coronavirus.

On Monday, it was announced 13,000 fans will be able to attend the NFL home opener for the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium.

But when Madden NFL 21 comes out Friday — on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC — it will include new features created before the pandemic took center stage, such as the backyard football-inspired mode called “The Yard.”

Users will be able to create their own avatars in the new feature and up to three people can play as two teams of six football players face off.

“A lot of it comes down to the different types of players that are playing Madden,” Holt said. “There’s a whole new generation consuming sports.”

EA does think about “delivering something that feels like there is an outlet for sports, virtually speaking, if the real world takes a pivot,” Holt said.

In addition, more people are playing video games during the pandemic.

“We’ve seen tremendous growth over the last four months in our business and across the industry,” Wilson said on the July call.

EA’s net revenue was about $1.46 billion in the quarter ending June 30, up from $1.21 billion in the same three months last year, according to an earnings release.

Wilson, who called the period the “biggest first quarter in EA history,” sees the company sitting at the intersection of two trends accelerated during coronavirus: social interactions shifting from physical to digital and the consumption of sports and entertainment changing from “linear to interactive.”

The company’s stock price has also increased, up about 32% from around $107 at the start of the year to more than $142 at close on Tuesday.

“Tens of millions of new players have come into our games, and we also have many players returning to our franchises after some time away,” Wilson said.

While this year’s Madden only had to be brought to the finish line with staff working from home, next year’s game will get started from the beginning with workers out of the office, Holt said.

Most of EA’s employees are expected to continue to work from home at least through the rest of the year, according to Wilson.

Plans were announced last year for EA to move its 700 Maitland employees to a new building in downtown Orlando’s Creative Village while potentially growing the workforce to 1,000 by 2025. Holt said the new space remains on track to be completed in the fall of next year.

“My hope is that we continue to grow in Central Florida,” he said.

The new studio is being designed to take work from home into account, Holt said, as EA plans a workplace of the future.

“It’s about how to create a very flexible studio, a flexible workforce,” he said. “We’re just thinking about the way we work.”

———

©2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

Daryl Holt, vice president and general manager of EA Sports in Orlando, Austin and Madrid on Jan. 22, 2020. Madden NFL 21, produced at the company's Maitland office, is set for release Friday. - Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel/TNS