One sector of the Orlando business community that has become highly visible is the modeling, simulation and training industry … particularly because of the role many of those companies have played supporting American troops. However, that same technology fuels another sector and Orlando has emerged as a major center of the video game industry as home to such titles as Madden NFL, NCAA Football and Tiger Woods PGA Tour.
EA – Tiburon, the Orlando studio of video game giant Electronic Arts, is home to the storytellers, artists and digital wizards that bring these blockbuster EA SPORTS games to life.
It all began in 1994, when three programmers who wanted to build their own game studio decided to locate here. Tiburon Entertainment was born and soon after, the talented group entered into a successful partnership with Electronic Arts. Working closely with EA, the studio started laying the groundwork for and began the production of several popular game series. And just four years later, Tiburon Entertainment was acquired by Electronic Arts, becoming Electronic Arts – Tiburon (EA – Tiburon).
All Work and All Play
To this day, EA–Tiburon has its own unique culture and has become a mecca for creative game professionals who want to work on its celebrated game titles. The studio employs 800 talented individuals, and with so many creative minds in one place, fun is practically in the job description. The studio’s annual Sharkie Awards (a nod to the studio namesake – “Tiburon” is Spanish for “shark”) not only honor the best work and collaborations, but also the best office pranks.
The “ball pit” has gone down in the annals of EA–Tiburon’s history. What started as a few guys having fun by filling the space in the middle of a large conference table with hundreds of colorful plastic balls has become a preferred meeting area where attendees can playfully toss the toys at each other, or even hide in its depths to surprise the next group using the room.
This is also a team that knows how to celebrate. Do you think your last Halloween party was cool? Months of coordination go into Halloween party planning at EA–Tiburon. Forget trick-or-treating and simple costumes. Think themes such as a “radioactive zombie party” with decontamination areas, hazard zones, “emergency” newscasts and bloody zombies just waiting to make you their next victim. This is a team that excels at storytelling.
Swimming in the Talent Pool
While fostering creativity with a fun and playful work environment is important, the studio’s leadership is also tasked with the more serious job of growing the local talent pool. A majority of the positions are high-wage jobs filled by talent from the Central Florida area.
Central Florida has been and continues to be a great source of talent, with Orlando’s digital media companies accounting for one of the top 10 digital media clusters in the United States,” explained Daryl Holt, vice president of EA SPORTS and a general manager with the studio. “Not too far from our studio, in Downtown Orlando, you’ll find the homes of the UCF Center for Emerging Media, the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy and the University of Florida’s CityLab-Orlando. And a little further out, digital magic is happening in the studios of visionaries like Disney, GameSim Technologies, n-Space and Phyken Media.”
EA–Tiburon has had no small hand in ensuring the development of future talent. The nationally renowned Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy, also known as FIEA, was created when Electronic Arts approached the University of Central Florida with the unique challenge of needing hundreds of first-rate game programmers, artists and video game producers. The game company then got to work, partnering with the City of Orlando and the Florida Legislature to provide the resources and funding that brought FIEA to life. And since FIEA opened the doors of its world-class facility in 2005, hundreds of future game creators have prepared for their careers through its graduate-level program … and many of them now work at EA – Tiburon.
Lead game designer Alex Howell is one of FIEA’s lucky graduates to have snagged a coveted position with EA SPORTS. “My experience at FIEA and then the internship I held at EA were amazing opportunities. After I was hired, they knew I had the knowledge and they put me to work right away,” said Howell. “When I was a child, my dad implied that I was wasting too much time with video games. Instead, I’ve made it my career and I can’t think of a better place for me than alongside the team I work with at the studio.”
Investing in Innovation
Last fall, EA SPORTS further invested in FIEA with the creation of the EA SPORTS Innovation Lab. According to Holt, “We wanted to create even more job opportunities for Florida graduates, right here in Central Florida. For us, it’s all about establishing pipelines directly into local digital media businesses, so we keep our talent here.”
The EA SPORTS Innovation Lab provides select FIEA students an opportunity to work as paid interns, side-by-side with EA SPORTS game development professionals. Together, they work on the latest products on the latest platforms, using the latest tools and technologies . . . often creating new products that have never been seen before. It’s said to be an amazing opportunity for its students.
A.J. Jeromin, a senior technical artist with EA SPORTS spearheads projects in the EA SPORTS Innovation Lab and is a former member of the team at FIEA. “We’re encouraged to go all out with whatever we’re working on. You can’t find that kind of freedom just anywhere,” said Jeromin. “In the Innovation Lab, we work alongside students, spending a lot of time tinkering, taking things apart and figuring out how to make them better or work for our purposes. There’s no such thing as an idea that’s too ridiculous or even too infeasible . . . and this is what leads to the creation of new intellectual property.”
The Digital Playground of the Future
It’s hard to imagine what the minds at EA – Tiburon will have in store for us next. While the studio can’t give away its secrets, Holt doesn’t mind sharing a small look at what the future holds . . . and part of it already lies in the palm of your hand. “As anyone with a smartphone can tell you, the way people experience gaming is changing. We are laying down the foundation for the day when there is no more ‘shiny disc’ in a box for consumers to purchase,” Holt explained.
“One day, you will be able to play a game with someone who is using an entirely different platform than you. You may even be able to start a game on your console at home and finish it on your laptop across town.” Holt calls this “the digital playground of the future” and it makes sense. Gaming is becoming more and more mobile, therefore it will be everywhere.
Holt also believes that as game play changes, the game creators will change as well. He added that the “artists of the future” are people with a wide range of skill sets – including science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills – who are also tremendously creative artists. This may sound like a tall order, but there are already a number of professionals and students who will soon be ready to take their place at EA – Tiburon, leading EA SPORTS further into the future