The State of Sports Games: A Primer

The State of Sports Games: A Primer

Where are sports games now, and where are they going? Kat examines a genre that's just now settling into the new generation of consoles.

With the impending release of NBA 2K15, and new versions of Madden, NHL, and FIFA already out, a new era of sports games are upon us. But what does that mean exactly?

Honestly, sports game developers are probably trying to figure that out themselves. A lot has changed over the past decade or so, with some games and development houses rising, falling, and even disappearing entirely. Within a few years, even the annualized sports game as we know could be gone.

So let's take a moment to recap where sports games are right now, what the new generation has meant for them so far, and where they may be going in the near future.

It's still a year away, but Madden NFL is definitely on an upswing after years of mediocrity.

What has the next generation of consoles meant for sports games so far?

At this point? Big boosts for artificial intelligence, with graphics and physics just behind. NBA 2K benefited from a pretty major graphical leap last year, and Madden NFL, FIFA, and NHL have all seen substantial improvements of their own. Of the EA Sports games, Madden NFL has probably gotten the biggest boost since shifting to consoles, with this year's version bringing with it much more detailed arenas and player models. It hasn't quite caught up with NBA 2K, which is the best-animated sports game around, but it's definitely getting there.

The changes to the modes have been a bit less significant. FIFA, Madden NFL, and MLB: The Show are rolling with roughly the same career modes as before, while NHL has actually taken a huge step back, gutting everything from Be a Pro to the popular EA Sports Hockey League. Of them all, only NBA 2K has introduced really substantial improvements to the gameplay modes so far, completely revamping both the GM mode and the MyPlayer mode to include elements like a rival. Creative as they may be though, those elements have no been without their share of controversy. Virtual Currency was a big sticking point in NBA 2K14's GM mode, forcing Visual Concepts to walk back some of their previous decisions when fans expressed their displeasure at being unable to even set a lineup without grinding points.

Basically, it's still early days. Both EA and 2K have made substantial strides in terms of graphics, but the changes have been mostly iterative, building on what was started late in the Xbox 360/PS3 era. We've yet to see a sports game really break out this generation, but Madden NFL may be close.

Really? Madden?

Yep. This year's version still has some of the weird legacy issues that have dogged it since around Madden 10 or so, but the leaps in the on-field gameplay from Madden 13 to Madden 25 to Madden 15 have been impressive. The offensive and defensive line play have benefited a great deal from the A.I. advances afforded by the processing power of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One; and though it's not quite on the level of FIFA or MLB: The Show, the physics are much better as well.

There's still a fair amount of work to be done in terms of improving the animation, revamping the user interface, and polishing up the career modes, but Madden NFL no longer feels hopelessly behind the times like it did with Madden 12, which may have been the worst Madden of the 2000s. In fact, with the new elements like the First Interactive Experience, which plays almost like an interactive sports movie minus the cheesiness of NBA 2K's rival Jackson Ellis, it may even be setting the pace for this generation. I have high hopes that Madden NFL 16 will make good on the promise of this year's version and really knock it out of the park (or score a touchdown... damn these mixed metaphors).

It's been a rough year for NHL, which may not bode well for its future.

It'll never be as good as NFL 2K5. Speaking of which, is NFL 2K ever coming back?

Unfortunately, probably not. It's unlikely that the NFL will ever grant the license to a developer other than EA, and even if NFL 2K were to come back next year, it would almost certainly be well behind Madden NFL. Making a sports game is a massive undertaking these days, on par with that of a AAA game, and it takes time to build a new engine, scan player faces, and devise career modes, along with the other million details that go into making a sports game. Just ask EA, which inexplicably rebooted NBA Live after its most successful entry to date, and never recovered.

The truth of the matter is the annual sports landscape is pretty bleak these days. The last generation alone saw the death of MLB 2K, NCAA Football, and NHL 2K, the near death of NBA Live, and the mothballing of Tiger Woods and Fight Night. Sports are an ostensibly mainstream genre, but only FIFA, and to a lesser extent Madden NFL and NBA 2K, can really generate the numbers that justify their development costs. The rest are left fighting for scraps.

So which sports games are in the biggest danger right now?

Depending on how this year's version turns out, NBA Live could be axed as soon as this year. NBA Live 14 was an utter disaster, eking out a 43 on Metacritic, and the fact that this year's version wasn't show at E3 (or anywhere, really) doesn't really bode well for a substantial improvement. One has to wonder how patient EA will be before pulling the plug and once again ceding the market to 2K.

Beyond that, much as I hate to say it, I'm really worried about NHL. Even when it was consistently scoring in the high 80s on Metacritic, it was kind of a niche proposition among sports fans. Without the shield afforded by its prestige, it probably wouldn't take long for the Great Eye of Redwood City to settle its gaze upon NHL. I really hope that isn't the case, mainly because I love hockey and I don't want the only remaining hockey sim to go the way of Fox's glowing puck, but I have to believe that the series is on thin ice after a fairly disastrous transition.

NBA 2K remains neck-in-neck with FIFA for the right to be called the best sports game.

Any secretly great sports games out there?

Do you like professional wrestling? I don't, but I really enjoyed WWE 2K14. The Wrestlemania mode was a fantastic re-telling of the event's history, marrying live footage with in-engine cutscenes to reenact key historical moments. Even as someone who nominally can't stand pro wrestling, I really enjoyed it. I really wish Madden NFL would do something similar with the Super Bowl, because that would be kind of amazing.

What's the best sports game?

FIFA is still on top. I respect the strides NBA 2K has made in terms of presentation, but FIFA is still the best all-around experience. The may change after NBA 2K15, but for now, they're neck and neck. Just behind is MLB: The Show, which transitioned seamlessly to the PlayStation 4 and remains an incredibly faithful baseball sim. When publications start picking their Sports Game of the Year for 2014, one of those game will almost certainly be their pick.

So what's next?

I expect that this generation will mark the end of the annual sports game as we know it. With the rise of digital distribution, the decline of the traditional $60 game, and the precedence of the Ultimate Team revenue model, the writing seem to be on the wall for annualized sports games. It feels like we're well overdue for EA to come out and announce that they are making their sports games fully free-to-play. It's not something I necessarily want to see—I've been impressed by how restrained sports games have been when it comes to microtransactions up until now—but it feels inevitable. If not free-to-play, then maybe a tiered subscription service.

As for the actual gameplay, I expect that most of the current sports games will be focusing on revamping their career modes next. FIFA remains the gold standard in that department with its Football Manager-like emergent storylines, but NBA 2K has made strides of its own with its storytelling, cheesy as it might be. It seems like the next year or two will mark the end of sports games being glorified spreadsheets and the beginning of them being more like sports movies.

In some ways, I expect the leaps to be less pronounced than they have been in the past. As videogames have become more refined over the years, the improvements have become more nuanced, which is another reason that I expect sports games will become more like platforms in the coming years—it's getting harder and harder to introduce on an annual basis the kind of dramatic improvements that customers demand from a $60 game.

For better or worse, changes are coming. What that entails, we'll just have to see. But when this generation ends, I expect the sports game landscape to be dramatically different.

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Kat Bailey

Editor in Chief

Kat Bailey is a former freelance writer and contributor to publications including 1UP, IGN, GameSpot, GamesRadar, and EGM. Her fondest memories as a journalist are at GamePro, where she hosted RolePlayer's Realm and had legal access to the term "Protip." She is USgamer's resident mecha enthusiast, Pokemon Master, and Minnesota Vikings nut (skol).

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