Sports games used to face fierce competition that led to innovations within the genre. Now, microtransactions dominate a genre once teeming with life.
Some of my earliest memories — not just in gaming but in general — center on sitting in the basement of my childhood home playing any sports title I could get my hands on. Madden 95 was my first foray into the sports gaming genre and with a brother seven years my senior, it presented a unique opportunity to bond with someone who far outpaced me in maturity and life experience. It was an equalizer of sorts.
For so many growing up, they found solace in gaming’s ability to help them escape. I was lucky enough to have someone to go on that adventure with. While others lost themselves in Hyrule and the Mushroom Kingdom, my brother and I found common ground hitting dingers with Ryan Klesko and running up the score with Brett Favre.
Going back to the turn of the millennium, you’d find my brother and I sitting in my room with my shiny new translucent orange N64 taking an entire day to make the most accurate rosters we could on Triple Play Baseball 2000 and playing three games of a season only to start the process all over again the next day. I remember watching my brother sim through multiple seasons of NCAA Football just to get the exported draft classes to pull over to our Madden franchises. I can’t even venture to count the number of times we have called each other just to talk about crazy trades we pulled off or strategies we wanted to take when building our rosters in NBA 2k.
My childhood was defined by midnight releases and Madden tournaments. To put it succinctly, sports gaming played a pivotal part in my gaming upbringing and my relationship with my brother. I’ve never been much for nostalgia, but reflecting on those days floods my mind with that “good old days” feeling.
But lately, the genre has grown stale, and my interest has waned. In the last year, the only sports game I’ve logged more than a handful of hours with has been NBA 2k18 on the Switch — mainly due to the novelty of portable play.
A Time Loop of “Been There, Done That”
The late 90s and early 2000s brought with them a barrage of change in the genre. Advances in graphics technology meant every few iterations looked markedly better than their predecessors. While the short development cycle studios have to create these games in has never lent itself to cosmic leaps in quality, every year’s release at least differentiated itself enough to warrant a purchase. Yearly releases introduced new features, new game modes, and new gameplay improvements.
However, lately, annual sports releases have felt more like $60 reskins and roster updates. Developers have placed their innovative focus on lucrative card games, bowing to the dualistic gods of microtransactions and RNG. The annualized development cycle has served less to drive change and more to serve as a natural reset point for these modes. Every year, fans of FIFA and Madden’s ultimate team, NBA 2k‘s MyTeam, or any of the other sports card games have to start from ground zero buying packs or in-game currency to improve their team.
For longtime sim franchise players like myself, the process feels like an abandonment. Each year brings with it a removal of features, an increased emphasis on these card-based modes, and more of that “been there, done that” resignation. While developers introduce more ways to inorganically take players money (ie card-games, cosmetic microtransacations, and credit-based career progression), longstanding issues in franchises still plague the players who purchase the game to — you know — play the game.
The defensive game in Madden still suffers from nano blitzs, poor AI, and completely broken zone coverage. Players still spam steal and 3-point cheese in NBA 2k. Goalie AI in FIFA still leaves people scratching their heads. Every year, same game, different cover athlete. It’s a reductionist way of looking at it, but harbors more truth than not.
The Heart of the Problem
In some sort of poetic irony, the problem with sports games today boils down to a lack of competition. The very thing that makes sports almost universally alluring has somehow gone missing from the sports game industry.
In the late 90s/early 2000s, competition drove innovation. Four different MLB licensed games launched on consoles in 2000. At the same time, EA, 989, Visual Concepts, Konami, Radical Entertainment, and Microsoft each had their own NBA licensed game. Madden faced staunch competition from 2k in the mid-2000s.
But as licenses became more expensive to maintain and publishers sought exclusivity deals, the competition fell by the wayside. EA has an exclusive license with the NFL, Sony San Diego makes the only sim-style MLB game, and NBA Live — while improving — has still failed to capture any significant audience away from 2k. Now, these franchises have settled into their respective places and continue to spit out the same game year after year with little improvement. Without any attachment to the card-based games, there is little reason for franchise players to upgrade annually.
Recapturing the Past
At the end of the day, the pursuit of nostalgia is always fleeting. I’ll never be able to recapture the excitement of standing in line for the release of Madden with my brother every year or go back to college and destroy everyone on my hall at NBA 2k. Those days are gone and the memories sweetened by the people that helped create them. But my love for sports games didn’t start with the memories. It started with the games themselves.
If sports games ever want to return to their prior form, they will have to start by addressing the issue of quality. Now, we live in a golden age of gaming. Studios churn out solid entries in nearly every genre imaginable. Unfortunately, sports games have become overwhelmingly average. With all of the great games coming out month after month, who has the time to play the same average game they played three years ago?