When I was an independent sports agent, I learned that the athlete management business favored the big agencies. Developing amateur athletes through training programs is capital intensive, and the big agencies can afford it. Independent agents must be creative to survive.
Indie sports studios, and third-party studios alike, face similar market challenges. Developing a AAA title is capital heavy, and if the profit outlook is weak, new game projects never launch. Many studios fear entering the market without a major league license.
Third-party studios can compete in the sports gaming space by developing promising technology, regardless of the licenses they hold. Secondly, they can deploy business countermeasures to overcome exclusive licensing challenges.
Whereas AAA studios deploy console exclusive licensing tactics, third-party studios like Konami can move games to PC for more comprehensive strategic distribution channels.
AAA studios protect their heavy investment in league and player union licenses. Sony San Diego has been developing MLB The Show exclusively for Sony PlayStation consoles for years. This allows all of the development focus to be concentrated on one game and one platform. MLB Advanced Media, the wing of MLB that manages its intellectual property, benefits from interfacing with just one entity in Sony. The synergies are clear, and Sony San Diego has produced a premier sports simulation title.
The downside to their arrangement is the lack of premium baseball titles available in the United States. Many studios have refrained from developing a baseball game without the MLB and MLBPA’s respective seals of approval.
Such business tactics may have impacted Konami Digital Entertainment’s baseball titles. Konami’s baseball games are only available in the Japanese PlayStation Network Store due to unknown reasons at this time. Coincidentally, Sony has little competition for their flagship sports title.
Konami sports has not wavered in the face of these marketplace headwinds. Further, its actions are a reason to remain optimistic as a sports gamer. Konami has shown the willingness to develop competitive baseball intellectual property in the face of adversity. For this article’s sake, I consider Konami, a powerhouse in its own right, as a third-party sports game developer. It does not carry the premier and most sought after licenses in sports gaming that its competition does.
The most dedicated simulation baseball-gamers respect Konami’s Pro Yakyuu Spirits Baseball for its simulation pitching and hitting interface and its batted ball variety. Konami’s game can ball. Konami developed this title without a U.S. release – this demonstrates its confidence in its proprietary code. One key question left unanswered: why hasn’t Pro Yakyuu been fully developed for PC, where it has the potential to thrive like its footballing counterpart, Pro Evolution Soccer (PES)?
The Konami Pro Evolution Soccer community has built over 100 stadiums, television overlays, and dozens of other realism features for the PC version of the title. To be clear, these modifications are not supported by Konami, and we do have to tread lightly with unsupported mods. Notwithstanding such constraints, PES generates real love amongst football fans with its incredibly detailed soccer simulation. The interest allows Konami to continue to build technically-sound sports gaming technology, with or without all of the teams and player licenses. This is always welcome.
Whereas major league licenses are accompanied by lofty sales expectations, third party studios have less pressure and more flexibility for release cycles. The PES 2021 Season Update is a prime illustration.
This past year, Konami released a title update to PES at a lower price point than a full, brand new game. The season update provides improved gameplay and updated rosters. This is commendable.
Most AAA studios release annual sports titles with minimal gameplay changes — and charge full price. I believe many fans of games such as FIFA, The Show, 2K, and others would embrace a similar seasonal update and discounted costs.
Konami has permitted itself time to rebuild its soccer engine by taking a year off. The company has detailed its change, moving from their proprietary Fox Engine to Unreal Engine 5 (UE5). It has identified components to Unreal Engine 5 that are superior to rebuilding the Fox Engine for the next-generation of gaming. This is important because it demonstrates the UE5 versatility, a widely-available engine to developers. Studios wishing to build a sports game can follow suit without the challenges of building an entire engine from scratch.
Further, Konami Digital is risking sales and profit margins for the 2020-2021 season. It has concluded that this step is necessary to build a superior product for 2022 and the next five to ten years. Again, this demonstrates Konami’s confidence in UE5 and its compatibility with Konami’s locomotion and physics engines for their flagship soccer title.
This business agility is not afforded to flagship game franchises that are key revenue generators for NASDAQ listed companies. (Comparatively, Konami’s market cap is one-fourth of EA’s.) Once an established revenue stream is set, it is difficult for a public company to adjust its revenue outlook down when the expectation of those sales is already built into its stock price.
This cyclical business model can partially explain a general risk-averse strategy and lack of innovation in sports gaming. Some may argue the exact opposite: “the demand for quarterly growth will drive innovation.” I agree with this statement in a vacuum. In the sports gaming market segment, the demand for growth may have inspired business tactics that drive competition out. It follows that incentives to innovate born out of competition outweigh the incentives to innovate out of a demand for growth.
Konami’s ok with its current model
Konami is showing the willingness to forego premium profit margins with the intent of advancing its simulation sports gaming technology. The timing is brilliant. At the end of one console generation and the start of a new, developers optimize a game across many specifications. Konami is instead looking forward. It is focusing on research & development, a long-term play, setting itself up for fierce competition with FIFA in the next console generation. We all stand to benefit.
AAA will always have the upper hand, but passionate designers work quietly for sports gaming wings and boutique studios worldwide, driving to build fundamentally sound simulation sports games. Konami is just one example for us sports gamers to remain optimistic.