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Box Score: The Longest Yard - A season of changes yields unexpected benefits

Box Score is a weekly column that offers a look at sports games and the athletic side of the industry from the perspective of veteran reviewer and sports fan Richard Grisham.

“It was a scary time last year.”

Matt Bialosuknia looked me in the eye and uttered those words. I’d asked Madden NFL 13’s audio producer point blank what it was like last spring when several key members of EA Tiburon – home of Madden NFL and NCAA football – left to pursue new jobs well before the development cycles for EA’s flagship football games were done.

It’s only natural, of course, for people to feel that way. If you’ve ever worked for a company going through significant change, fear can be a natural reaction. Some can be paralyzed by it while others use it to fuel their pursuit of a new opportunity.

The man chosen to lead Tiburon through the transition – and into the next generation - was Cam Weber. At EA Canada, he was the person responsible for delivering some of EA’s most successful franchises, including Fight Night Champion and SSX. For Weber, the move wasn’t just from one set of digital properties to another; it also included bringing his family and several co-workers from Vancouver to Orlando. A life-altering decision, to say the least.

“It was a dream opportunity,” he told me when I asked him about the move. “One that I wasn’t about to pass it up. I moved my family down here, and we’ve been loving it ever since.”

Instead of coming in guns blazing, though, Weber took a more subtle approach.

“Because of the time I came in, I really wasn’t in a position where I wanted to mess with the team in terms of changing any directions of where they were going or what they were doing,” he recalled. “I really kind of almost wanted to stay out of their way.”

“For the first two months I literally was filling my schedule with one-on-one meetings,” he recalled. “Meeting with individual people across the football groups and asking a lot of simple questions. What makes you motivated to come to work every day? What do you love most about the titles you work on? If you could change anything, what would you change? What could make you more effective? What could make our games better?”

One of the people best positioned to answer those questions and make a big difference moving forward is the new creative director, Mike Young. As the longtime art director for Madden NFL, he stepped up to the challenge of becoming the person that has the most direct impact on a title.

“It had always been my dream to be ‘the’ game designer, not just the artist,” he told me last week. “Throughout life I’d always been the guy who made up the rules for whatever thing we were playing. When (Ian Cummings, the prior creative director) left, it was a great opportunity to step up. Luckily I had the support of Cam Weber.”

As Madden NFL 12 wrapped up development and prepared for its release, Weber and team weren’t simply sitting back letting things happen around them. Not hardly.

“During that process, myself and my leadership team were crafting a long term vision,” Weber said. He took big action at the moment he thought it would have the most positive impact.

“The next working day after we went final on Madden 12, we rolled out our new re-org,” Weber recalled. “I brought a couple of folks from EA Canada, and moved around and brought over some leaders from within Tiburon, and we really formed a new leadership and management team.“

Instead of resistance – another natural reaction to a significant change to their daily lives – the reaction was overwhelmingly positive.

“It was amazing how much people wanted to do it,” recalled Weber. “It really was easy for me.”

In addition to the re-organization, Tiburon strategically added significant strength to their overall group. By adding more than 60 people to the newly-formed American Football team that was one of the creations of the reorganization, the foundation was put in place to make dramatic shifts.

“A lot of the design team are guys that are brand new to the industry,” said Young. “Half of them are in their first or second year in this industry and this has been their dream. They’ve worked so hard to get here. They have a lot of energy, and we’re empowered to go ‘big.’ It’s a fresh, exciting place to be a part of.”

Anthony Stevenson, Madden NFL’s ebullient director of marketing, described it in terms any sports fan can understand.

“Look at the Steelers,” he told me. “Great team, they make the playoffs every year, coming off a Super Bowl with Bill Cowher. In comes Mike Tomlin; it’s not that Cowher wasn’t a great coach, he was an amazing coach. But at some point when you bring in somebody new with fresh ideas and fresh energy, it re-energizes everyone around you. That’s what Mike Tomlin did; they won the Super Bowl in his second year. It wasn’t that the players were different around them. It was a new point of view just to re-invigorate everybody and Cam has certainly brought that.”

Fast forward to today, a couple of months shy of finalizing both of their first true full releases, and there’s a sense of optimism permeating the walls of the studio. To a person, everyone associated is positively brimming with energy about both football games. It seems, to them, that July and August can’t come soon enough for the world to see the newest iterations of their franchise.

If nothing else, things aren’t scary any longer.

“I defy anyone to say ‘It’s just a little sort of tweaks here and there and a couple new features,” said Bialosuknia about Madden NFL 13. “It’s completely fresh, amazing new experience.”