I listened with interest to Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick's recent comments to Bloomberg TV a few days ago regarding the popularity of NBA 2K, where he responded to the question of whether the series would ever truly compete with Madden NFL by scoffing, "We are bigger than Madden, thank you very much. So I would say, can Madden aspire to be bigger than NBA 2K?"
I'll admit, I did a double-take when I first heard Zelnick's comments. Surely it was all hyperbole, I thought. There's no way that NBA 2K, which represents what is widely regarded as North America's third sport, has overtaken the franchise that has been the face of sports gaming for some 20 years now. It's true that NBA 2K has been better than Madden for a while, but the popularity of American Football in the U.S. alone is enough to give Madden a higher profile. Madden is everywhere, it seems, seeping into every part of the conversation surrounding the NFL, from player ratings to the annual Super Bowl simulation.
Polygon's Owen Good, however, whom I respect very much for his knowledge of the sports game landscape, has an interesting analysis of Zelnick's comments here. In it, he mostly takes Zelnick's comments at face value, contending that NBA 2K has risen to the top of the sports gaming heap thanks in large part to the sheer quality of its annual product. He also argues that NBA 2K has faced a great deal more pressure to succeed than Madden has, having been asked to prop up the 2K Sports label more or less on its own, achieving profitability even in the face of the onerous MLB license that hung like a millstone around 2K's neck until just a couple years ago.
These are generally good points. NBA 2K has risen in large part due to its excellent reputation; a reputation that has in some ways outpaced the actual quality of the product, which has variously been been plagued by a questionable approach to monetization and problematic servers. But like Madden, it has also benefited enormously from a lack of competition. Sports fans will recall that NBA 2K didn't truly explode until NBA 2K11, which was the year that EA canceled the release of NBA Elite and essentially ceded the basketball simulation market to 2K. Up until that point, it had been neck-and-neck with NBA Live, both of them being well-regarded but ultimately second-tier sports sims. Visual Concepts deserves credit for brilliant decisions like putting Michael Jordan on the cover of NBA 2K11, but they got a major assist from EA, which didn't shoot itself in the foot so much as blow it off with a grenade launcher.
Anyway, my real point here is that NBA 2K has benefited from ideal conditions over the past few years. The product is well-regarded and its competition is almost non-existent. And yet, while it has come close in some ways, it has yet to overtake Madden in terms of either sales or pop culture cachet, despite the fact that EA's football franchise has been slammed for years for coasting on its massive exclusivity deal. In this context, the popularity of the sport really does matter. NBA 2K is arguably outpacing the actual popularity of its sport in North America in large part because it's just a really great game. Hell, even I like NBA 2K, and I would just as soon see basketball nuked from orbit.
And therein lies the rub. Where NBA 2K has benefited from a halo effect of sorts over the past few years, Madden is still repairing the damage suffered from a string of mediocre titles going back to at least Madden 08. Could you imagine if NBA 2K were as poorly-regarded as Madden? It's reasonable to wonder if there would even be an NBA 2K if its Metacritic averages had sat in the 70s for as long as Madden's did.
In North America, at least, you could argue that NBA 2K has more or less reached its maximum potential. Madden's sales, by contrast, have been mostly static, and it's reasonable to assume that there's a lot more growth to be had with a stronger game. Even now, I would argue that Madden has a bigger pop culture footprint in the U.S., if only because the sport it represents is so much more popular in North America. The NBA, for all the work ESPN has done to try and sell the league, remains tiny by comparison (though the league has done well in building its appeal abroad).
This is not to discount the good work done by Visual Concepts over the past several years. I really admire the way that they've incorporated storytelling into their career mode, capturing a side of being a star athlete that you won't find in any other sports sim. And, of course, NBA 2K15's presentation is second to none. It really is one of the best sports sims around, consistently running neck-in-neck with FIFA.
Bigger than Madden, though? NBA 2K's numbers are strong; but as usual, they don't tell the whole story. In North America, at least, Madden continues have the upperhand, and its advantage will grow still larger if its reputation manages to recover. So with apologies to Strauss Zelnick, I'm afraid that I'm going to have to disagree with his assertion that NBA 2K is bigger than Madden. Better, sure, but in this case, quality is beside the point.