Mobile Sports Game Licensing: Help or Hindrance?

Screenshot from eFootball PES 2021, showing Ronaldinho and David Beckham competing for the ball

Mobile sports games are some of the most enduring and beloved titles in the mobile market. A cursory glance at the App Store download charts reveals games like Retro Bowl, True Skate, and Football Manager Mobile to be among the biggest around. They, to an extent, give players a chance to live out their sporting fantasies and enjoy a range of sport-based gameplay experiences. Unlike console developers, however, mobile sports game devs often have a lot more freedom when it comes to licensing.

You'll notice that only one of the three games mentioned above is licensed, meaning it works with real-life sports brands and IPs to bring in real players, coaches, and teams. The other two use their own fictional characters, teams, and scenarios to flesh out their world. While the likes of FIFA and Madden dominate triple-A gaming, mobile arguably offers a wider variety of sports games, some using renowned licenses and familiar faces, and others opting not to. To get to the bottom of the reasoning behind each approach and how this seemingly simple decision can lead to unique experiences, we chatted to two mobile sports developers that sit on opposite sides of the fence. On one hand, they see licenses as a lead-in to existing fanbases and popularity.

Screenshot from NFL Clash, showing several football players barging into one another on a green pitch
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"Our representation from the licensing partners has been incredible," says Tom Shoenhair, VP of product at Nifty Games. It’s the developer behind NFL Clash, a recently launched American Football game that's closely partnered with the football league, adorned with stars like Patrick Mahomes and Ezekiel Elliott. Rather than seeing the NFL license as a quota for the team to fill, it instead gives Nifty Games an existing foundation to build upon.

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"Having a license actually gives teams and games the freedom to be creative and innovative."

When asked whether there's a difference in creative agency between licensed and non-licensed games, the answer was similarly positive: "having a license actually gives teams and games the freedom to be creative and innovative, because the licensors want the same result as the game team," Shoenhair continues. It seems that this marriage between a well-respected franchise and a passionate developer can prove both financially and creatively fruitful, then.

Equally, with the live service model we see in so many free-to-play mobile games, smart licensing could hold a fanbase’s attention for longer. As one season ends, players and coaches move on, and the game can stay on top of that with ease. Shoenhair agrees, saying "we don't see why the game would not be able to last forever," with the ability to dynamically adjust players or teams based on their real-life performances. Rather than restricting Nifty Games, the NFL license lets the studio imbue its title’s gameplay and design with real-life faces and teams to draw in and retain fans. At the end of it all, that's Nifty's focus, with Shoenhair saying "we went through a deep study of who our audience is… and most importantly, how we can make them happy."

On the other side of the coin, plenty of mobile developers wish to avoid associations with existing licenses and franchises, carving out their own stars and narratives in the process. That's where OutOfTheBit steps in. This studio, based in South London, is behind Super Arcade Racing and its successor, Super Arcade Football. Both games forego any licensing connections, instead using their own teams, competitors, and approaches to gameplay.

Screenshot from Super Arcade Football, showing several pixellated players partaking in a football match on a rainy day
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To OutOfTheBit, that's all part of the fun of Super Arcade Football. "It's set in the 1990s in an alternate universe… we wanted to take the focus away from the real world and focus on the pure essence of what makes football fun," said Ali Motisi, founder of OutOfTheBit. With this came more creative agency, allowing the team to subvert expectations of what a football game could be. "That was our motivation for not using licensing – capturing the fun of football without the complications of making a detailed, accurate simulation."

"We wanted to take the focus away from the real world and focus on the pure essence of what makes football fun."

In the same way, they see Super Arcade Football as something of a mobile time capsule; the sort of game that'll be just as playable and visually striking in two decades' time as it is now. That's another reason behind the unlicensed approach, which they term "liberation" – the ability to forgo licenses, tell their own original story, and create a visual style unlike anything you see in licensed sports games.

Where does that leave sports games on mobile?

Rather than there being a definitive right or wrong approach, the work of both Nifty Games and OutOfTheBit highlights that the mobile sports genre is more diverse than ever. Studios can either opt to use licenses, gaining the potentially long-term allure of familiar names and franchises in the process, or opt against that to allow for the creation of decidedly different titles.

While NFL Clash and Super Arcade Football may be entirely disparate in how they look, play, and function, they're both grounded by their creators’ love for sports and desire to give players an engrossing experience.

As such, whether you opt for licensed or unlicensed mobile sports games, there's surely something on the market for you. It's a genre that's flourishing, increasingly populated by titles that offer no shortage of creativity, whether through their blending of a license with unique, innovative gameplay, or their ability to stand tall without one.