It’s about time we admit something: sports gaming is dead.
Ok, it’s not really dead. In fact, it’s still going pretty strong, if not stronger than ever before financially. What’s dead is the idea of what many of us want sports gaming to be.
We just need to face it. We will NEVER have another era of competition and alternatives in the AAA sports marketplace. We’ll never see two simulation NFL games launched together. There’s not going to be another NHL game to compete against EA Sports. MLB? Well, with the MLB The Show series coming to other systems starting in 2021, you can kick that can goodbye, too.
The only true competition we have anymore is between EA Sports’ FIFA series and Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer, which explains why we see more attempts to improve and add between those two than any other major titles.
But why? Why is this the case?
To put it in a word: money!
Games are more expensive than ever before. To be honest, they should cost more than the $60 that nearly all AAA titles cost. Remember back in the day when some games would cost $80 new? Well, that’s really what we should be at today, if not higher.
It’s why companies focus so much on microtransactions and DLC packs. They need to recoup some costs to make larger profits. That’s not excusing it, that’s just stating how it is.
Now, please pay $5.99 to unlock the remainder of this article…
Bad jokes aside, the money is the be-all, end-all for a lot of these publishers. If a game doesn’t sell at least remotely well, it’s going to be put out to pasture. You think a game like NHL Hitz or MLB Slugfest could be made today? NHL Hitz 20-03 sold 300,000 copies back in 2002. If a licensed AAA sports game were to sell that little in 2020 the support for it would collapse quicker than GameStop’s stock.
There’s also that little thing called licensing. Back in the mid-2000s when the competition got fierce, especially between EA and 2K, we saw the companies lock down exclusivity deals. First, you had the NFL and EA sign in January 2005. Just a month later, it was 2K’s turn to exact revenge by killing EA’s MVP Baseball franchise by signing a third-party deal with MLB. From there, things went downhill.
Nowadays, if a game doesn’t have proper licensing, no one really seems to care. And by no one, I’m talking about consumers. Want proof? Go back and tell me how All-Pro Football 2K8 sold. Even with individual licenses for some of the greatest to ever play the game, it did peanuts compared to the previous 2K football title, NFL 2K5. Without the NFL, no one cared.
And I know what you’re thinking, well, what about NBA Playgrounds? That’s a different style game with a license. And yea, that series has GREAT potential, especially with 2K now owning it. NBA Playgrounds 2, though, sold about 280,000 copies according to the latest numbers. Those numbers just aren’t sustainable for most series today. Like I said, go look at the NHL Hitz 20-03 numbers. Now, factor in the higher cost to create games today as well as a cheaper price point. There’s no way that the game didn’t lose money in the end. Again, I’m not trying to make excuses, but if a third installment comes and it doesn’t sell almost double of the last one, it could be the final Playgrounds game we see.
More than money?
Ok. Cost and revenue. That all makes sense, right? Then why not try things in the games that already get made? Why not give the fans something fun; new; exciting?
In my opinion: complacency and ignorance.
Now, I’m not saying developers behind the games are complacent. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Games today are harder to make, and finding talented developers to utilize the various engines available is a tough gig that I wouldn’t want to be responsible for filling. So, none of this goes on the men and women who actually write the code.
No. This goes higher up and it piggybacks off the money point.
Once modes like Ultimate Team, MyTeam, and Diamond Dynasty entered the mix, all other areas of most games were doomed. Sure, you get some outliers like the introduction of the World of Chel in EA Sports NHL and the improved Road to the Show in MLB The Show, but they still don’t get the same attention that the money-pit card collecting modes get.
Just think about it, what’s the first mode that gets pushed in your face whenever you load up a game of Madden? What about the mode you read about most when visiting some of your favorite sites (other than Sports Gamers Online, of course)? It’s all about Ultimate Team because that’s what companies like EA and 2K know sells. People spend millions of dollars per year on these packs for cards that they don’t even own, and are completely worthless once the next game releases. Yet, they still buy them hand over fist.
Why bother adding features like Create-A-Team, Custom Relocation, Assistant Coaches, Training Camp, Position Battles and more back to Madden? People are just going to keep buying the game anyway, and pouring hours into MUT.
With NHL, it only takes you 10 seconds of scrolling through the game’s Twitter feed to know what they’re pushing.
NBA? Well, it’s clear that NBA 2K owns the market. And while this is one franchise I’ve actually still enjoyed quite a bit over the last 10-plus years, there are obvious signs of 2K’s obnoxiousness when they put things like haircuts behind microtransactions. I mean, do you remember the gambling controversy prior to 2K20’s launch? The game pretty much has a casino in it. Still, at least with NBA 2K, the single-player career mode is incredible, MyGM and MyLeague are the best franchise modes in all of sports, and the gameplay remains at the top of the genre. They at least know, for the most part, what fans want from them.
Circling back to soccer, this year FIFA added a pretty damn awesome VOLTA mode that acts as a game within a game and brings a form of FIFA Street to the modern day. You think we would’ve gotten that if PES wasn’t breathing down their necks? I doubt it. Without PES there, FIFA likely just trots out the same exact game year over year with the only updates coming to some new FUT feature.
What can be done?
We are at the point where we need to rely on independent studios like Big Ant, Axis, 704 Games, and others to build the games that sports fans want. Fun games that focus more on the gameplay and modes rather than selling card packs to players. Support from the casual fan will be difficult to come by for these studios, but getting the games out there is the first step to rebuilding the genre.
Do you miss games like Skate and want a true sim skateboard title? There’s Session from crea-ture Studios. What about a fun, arcade baseball alternative? Super Mega Baseball may be a franchise for you. And if over-the-top football action is what you want, look no further than Mutant Football League which is still seeing updates and new teams added over two years after its launch.
If you want more of the realistic route, then check out titles like Maximum Football or Axis Football. Games that, while not the best or most polished, show promise towards becoming real players in the market. And of course, if you want to focus on management modes as opposed to on-field gameplay, then games like Out of the Park Baseball and Football Manager should be right up your alley.
The games are out there. You just have to look for them.
But who am I kidding, we just need to accept the fact that a new NFL Street or Blitz-like game or even a major simulation alternative just isn’t in the cards anymore…or do we?
The future of sports gaming is yours to create.
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