November 16, 2019

Why Electronic Arts games are coming back to Steam (probably)

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Electronic Arts is probably going to announce soon that it is bringing its games back to the Steam PC gaming portal. Last week, the Madden and Battlefield publisher posted a teaser on Twitter. The video shows an EA coffee mug with steam coming off the top. And since then, some more evidence points to EA returning to Steam. This would mark a significant return for the publisher after leaving Steam to publish exclusively on its Origin platform in 2011.

While it might seem like a new trend for publishers to launch their own launchers on PC, EA was ahead of the curve. The company hasn’t released any of its own blockbuster games on Steam for most of this past decade. That started with Battlefield 3, and it continued uninterrupted up through the launch of games like Apex Legends and Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville.

So what changed? Well, you did. The people who play games are shifting their habits, and Valve is trying to mitigate its risk.

Epic and Game Pass are coming for PC

The most obvious factor is the competition from the Epic Games Store. Epic is trying to break Steam’s stranglehold over PC gaming. The Fortnite publisher is making deals to keep games off of Steam, and Valve is likely starting to feel the heat from that.

But Epic isn’t the only market-disrupting force in video games right now. Subscription services are also changing the way people buy games. And Steam is probably best known as the place where you go to buy games on PC. What happens to that as more people sign up for Xbox Game Pass, Humble Monthly Bundle, EA Origin Access Premier, and Ubisoft’s Uplay+.

Sure, Epic is battling Valve for the future of where people buy games. In the meantime, it feels like Microsoft is ushering in a world where people don’t buy games at all anymore.

The combination of Epic and subscriptions hits Steam on both ends of the spectrum. Big games are taking deals to stay off Steam for up to a year. And while plenty of smaller games are still launching on Steam, consumers may feel less of a need to go looking for something new when they can just brown their Game Pass subscription instead.

The value of Steam is the players

If Valve is losing out on blockbuster releases and fans are finding more smaller games on subscriptions, what does that leave for Steam? The answer to that is simple: service games. Steam has millions of monthly active players. These are people who log in to play games they own or free-to-play hits like Dota 2.

And I think that is exactly where Electronic Arts fits into Valve’s strategy. Apex Legends is still one of the biggest releases of 2019. And it is the kind of game that could do very well with an audience that opens up Steam every day but may not remember to open up Origin. This gives Steam a major new game to bring in regular revenue. And it should ensure that Valve maintains its highly engaged audience.

That’s why it’s worth it for Valve. But what about EA?

If I had to guess, Valve likely reached out to EA about bringing Apex to Steam. But as part of that, EA will have to give up 30% of all sales up to $10 million, then 25% and 20% after $10 million and $50 million, respectively.

EA started Origin precisely so it wouldn’t have to split its revenue with Valve. So why would EA agree with all this? Well, again, Steam does have a huge audience. And maybe EA was able to negotiate a better revenue split — although I doubt that.

The most likely answer is that EA is trying to smooth out its transition into a service. Enabling people to buy Battlefield or Madden on Steam may remind people of the value that is in Origin Access Premier. That may encourage people to subscribe to that instead.

But what if EA began selling its subscription service through Steam? It already sells a version of EA Access on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Why not do the same on the biggest PC gaming platform?

That’s the kind of big bargaining chip that could get EA to soften up and return to Steam. We’ll find out for sure, soon.