By John Novak
Any sports fan who played video games through the PS2 era knows how great of a time it was for sports gaming. Sports games became more realistic, the extreme sports genre was given life, and we saw the next generation of Midway-inspired arcade sports games. Every sport had a market of stiff competition and a wide palette of options available to gamers. So what happened to the sports genre that was so successful and how did we go from a vivid landscape of titles to the "single franchise per sport" situation we find ourselves in today?
A Thriving Genre of New Ideas
What made this era of sports games just so compelling? 1999 saw the release of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, a fluke hit thanks to a risk taken by the small Neversoft studio. This series blazed a trail for the extreme sports genre, turning a whole generation of youth into skateboarders. The game was so fun and accessible that it not only appealed to non-sports fans, but helped propel skateboarding into the public eye, making Tony Hawk a household name. Neversoft’s success forced the rest of the industry to try to get in on the extreme sports gold rush. Though not every Tony Hawk clone was of a high quality, this wave of titles created a ton of hidden gems. Aggressive Inline, Wakeboarding Unleashed, SSX Tricky, and many more. Publishers of all sizes were able to take their shot at the genre, and it made for a competitive market of innovation.
EA ran with this over-the-top extreme sports attitude and created the "EA Sports Big" line, which became the 2000's equivalent of Midway's NBA Jam and NFL Blitz sports studio. NBA Street and NFL Street carried the torch for this melding of traditional sports with extreme sport attitude. New ideas were buzzing in this realm and it seemed like everyone wanted to get in on sports games. Even Nintendo had their Mario cast playing baseball, soccer, and basketball. All these unique arcadey games had non-sports gamers playing sports games for the first time since the NBA Jam days. Hardcore sports fans were also being catered to with deep attribute systems, stat tracking, TV replica presentation, and franchise modes that were deeper than anything seen before or since. Every type of gamer was being catered to in this lively games market.
The PS2 finally gave developers enough power to make more realistic sports games. In a short 2 year period we saw the release of some of the greatest sports titles of all-time including: NFL 2K5, Madden 2005, MVP Baseball 2005, NBA Street 2, and NFL Street 2. The Madden and NFL 2K battle became especially fierce, and is the main catalysts for today's baron landscape. EA was at the top of their game with Madden 2005, yet gamers were split on which NFL series was wearing the crown. The deal breaker was that while Madden was the typical full price at the time of $50, NFL 2K5 launched a hail mary and released their AAA sports game at $20! 2K had the momentum in their favor and EA knew they couldn't compete. EA flexed their corporate muscle, purchasing exclusivity rights to the NFL license, killing off the arguably superior NFL 2K series. In desperate response, 2K bought MLB exclusivity, killing off EA's superior MLB series, MVP Baseball. This was a sign of what was to come for the sports genre. Minimizing risk and buying out competition was the name of the game, and ultimately this trend would soon take over the games industry as a whole.
The wheels were set in motion, but the genre would see its last few sparks over the next 5 years. In 2007, EA released Skate which revolutionized skateboarding games. We saw Fight Night refining its innovative control scheme, which then came to a head in 2009 with Fight Night Round 4, which finally let boxing fans fight Ali vs. Tyson. Madden 2010 finally received the Online Franchise mode fans had been begging for. We also saw the best hockey games since NHL94, and the start of the golden era of simulation basketball games, peaking with 2K acquiring the rights to Michael Jordan. The decade was great to every sport and every type of sports gamer.
The Dark Age of Sports Gaming
However, the lack of competition eventually got to the industry. With no scrappy mid-sized studios left to nip at their heels, sports game publishers were no longer motivated to take risks necessary for innovation. "Necessity is the mother of invention", and with no competition making innovation a necessity, the genre began to decay. The 2010's became what can be seen as the dark age of sports gaming. The decade saw the death of variety, risks, and new ideas of the eras the preceded it. What defines this era is an ironic lack of competition in a genre all about the celebration of competition.
EA gave up on their EA Sports Big line of games, except for a fleeting return in 2012, no longer brandishing the "Big" name. EA canned their wildly successful Skate series after 2009's Skate 3 for unknown reasons. Madden, the singular football game, had become one of the most stagnant series in gaming. All college sports games were phased out of production. NBA2K for all intents and purposes had gone uncontested once EA threw in the towel after NBA Live 2010. In turn, EA's NHL success made 2K give up after NHL 2K11; which then let EA get lazy and slip from its golden era. Once 2K's MLB license expired, they outright stopped making them. EA decided it wasn't worth begining to make baseball games either, leaving MLB The Show (a Playstation exclusive) as the only full baseball game on the market.
On top of all this, the prominent rising trend in sports games has been predatory microtransaction models. Almost all sports games have a adopted the notorious "card game" modes. These modes combine the gambling nature of loot crates with a multiplayer mode that is quite literally pay-to-win online versus mode. While a player can choose to just ignore this mode, there is no ignoring the currency implementation in existing modes. Single player experiences have been intentionally dampened in order to make in-game currency purchases near necessary as quality of life supplements. For a game genre that is already an annual gouge for roster updates, they see it necessary to further burden the customer with microtransactions that do nothing more than remove the unnecessary barriers they put up only so you could pay to take them down.
