I know that this is the big sports issue here at The Escapist, and at first I was planning on going against the grain a bit to talk about how gaming as a “professional sport” is the most ludicrous thing I have heard this side of Ozzie Guillén. But that lacked any real teeth because, well, gaming isn’t a sport and that’s pretty much the end of the debate. So instead I decided to rip on the sports gaming genre – not because I want to or because I get any amount of joy out of doing so, but as a lifelong sports gamer, I’m fed up.
Before I jump in with both feet, a bit of history is in order. Every gamer has a history tree, and we can look at that tree as if it were filled with family members, but instead of tracing your lineage back to Great Uncle Rufus, gamers trace their roots back to systems like the Atari 2600 and Intellivision. Think of it as a Geek Tree: The deeper your tree, the deeper the geek. Gaming was already mainstream and cool by the time the PlayStation 2 rolled around, but if you can hang something like the Apple II on your tree, you’re a certified first-generation gaming geek and most likely have different expectations from the games you play.
Take my tree, for example: Atari 2600/Intellivision/Commodore-64/Three Year Drunken Haze College Break/PC. The sports games in the tree also run the gamut from Intellivision Football, The World’s Greatest Baseball Game, 4th and Inches, Hardball!, Front Page Sports, right down the line.
With that out of the way, let me explain why sports games are dead to me, and how publishers have collectively destroyed what was once a creative, developer-driven part of the game industry.
The Yearly Release Cycle of Death
I realize that for many sports gamers, the yearly release of Madden is akin to a national holiday, but this is a huge part of the problem with today’s games. It’s why they’re complete and total scam jobs. Developers have around 10 months (if that) to crank out a brand spanking new game – one with just enough new features to fill a fact sheet and highlight the back of a gaming case. And fixing the problems from the previous year isn’t enough (or even on the docket some years).
You need new stuff.
It’s an almost impossible task for the developers, but the publishers work this like a well-oiled machine. When was the last time an EA Sports or 2K Sports game missed a release date and was pushed back? So, either these games are programmed so brilliantly they make the people at Valve and Blizzard look like incompetent hacks, or something else is going on, and it’s not nearly as exciting. These games are in no way developed with the idea of making the best possible product, but rather are designed to be the best possible product in the short time before the next release is due. That’s a big difference. Time is the mortal enemy with sports games, because publishers feel the need to ship these games before the season even starts. Seriously, what says “baseball” more than February 26, which happened to be MLB 2K7‘s release date?
Sports gamers are trapped inside the industry’s version of The Matrix. The fact we see “new” games every year almost guarantees only so much can be done, not only to add new features but also to fix problems from the previous edition. Each year, the hole gets deeper, and it gets harder for people not to see the spoon, as it were. As problems go unfixed, and new features are added, many of them also badly in need of fixes, it gets more and more difficult to justify spending upwards of $60 every year to buy the latest version.
This is all about money, obviously. In any sort of rational scenario, we’d see “new” sports games released every two years, and in the off years a roster update and a patch to fix the most egregious errors from the old game. But that’s crazy talk!
Exclusive Licensing And You
Exclusivity just plain sucks for everyone involved in the hobby. When the NFL and EA Sports collaborated (actually, EA simply outbid everyone else) to obtain the exclusive rights to all things NFL, which runs through the release of Madden 2010, it was a crippling blow to sports gamers. That was of course followed up by 2K Sports signing a weird deal with Major League Baseball, which basically only affected EA Sports by killing off its MVP Baseball series.
The irony in all of this is the deals killed the two best games in the genre. MVP Baseball was significantly better than MLB 2K, and NFL 2K was clearly better than Madden.
It’s not just the NFL and MLB. NASCAR, the PGA, FIFA, the Arena League and NCAA Football are all wrapped up inside EA Sports’ exclusive licenses, which guarantees that if you want to play a game inside those genres your options are limited to one game, and you’re going to pony up 60 bucks to play it.
So while the NBA, NHL, NCAA Basketball and the Professional Bowling Association continue to hold out, it seems only a matter of time before those, too, fall to the collective buying force of the game industry. I know those PBA guys are holding the line, but you can only ask so much of bowlers.
Abandoning the PC
Back in the day (“the day” being the mid ’90s), there was a verbal war of words being waged over 14.4 baud modems between console sports gamers and PC sports gamers.
It basically went like this: PC gamers held their noses in the air, claiming serious sports gamers played games on the PC because of trivial things like online play, mouse support with spreadsheet-like interfaces and the fact that most of the games simply had more features and better designs.
