As the 2010s come to a close, it’s normal to sit back and think about everything that’s happened over the past decade. From elections to 4K televisions, there hasn’t been a dull moment in the past 10 years.
With sports gaming, it’s no different.
From the rise of Collectible Card Game (CCG) modes like Ultimate Team and Diamond Dynasty to the lack of AAA alternatives, there’s plenty to talk about and debate. The industry as gone through so much change since 2010 that it may be hard to actually remember everything. But it’s important we do. What has sports gaming become, and where is it going?
These are the questions that need to be answered, and we’re going to do that by taking a deep look at the State of Sports Gaming.
We can’t talk about where sports gaming is today without talking about how we got here.
Back in the 2000s, especially the earlier days, the competition was at it’s best. There were options for hardcore sim players as well as games for the casuals that just wanted a fun, simpler experience. I’m talking about series like NFL Street, NBA Street, SSX, NFL 2K, NBA Live (back when it was a legitimate alternative), and more.
Hell, there were even college games like College Hoops 2K and NCAA Football. Oh, what a time it was to be a sports gamer. It seemed that no matter what you were in to, there was a AAA or indie option to sink your teeth into.
But then, everything changed.
In 2008, EA Sports introduced Ultimate Team to FIFA 09. The card-collecting mode allowed players to build super teams by earning rewards and players to field the best roster possible. While the mode started out on FIFA with a modest million or so users, it quickly took off.
Within five years of its launch, over 20 million players were playing FIFA Ultimate Team. It also expanded to EA Sports’ other offerings like Madden, NHL, and NBA Live. Even non-EA Sports AAA games like NBA 2K and MLB The Show introduced their own card-collecting modes. By 2014, over 60% of players, according to EA, played ultimate team modes. And that number has only grown.
As things continued into the Xbox One and PS4 era of gaming, things took some turns for the worst. Most EA Sports offerings left PC for years, leaving only Xbox and PlayStation players able to enjoy games like Madden and NHL. Madden finally returned to PC after an 11-year absence with Madden 19 while games like NBA Live and NHL have yet to return to the platform.
Other titles like the aforementioned NBA Street and NFL Street haven’t seen releases since 2007 and 2006, respectively. Even baseball lost mainstream competition as EA Sports’ MVP Baseball ended in 2005 while 2K Sports’ MLB 2K series last saw a release in 2013 with the terribly received MLB 2K13. Even the NHL 2K series, which saw some fun installments like NHL 2K5 and NHL 2K10, came to an end.
As we’ve gone through the 2010s and reached the end of the decade, sports gaming has become something of a mess.
AAA competition remains non-existent for most sports while the games that are around fail to really add anything year over year. Instead, we seem to be shown more and more reasoning for titles like Madden, NBA and more to move to a biennial release schedule. From small things like forgetting to change out logos to bigger issues like game-ruining bugs, it just appears to fans that these games are truly becoming nothing more than yearly roster updates.
I get that as technology demand increases for these games it’s hard to do more in a single-year development schedule. That’s why the best way to solve for that is to move to an every-other-year cycle. It allows more time to fix legacy issues, improve the modes and gameplay already in the game, and even (gasp) add big new features for players.
Since 2013, when the PS4 and Xbox One released, the focus has shifted even more to CCG than anyone outside of the companies themselves could’ve imagined. Esports events for Madden, FIFA, and NHL focus pretty solely on CCG. NBA 2K is the only AAA game that does something different with the NBA 2K League that acts as a true sports league with the backing of the NBA. It’s one of the best concepts to come out of sports gaming in quite some time in my opinion.
The problem with the rise of CCG isn’t their popularity, it’s that other modes have suffered. EA Sports NHL has seen modes like Be A Pro become watered down wastes of disc space while Madden’s Franchise Mode continues to see minimal updates while keeping things pretty much the same over the years. I mean, look at the relocation options available to you in the mode. It’s been the same for half a decade.
If there’s any bright spot, it’s NBA 2K’s MyGM/MyLeague and MLB The Show’s Road to the Show. Those two are, without question, the best franchise and single-player career modes in sports gaming today. But they aren’t without their flaws: NBA 2K’s servers continue to be a disaster for online MyLeague players while Road to the Show has issues with realistic (off the field) player movement.
It’s just sad that we’ve hit a point where a remake of a PlayStation 1 cart racer — Crash Team Racing: Nitro Fueled — just took home a “Sports/Racing Game of the Year” award at The Game Awards 2019. If that doesn’t tell you just where things stand right now, I don’t know what will.
But that doesn’t mean everything is all bad. Whereas the AAA offerings have started to suffer due to their own apparent greed as well as cutting budgets despite record profits, the indie scene has soared to new heights.
Games like Out of the Park Baseball — which added its own CCG known as Perfect Team in 2018, became the poster child for sports management games alongside the Football Manager series. Super Mega Baseball has taken the sports-gaming world by storm with its simple gameplay and fun, over-the-top visuals. For football fans, games like Axis Football and Maximum Football are targeting specific areas — franchise mode and college football — to appease fans looking for something other than Madden.