One notable example is NBA 2K which now requires the use of a shared currency system across all single player game modes. They've altered the mechanics of every mode to exasperate the use of in-game currency, and make you play a balancing act between your credits and which mode you value more. Instead of having annoyingly tedious game mechanics like "player morale" act as nuisances for the purpose of realism, they are now used as ways to gouge customers. Want to have your dream NBA roster in franchise mode? Well not so fast, you have to bribe players with expensive in-game currency to convince them to stick around. Want to become an all-star in Be-A-Pro mode? Well either you have to grind in purposely boring practice modes for excessive amounts of time, or get ready to buy some in-game currency. Worst of all, this system also acts as an always online DRM system which disallows you from collecting your rewards while offline. NBA2K even has a pay-to-win MMO sports mode. Imagine the outrage if Blizzard had allowed World of Warcraft players to buy a max level, max gear character the day their game came out? Now imagine, unlike World of Warcraft, you can't grind quests, but must compete against higher level users to acquire XP. This is the position 2K Sports has put players in. You start with a 60 overall scrub who wouldn't make a desperate NBA team's bench (slow, misses layups, etc) and have to score on Lebron level superstars to acquire currency. The grind from 60 overall to 70 overall is as painful as possible, and leaves you in a situation where you feel hopelessly forced to buy currency just to kickstart your player up to the caliber of a no name role player. Sports gamers are fed up, as seen by only 27% of user reviews on Steam being positive.
All mid-budget sports games were pushed out and replaced by anti-competitive low-risk approach to sports game publishing. Publishers aren't willing to create spin-off series with their sports licenses in apparent fear of cannibalizing their own profit margin. What is left is a single homogenized game for each sport that neglects those who pine for a fun NBA Jam experience, and fails to satisfy those who wish for a hardcore simulation. There is also the inherent symbiotic nature of the league/publisher relationship that pending the leagues' disapproval, prevents the developers from implementing features that fans might want in the game. The publisher benefits from the lack of competition, and the sports leagues benefit from having overbearing control of the games being released. It's a boring mix of risk management for game publishers, and public image control by the league. At the behest of the NFL, EA's 2012 NFL Blitz remake noteably excluded the after the play scuffles that made Blitz famous. It is unlikely we will see another NFL Street for similar reasons. Over the years since the exclusivity agreement, the NFL has forced the Madden team to remove several fun and/or realistic features including: dynamic attendance, concussions, helmets flying off, "violent" hit stick tackles, and celebrations. With EA's latest NFL agreement terms being hidden from the public, it is unclear if it will expire in 5 years, 10 years, or ever. What is for sure is that no competing football title will be ready to be released on short notice when and if the agreement does expire.
When Push Comes to Shove-it or: The Future of Sports Games
However, the future of the sports genre isn't all grim. While most mid-sized game developers have been killed off in the wake of the major publishers' business practices, small studios are now learning how to capitalize on the tools of internet funding and distribution. The most notable example in sports gaming is Crea-ture Studios who have been on the grind over the past few years working on their upcoming skateboarding sim, Session (formerly Project Session). The creators have tapped every resource available to make this game a reality, from Canadian government grants to a successful Kickstarter. This crew went from a humble vision of a Unity engine, on-rails (no pun intended) skateboarding sim; to an ambitious Unreal Engine skateboard sim with professional motion capture and an innovative control scheme more hardcore and precise than that of EA's Skate. This is a game that probably would have never been commercially viable in the physical copy era of gaming due to the gameplay being too niche and hardcore for general audiences. Yet through the megaphone of the internet, these skateboarders' lifelong passion project is looking to become a reality. A few other small studio niche extreme sports games are being created like BMX Streets, Snow and On A Roll; all of which aim to do for their respective sports (BMX, snowboarding/skiing, and Inline) what Skate did for skateboarding a decade ago. Mash Games, Poppermost Productions, and On A Roll Studios all have the same lifelong passion for their sport we see motivating Session.
On the team sport side of things, Super Mega Baseball 2 by Metalhead Software and Mutant League Football by Digital Dreams Entertainment look to tap into the arcade sports market that has been neglected for so long. These developers all have little or no previous game catalogs, coming into existence for the sole purpose of the love for sports and sports gaming. There is also Alex Austin's Cryptic Sea games, which turn sports on their head with physics based calamity and experimental control schemes! His portfolio includes the first-person mouse precision of "Hockey?", the chaos of the tongue in cheek titled "Golf for Workgroups", and a new football game he is teasing on Twitter that is reminiscent of the 2010 game Backbreaker. Don't overlook these games however, as "Hockey?" has a shocking amount of depth below its surface, even spawning a cult community of dedicated players with full organized leagues. "Hockey?" is a first person hockey game in which you control single player, meaning that these teams' rosters consist of 9 or so individuals. The leagues are maintained entirely by the community including: schedules, broadcasts, stat tracking, free agency, and drafts! This dedication to the game is so inspiring and will be the fuel that propel sports gaming into the future!
This wave of passion-driven sports games reminds us of exactly what made the PS2 sports game era so exciting! Will this passion for sports and a comatose market be the chink in the armor for some developers to get their shot? EA's neglect for the PC platform opens up an even wider opportunity for competition. We know how dedicated and resourceful sports gamers are, and with the implementation of the common Roster Sharing feature, this could be the opportunity for a newcomer to take the genre by storm. Fans are still updating NFL 2K5 with modern rosters, while college basketball fans continue to make NBA2K rosters every year to fill the void of college basketball games. If some passionate dev teams can give gamers an unlicensed alternative to EA's stale products, we know fans will supplement the games with accurate rosters and uniforms. That aside, after 15 years of unlicensed releases Out of the Park Baseball finally acquired the MLB license in 2015. Will they extend their amazing in-depth simulation to an on-field gameplay experience? Will their hockey and football equivalents be able to acquire rights for their respective leagues? Or will a brand new game developer come out of nowhere and make a splash in the sports game realm?
While I don't have an answer to any of these questions, one thing is for sure... much like Neversoft with Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, it is going to take some bold risk-takers with new ideas to shake up the industry! "It has to start somewhere, it has to start sometime. What better place than here, what better time than now?"
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