The console crowd debated between swigs of Mountain Dew that PC gamers were crusty old farts who wouldn’t know a fun game if it smacked them across the face with a gamepad. For console players, the entire point was controlling all of the action. Stats, franchise modes and editing capabilities didn’t matter as long as they were controlling Barry Sanders.
By looking back at my history tree, you can probably guess which camp I fell into. I just didn’t get the lure of console games. They were ugly, featureless games whose lone draw was that you could control the players a hell of a lot better than you could in most PC games.
I simply couldn’t understand why someone would want to play Madden over Front Page Sports: Football. In Front Page Sports, my college roomies held rookie drafts, created custom teams with custom uniforms, designed plays – all with the ease of using a mouse and a keyboard. We felt like the game created its own little football universe. In Madden, you could control John Elway and throw for 600 yards game. It just wasn’t for me.
Here’s the problem, though: The console games were really, really popular, and PC sports games fell into the same yearly rut we see today. Front Page Sports died a slow, painful death thanks to upper management incompetence. Microsoft’s short attempt to revitalize PC sports gaming faced a much quicker demise. Even EA Sports, who once made as big a deal of their PC releases as they did the console stuff, slowly began to siphon cash away from the computer. By the time the PS2 rolled out, the war was all but over. Today, PC sports gaming is limited to racing games and text-based games like Out of the Park Baseball and its ilk.
While console games sold a lot of units, the PC side of the genre didn’t do itself any favors, either. PC sports gaming’s last throes were in the early 2000s with two baseball games: 3DO’s High Heat Major League Baseball and EA’s MVP Baseball. These were two excellent games – two of the best of all time, in fact – and are a lesson in why losing this platform as a viable sports gaming alternative has hurt consumers.
Take High Heat. The PC versions from 2000 through 2002 were brilliant, not only because of the designs, the true PC interface and the focus on realism combined with arcade play, but because of user and post-release support from 3DO. Out of the box, High Heat was a good but terribly buggy game. Like many of today’s sports games, it wasn’t complete. When you would download PC patches for popular sports games, you’d see a laundry list of fixes and enhancements, and while gamers bitched about needing patches, they’d be even more furious if they didn’t get them.
Well, today we need them as much as ever – we just don’t get them.
Companies are in no rush to issue an Xbox Live patch with 75 fixes in it. And again, it’s a time issue. The development cycle is just too short. Oh, you’ll see a patch that fixes online issues or maybe a roster update, but don’t hold your breath for a major gameplay patch. Take NCAA Football and Madden, this year on the Xbox 360. Both of these games are plagued by interceptions. It’s so bad, many hardcore football fans have shelved the games because of it. Consumers know there’s a problem. EA knows it. When will we see a fix for this? The patch will be called NCAA and Madden 09. Cha-ching.
Really, you can’t blame companies for leaving the PC. You have to go where the money is, and it clearly rested with the consoles. But whether you’re talking about the console or the PC, it doesn’t excuse the fact we’re now in an era without post-release support and no user mods. It’s something the genre desperately needs.
The Media’s Critical Failure
The media, by and large, has given sports games a pass. Usually, the only time you see a truly harsh review of a game is when the controls aren’t up to snuff, or there are online issues, or the graphics take a step back. But the gaming press refuses to admit that we’re playing the same game every single year and paying full price for the pleasure.
Imagine if Blizzard released a new StarCraft or Warcraft every fall, like clockwork; every August would mean a brand new, $60 game. However, the game would use the same engine, albeit with slightly better graphics, include maybe a new race or two and perhaps some new techs, and a dozen or so new maps. What would the reaction be? It would be a media bloodbath, especially after a few years of annual gouging.
Now, it’s not quite the same with sports games. People want to play a new version with new rosters every year and will gladly fork over their money to do so. But eventually the media needs to start using its critical eye with sports games like it does in nearly every other genre. Sports games comprise 17 percent of the gaming market. They deserve to be analyzed just as closely as shooters, strategy and roleplaying games.
It comes down to this: I love games. I love sports games. I’ve loved them for as long as I can remember, going back to the stick figures in Atari Basketball. But the industry needs to get back to trying to make the best game possible and not just the best game possible in less than a year.
William Abner is a graduate of The Ohio State University and loves the Buckeyes more than any person should be allowed. He started writing about games professionally in 1996 and is currently the Content Editor at GameShark.com