Entrepreneur and Harvard graduate Trip Hawkins founded the company in 1982, which is significant because Hawkins had determined in 1975 that 1982 was the year he should enter the computer industry. Two events led him to that conclusion: a fellow Harvard student introduced him to the nascent home computer business, and in 1974 he created a computer game that accurately simulated the upcoming Super Bowl, getting the final score wrong by only two points.
Based on his analysis of the home computer industry’s growth and a hunch that consumers would eventually have an interest in playing games—especially sports titles—on their computers, he selected 1982 as the year to make his move. In the meantime, he graduated from Harvard and earned his MBA at Stanford before becoming Apple Computer’s 68th employee in 1978. He helped the company make the Apple II a success, and when it went public, he found himself a millionaire.
Sticking with the plans he made in college, Hawkins left Apple in 1982 and started Amazin’ Software with a small staff. He later changed the company’s name to Electronic Arts to emphasize the artistry of the games and the importance of the designers. The idea of designers as artists was an alien concept to most corporate managers in Silicon Valley, but the industry’s designers heard it and thought, "It’s about time!" Hawkins raided Atari, Apple, and other local companies for top talent and received funding from the venerable venture capital firm Sequoia Capital.
Hawkins not only introduced the concept of game designers as stars, but he also revolutionized the way computer games were packaged. Instead of the plastic bags that most publishers used, he put his games in boxes that featured striking artwork and prominent placement of the designers’ names. He even called the packaging “album covers,” and the contracts his talent signed borrowed some of the legal boilerplate language from the music industry.
Gamers were introduced to EA in May 1983, when the company launched six titles, three of which were bestsellers: the action game Hard Hat Mack, the chess-with-a-twist game Archon, and Pinball Construction Set. Hawkins set his sights on the Apple II, Commodore 64, and Atari 800 home computers, all of which sported the processing power required to run his colorful, unique games.
He announced EA’s arrival with splashy magazine ads that stated, "We see farther," and introduced emotion into a seemingly cold, inanimate machine by asking "Can a computer make you cry?" He also successfully demanded a bigger piece of the financial pie from game distributors, ignoring admonitions from Sequoia Capital CEO Don Valentine in the process. Once again, he was treading into territory that no one in the industry had previously dared to enter, and his chutzpah was paying off.
Unfortunately, the entire videogame industry began to see steep declines in sales at the end of 1983 and well into 1984. EA held on, however, and in 1984 it cut a deal that would revolutionize the sports games business.
Through a friend of a friend, Hawkins was able to get in touch with the agent for Philadelphia 76ers basketball player Julius Irving, a.k.a. Dr. J. He cut a deal with Irving for his name and image, the first time a videogame publisher had licensed the likeness of a sports star. He then did the same with Boston Celtics player Larry Bird. The result was the best-selling game Dr. J. and Larry Bird Go One-on-One, which inspired Hawkins to approach another well-known sports figure and establish another first.
In 1986, he met with former American football coach John Madden, who had retired from the game and was now a popular announcer. Madden was interested in lending his name to a football game, but only if it adhered to the rules of the sport and featured realistic action (most of the earlier football videogames featured less than 11 players per side and tended to fudge some of the rules). That wasn’t a problem for Hawkins, who remembered his 1974 success at building a football simulator, and the John Madden Football series debuted on the Apple II in 1989.
The game was a huge success, leading Hawkins to introduce another first: a new edition of the game every year, complete with updated rosters, more plays, and better graphics. Traditionally, sports games were treated like other videogames; sequels were rare and usually considered unnecessary. As the years went by and the National Football League introduced new rules, new teams, and new players, however, it became obvious that a new edition in the series was necessary every year. Today, new versions of most sports games come out annually.
In 1990, EA went public. Hawkins turned over day-to-day control of the company to Larry Probst and Bing Gordon that year and later left the company to form 3DO, another videogame publisher (and failed console manufacturer). EA continued to be strong without Hawkins, publishing such groundbreaking titles as Sim City, Earl Weaver Baseball, The Bard’s Tale, and The Sims.
Today, EA commands 16 percent of the market among videogame publishers, making it the market leader. For fiscal year 2002, the company earned US$ 1.7 billion and posted a US$ 100 million profit.
EA’s strength lies in the diversity of the four brands under its umbrella:
- EA Games: Home of Harry Potter, James Bond, The Sims, and other popular properties that the company has either licensed or worked with another company to develop
- EA Sports: Where Triple Play Baseball, Cricket 2002, John Madden Football, and other sports titles reside
- EA Sports Big: Featuring such over-the-top sports titles as NBA Street, a game that emphasizes the rough-and-tumble play of street basketball instead of the finesse of NBA basketball
- Pogo: Where you can find plenty of online games, including free versions of NHL 97 and other older EA titles
And, true to its heritage, the designers are still stars at EA: the company works with Sid Meier (Sid Meier’s SimGolf), Will Wright (Sim City, The Sims), Peter Molyneux (Populous, Black and White), American McGee (American McGee’s Alice), and other well-known videogame celebrities on a regular basis. EA still makes sure that gamers are well aware of who these people are.
So what does the future hold for the overall EA brand? The EA Sports unit faces stiff competition from the Sega Sports line, but EA has spent the past two decades building a reputation as a reliable provider of entertaining titles in numerous genres, so weakness in one area likely won’t mean "Game over" for the entire company. The videogame wars are EA’s to lose, and the only way that will happen is if there is a sudden exodus of designers and properties – highly unlikely given EA’s history of supportive growth.