Play Ball?: The Sad State of Sports Games
Random Thoughts #1
As one can surmise from my years' worth of writing on the subject, I am a devout gamer. Much like my taste in movies and music, I can find something to like in absolutely every game genre. Even though I love getting wrapped up in an engrossing story or getting thrown into an open world that goes off in every direction, sometimes I just want the simple pleasure that comes from sports competition. Having completed writing my third year's worth of reviews for the "Defunct Games Golf Club" (to be posted beginning this spring), I couldn't help but look at the state of sports video games now compared to the past and be upset.
It just seems like sports games just aren't getting the care and attention they once did. There once was a time when the options for any given sport were almost unlimited virtually every year. Now some consoles barely get any. Fortunately, there is still hope. Sports games can be brought back to prominence, and I'm here to present my suggestions to that end.
Baseball is the sport that has fallen the hardest is recent years. 2004 and 2005 were the last years that baseball games were at their best. That was when EA's MVP Baseball, MLB 2K, and 3DO's High Heat series were all fighting for the pennant. However, with 2K getting the third-party exclusivity from the MLB, the competition was effectively killed. That may have seemed like a profitable move; however, without strong competitors to keep them innovating, 2K's baseball series, once the top contender, fell into stagnation until it folded with MLB 2K12. While Playstation owners fortunately have The Show, the other systems had only the inconsistent and low-budget RBI Baseball reboot. However, the strong rivals from the past could come back now that the exclusive deal is over. EA tried to shift the MVP series to college, but it wasn't advertised and didn't sell. They can bring it back now; it would've been a more glorious return than NBA Live. Also, after 3DO folded, Microsoft bought the rights to the amazingly realistic High Heat franchise and did absolutely NOTHING with it. Why not? Even with the third-party exclusivity 2K was enjoying, the first-parties were still allowed to make their own licensed games, as shown with Sony's The Show. Microsoft, why not give it a shot? You definitely need more first-party titles on the Xbox One anyway.
Football was another sport crushed by an exclusivity that, unfortunately, is still ongoing. Unlike the baseball deal that still allowed first-parties to produce licensed games for their consoles, EA's Madden franchise got total exclusivity. Not only did it kill the NFL 2K franchise (which I actually preferred), but it also prevented Sony and Microsoft from reviving their GameDay and Fever franchises to close the gap. There were attempts to produce football games without the NFL license like All-Pro 2K8 and Backbreaker, but they just didn't take off. Making matters worse, since they have no competition, the Madden series has fallen hard. The newest entries are mediocre at best, and they're definitely not selling that well anymore. NFL, please, when it comes time for the exclusivity deal to expire, let it, or at least allow a first-party opening like with the MLB.
Another option is college ball. EA ended the NCAA Football franchise in 2014 mainly because it resulted too often in EA competing with themselves, especially when they got the NCAA exclusivity killing competitors like Sony's GameBreaker series. Surely EA isn't still paying for the NCAA license just to keep it away from the competition. Even if the NFL won't budge on the Madden deal, the NCAA is wide open now. Pass to them!
Of course, golf is the sport that upsets me the most with how far it's fallen. Unlike the other sports which largely lived or died depending on the licenses attained, golf is a sport that can and has thrived in video games even without the PGA. The Golf Club and its sequel were great modern golf games that just weren't advertised effectively, and EA's re-branding of the PGA Tour franchise with Rory McElroy didn't take off. Even the newest entries in the kid-friendly Mario Golf and Everybody's Golf franchises hardly gained any notice. Hey, Microsoft, you had a great game on the original Xbox with Links 2004 (which is among the 18 I'm reviewing for this year's "Defunct Games Golf Club"). Since there's no telling when, or even if, there will be another PGA Tour game from EA, this would be the perfect time to bring that franchise out of retirement.
There are other sports that aren't doing that well. Hockey's faltering since NHL 2K ended and EA's series has stopped raising the bar. Hardly any track and field games release these days. Extreme sports this generation range from the lame Steep to the appalling Tony Hawk 5. Fortunately, the news is not all bad. Sports that were previously niche are getting time in the spotlight. Rugby's getting attention thanks to the excellent Rugby Challenge and Rugby League series. A passionate coach brought us the Casey Powell Lacrosse series. So, even though things look grim now, there is hope that things can pick back up with a little time and practice.
What do you think? Are sports games doomed, or is this just a temporary slump? Let me know, and play ball!