Sports game season has become a frustrating time for me. Reviewing games like Madden and MLB The Show often feel like an exercise in evaluating diminishing returns. Gameplay updates take good features and completely break them. The hype cycle will hit a crescendo right before release, then turn toxic as soon as the reviews start to drop.
It feels weird to say that a genre that is consistently among the most profitable in gaming needs fixing, but one gets the sense that no one is happy with the current state of affairs. Fans are frustrated by glitches, the emphasis on monetization, and the strange push toward turning video game sports into esports. Developers are frustrated by burnout, limited resources, and constant negativity on the part of the fans. Even executives have to worry at least a little about the Ultimate Team bubble finally bursting.
As we head toward the next generation of consoles, I find myself wondering what's next for the genre. After all, the current state of affairs surely can't persist forever... can it? Are we going to be buying Madden 30? Madden 40?
At least in the short-term, it doesn't feel like much will be changing. The current model is too profitable. But there are a handful of major sore points that have grown steadily more apparent over the past few years. Here are just three of them.
1. Microtransactions: Sports games sit at the center of a controversy that has steadily grown more contentious over time. The most successful modes in Madden, FIFA, MLB: The Show, and NBA 2K are all built on microtransactions in one way or another. Modes like FIFA Ultimate Team are built on pushing people to buy packs, while NBA 2K's MyCareer is a notorious microtransaction-driven slog.
These modes are the economic drivers for the genre, and they're a big reason that games like Madden even make sense in light of rising development and licensing costs. But fans chafe at the way they are explicitly built to make money, and lawmakers are closing in. One wonders whether EA, Sony, and 2K have any kind of Plan B if microtransactions end up being effectively outlawed. It could happen sooner than anyone expects.
2. Annualization: I never thought I would still be buying new copies of FIFA in 2019. I was writing about how the time was ripe to turn Madden into an online platform way back in 2009. It's a business model that feels unmoored from the current era, a weird holdover that refuses to change. Nevertheless, sports games feel more beholden to annualization than ever.
This is having all kinds of negative effects on the genre. Developers have their hands tied by brief but intense development cycles, and releases are often cynically written off as "roster updates" even when they deserve more credit. Madden, FIFA, and NBA 2K continue to sell briskly, but there's an underlying current of dissatisfaction with spending $60 per year when games like Warframe and No Man's Sky exist. How much longer can this last? No one knows, but it doesn't feel like something that can go on indefinitely.
3. Accessibility: What are the most beloved sports games ever made? NHL 94. Tecmo Bowl. Because they were relatively simple, pretty much anyone could pick them up. As a result, even non-sports fans often have fond memories of classic 16-bit sports games.
By contrast, sports games today are pitched toward a simulation experience. Even on the easiest difficulty levels, games like NBA 2K and Madden are immensely complicated, such that even fans with a strong understanding of the sport will struggle to pick them up. This risks alienating new fans, limiting the opportunity for growth in the future.
EA, Visual Concepts, and Sony San Diego seem aware of this problem. Over the past several years, we've seen on-screen tutorials, drills, and even full-blown single-player campaigns. FIFA 20 is going so far as to basically import FIFA Street, one of the many PS2-era arcade games that is still remembered fondly by the sports gaming community. For all of these efforts though, there's still a vague sense that sports games are too complicated for the average fan.
I know I’m old because we got Madden 19 and I took a good 20 minutes trying to set up a game before just giving up like a loser— Drew Magary (@drewmagary) February 3, 2019
None of these issues are really fatal on their own. But combined, they make the sports genre feel like a ticking time bomb. How long before fans get fed up with spending $60 a year on the same game? How long before Ultimate Team gets legislated out of existence?
This being 2019, it feels like sports games should have gone to the Destiny model long ago. But publishers are too addicted the money; fans have bought fully into the hype cycle, and license holders seem to want a new game every year to promote their sport. This leaves developers struggling to develop features meaty enough to demand a $60 upgrade, all while dealing with layers and layers of old code from dozens of past iterations. EA, Visual Concepts, and Sony San Diego have actually done an admirable job of overcoming these hurdles—seriously, the only truly bad sports game is RBI Baseball—but one gets the sense that these games aren't reaching their full potential because their developers are stuck in a perpetual short-term loop.
Who knows, maybe this can last another decade. But as with the annual TV rights bubble in the real-life sports industry, it feels like something inevitably has to give. When that finally happens, I just hope it doesn't take the whole genre down with it.
Major Game Releases: August 12 to August 16
Here are the major releases for the week of August 12 to August 16. Want to see the complete list? Check out our full list of video game release dates for 2019.
- Grandia HD Collection [August 16, Nintendo Switch]: The two best Grandia games are coming to Nintendo Switch this week (Grandia 3 wasn't good... sorry everyone). While not top-tier RPGs on their own, they're fondly remembered by a certain contingent of fans for their high-quality battle systems. In any case, it's nice that they're readily avaliable on a popular system like the Switch.
- Eliza [August 12, PC]: Imagine if Alexa were your therapist. That's the premise of the newest games of Zachtronics, and frankly, it kind of creeps the hell out me. Caty has the full review of this intriguing little visual novel.
- Rebel Galaxy [August 13, PC]: I was on Retronauts not too long ago, where I lamented the decline of the space combat sim genre. One game potentially bucking that trend is Rebel Galaxy Outlaw, which has a real Privateer meets Freespace feel to it. It's a very particular flavor of space sim that we don't get anymore. I'm at least going to be checking it out when it arrives on PC this week.
This Week's News and Notes
- We're squarely in another dead period for game releases, with only Fire Emblem: Three Houses to sustain us until the next round of releases. Admittedly, Three Houses is a massive game, one that could theoretically sustain a lot of people all the way until Christmas. I guess what I'm saying is that you should play Fire Emblem: Three Houses.
- Speaking of Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Nadia noticed that the artwork that serves as a transition point between each season is telling a story. Neat!
- Our friends at Digital Foundry recently had the interesting idea of cranking the clock on the Switch's Tegra chip to the max. Here's what they found.
- I've been playing Monster Hunter: World against recently, and man, it's so satisfying when you're really feeling it in that game. It has an immense learning curve, and the grind is incredible, but it's hard to find a game richer in depth than Monster Hunter: World. Styling away on a monster in that game is just the best.
- USgamer is going to PAX West! Go here to find our complete schedule of events, including an opportunity to take on Justin Wong in Granblue Fantasy Versus!
- Axe of the Blood God: In the wake of Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Kat is joined by Caty McCarthy and Eric Van Allen to talk about the best RPG romances. Which games do it best? What are their secrets? And most importantly of all... Triss or Yennefer? Subscription info here!