Then you have titles like NBA Playgrounds and The Golf Club which looked to bring smaller-studio offerings to the mainstream only to be picked up by AAA companies, in this case, that company is 2K Games. That doesn’t mean the games are doomed or ruined in the future. In fact, it allows an increased budget for these titles that aren’t tied to an annual release like the main games.
Of course, the biggest success story has to be that of Rocket League. A simple concept — remote-controlled car soccer — that cracked into the mainstream, becoming one of the most successful games of the decade, let alone in sports gaming. In the nearly five years since its launch, Rocket League is available on every major platform and has over 500,000 players actively playing at any one time.
And not to leave racing titles out of the loop, I firmly believe we are living in the best era for racing games. 704 Games has brought NASCAR gaming back from the dead, and has found success; Codemasters continues to set the bar with games like the DiRT and F1 franchises; and Turn 10 Studios has made Forza Motorsport the racing series that has people wanting an Xbox or gaming PC.
So, we know where things stand as we head into 2020. But where will it go from here?
Well, the obvious thing is to understand that CCG modes will continue to grow. As long as they bring in millions of dollars to these companies, they aren’t going anywhere; they’re just going to get bigger.
Modes like Diamond Dynasty and Ultimate Team will continue to get the bulk of the updates and improvements each year. Franchise and career modes will see their updates, but it’s tough to a major portion of development be devoted to them, especially as we enter the next generation of console gaming.
Development teams are focused on getting the games ready for the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5, and it’s more likely that it’s full steam ahead on not making the same mistakes some games have seen the last two generations — Madden 06 for Xbox 360, and NHL 15 on PS4 and Xbox One are the two big ones that come to mind. To expect any major improvements next year would be moot as it’s likely that you’ll see an overhaul for some games in 2021 and beyond. That said, stranger things have happened though it’s still unlikely to me to see anything next year.
Speaking of 2021 and beyond, fans may have something to be really excited about: the return of NCAA sports games.
Thanks to recent rulings regarding players being compensated for their likenesses as well as interest from developers, it’s likely we finally see the return of licensed NCAA sports games, whether basketball or football, for the first time since 2013. No doubt that would be one of the best things that could come to fans. The earliest we see an NCAA game, however, would be 2022 or 2023.
Regarding competition, don’t expect to see the glory days return. With the cost of games, getting multiple AAA studios to release an NHL or NFL game to compete with the juggernauts that already exist isn’t likely to happen anytime soon, possibly ever again. We’ve seen it attempted with NBA Live in recent years, but EA Sports just hasn’t been able to make a dent into the market of NBA 2K. MLB was one of the only chances to see it, but recent news of the MLB The Show series going to platforms other than PlayStation in 2021 likely kiboshes that. It’s possible though that games like NBA Playgrounds — and maybe even an NFL spinoff — become the arcade offerings for diehard fans now that studios like 2K are involved.
Circling back to the biennial release idea, it’s hard to think it ever happens. Again, it’s all about the money and EA, 2K, Sony and more make too much of it to justify stopping what works. The only thing that may shake that trend is if they decide to move to a subscription model for the games. It’s been talked about at times, but kind of was pushed under the rug.
In a 2017 interview with Bloomberg, EA CEO Andrew Wilson said that he can picture a time where games like Madden don’t come out every year.
“There’s a world where it gets easier and easier to move that code around — where we may not have to do an annual release,” Wilson said in the interview. “We can really think about those games as a 365-day, live service.”
That phrase, “easier to move that code around”, is one that always stood out from that interview. Moving code and making it fit seems to be what’s been going the past few years. It makes the idea of moving to a subscription service more plausible, even though I still don’t see that becoming the norm.
As a software developer — yes, that’s what my background is in in addition to spending the last decade-plus as a journalist — I understand that though it’s possible to simply “move code around”, it’s rarely ever that easy. Just one line of wrong code could cause countless problems for the game. Even something as simple as moving code and not renaming something could lead to a feature not working. It’s a very fine line. To me, that statement from Wilson comes off as ignorant to what the programming actually entails.
I just don’t see anything like a subscription service for major sports games coming anytime in the near future. If it were to happen, I’d suspect it be in the late 2020s or early 2030s.
As for the general future of sports gaming, I suspect it’s only going to get worse on the AAA level before it gets any better for non-CCG players. Until the games start really hurting the bottom line, I wouldn’t hold my breath on seeing priorities change. Look at WWE 2K. It was a game that, over the last couple years, really suffered due to the focus of putting a lot of elements — mainly unlockables — behind a paywall. With WWE 2K20, the game released in such a broken state that the future of the series is in question. Sales are down from WWE 2K19 to WWE 2K20, and players even went as far as receiving refunds due to the broken state of the game. That’s the bottom line being hurt, and that’s what it’ll take to bring change to a game.
On the indie level, smaller studios will continue to provide players with alternatives to the microtransaction-filled offerings. Games like Axis Football, Super Mega Baseball, Mutant Football League and others will continue to fill the gap as long as the support remains from the community.
For all of us, however, the state of sports gaming is a mixed bag. For some, it’s never been better and it’s only going to get better. For others, things are gloomy and continuing to get worse as they feel their voices aren’t being heard.
Where do you sit with your thoughts on state of sports gaming? Let us know in the comment section below.