Opinion: What we need instead of annual sports games
…if the real sport hasn’t changed at all in the 12 months since the last game was out, what point is there to releasing a new game?
Another year, another sports title. Try as you might, you can’t escape the trend of annualised sports titles. Annualised titles are nothing new to games – we’ve had a new Call of Duty game every year since the original launched in 2003. I’m not defending annualised games, but shooters have much more room to experiment than sports titles do when they release a follow up game some 12 months later. Do they develop a sequel which continues the story of the game before it? Do they change time periods or inject elements of science-fiction. Do they change the gameplay altogether? With sports titles such as the NBA 2K, justifying a yearly release is difficult as real-life basketball doesn’t dramatically between each video game release – you’re really just trying to improve graphics, update rosters and scrounge for whatever new features you think will interest your fans.
All these thoughts and more have been rolling around in my head while I play NBA 2K18, the latest NBA game from 2K Games. As someone who doesn’t follow the NBA in real life, you could probably show me screenshots from previously released NBA 2K games and I might not be able to tell the difference. Graphically, the engine is beginning to feel dated, with multiple games having been released on the exact same build. With that being said NBA 2K18 is a great game, it’s just hard to justify its existence.
It isn’t just NBA 2K18 that feels overexposed, either. EA’s FIFA, NHL and Madden NFL games have largely felt the same for years, yet year after year they appear on retail shelves as though they never left.
The nature of the problem with annual sports games lies in what sports games actually are: video game representations of real-life sports. After all, if the real sport hasn’t changed at all in the 12 months since the last game was out, what point is there to releasing a new game? Unless a new league emerges or the game’s rules have drastically changed, there isn’t.
Years ago,Yuke’s and Visual Concepts contemplated the idea of post-release roster updates for WWE 2K. For some reason, this never happened. Instead, we got another full game the next year, which barely improved from the year before.
But what does change from year to year with sports titles? Obviously, team rosters and the game’s soundtrack do, but games like WWE 2K and NBA 2K have attempted to add more unique experiences to each release with a campaign mode. NBA 2K’s MyCareer usually has less bounce than a ball with a hole in it (even with help from acclaimed film director Spike Lee), and WWE 2K‘s never ceases to fail to capture the excitement of the PS2 WWE games like WWE Smackdown! Vs Raw, WWE Smackdown! Shut Your Mouth and more.
Take away your ever-changing and always-failing career modes and you really have nothing new being added to these annual sports games – so what’s the solution?
Discussing the problem of repetitive sports games on the CritCast, Hope, Hyp3r and myself concluded that the current business model for sports video games is well and truly outdated. Instead of annual releases, publishers should be giving developers time to give a guaranteed successor to the previous game, maybe even abandon sequels altogether for a number of years in order to do so.
What might even be better, is a subscription model similar to MMORPGs like World of Warcraft. Pay for the initial game, get some subscription time, and have updates included for subscription members. Campaign modes can be extended where needed, special events could take place, and players could earn special rewards that span across the duration of their careers like personalised avatars, locker rooms, tour buses and even stadiums.
At any rate, something needs to give, as some franchises like WWE 2K are seeing less and less sales every year. WWE 2K15 sold 3.19 million units, WWE 2K16 sold 2.93 million, and WWE 2K17 sold only 520,000 units. Some of that could be attributed to a weakening of the real life product that is the WWE, but those are still some alarming figures for a once-amazing video game franchise. The series is draining in popularity, and wasting development time on rushing the next game in the series forward isn’t going to fix it.
It’ll be interesting to see how this year’s sports titles are received, and if they’re received poorly, just how long EA, 2K and other sports game publishers can think this trend of annual releases can go on. Here’s hoping sports games don’t go the way of the overexposed rhythm game genre.