The terrible and anti-competitive state of sports video game franchises

NBA 2K21 launches this week in the wake of Madden NFL 21's release, and the Shacknews Staff has some things to say about the lack of competition in sports video games.

1

The NBA Playoffs are ramping up, Major League Baseball is back to banging trashcans, and the NFL is about to kick off, so a lot of the Shacknews Staff has been thinking a lot about sports these past few weeks. One thing that is very wrong with sports video games is the lack of competition. In this feature, we will highlight areas of the games industry that would really benefit from more competition. Some game franchises can be best described as monopolies these days. Please take a look.


NHL

I think it’s safe to say that a lot of sports games have suffered from a lack of competitiveness in their respective spaces. You can even look to sports to draw relevant comparisons. How often do coaches use competition between players to push one another to be better? How many times have you seen a goalie tandem fight for the starter position? How many times have you seen a player on an expiring contract have a career year and then drop a turd once they get paid? Happens all the time. Why would it be any different for sports games and, specifically, in this case, the NHL franchise developed by EA Vancouver?
 
Now, I think that the NHL franchise is in a great spot, so this isn’t about smacking it around and saying EA Vancouver puts out bad hockey games. In fact, in my review of NHL 20, I mentioned how the game was one of the best video game hockey experiences ever made.
 
The issue is with being pushed to be better through competition. There are problems with the NHL franchise. Bugs that have been in the game for years. Cheese goals that never get fixed. Modes that are left stale while others that feature microtransactions are highly polished. Then, there’s the price. In the U.S. you can expect to pay $60 for a new NHL game, and that’s just the standard edition. In Canada, where the series is hugely popular, that number goes up to $80 for the standard edition. This is not just a problem with the NHL franchise, it’s a problem with most video game sports franchises.
 
Speaking about the NHL franchise specifically, they can charge what they want because if you want to play with updated rosters and real NHL players, it’s your only option. There is no competition to push that price tag down. There’s no rival studio coming up with new game modes and features to push the NHL series to fight for your money.
 
I genuinely believe that the developers at EA Vancouver are passionate about hockey and want to bring players the best experience they can. They do a damn good job. At the same time, we all get cozy when we don’t have to look over our shoulder, and I’m left wondering how much greater the NHL series could be if it were faced with some healthy competition. -Bill Lavoy


Madden NFL

When you look for reasons that a feature like this would be written, Madden NFL football comes to mind as the prime example of a major sports franchise that is nearly rotten to the core. More than 15 years ago, the NFL license was available for everyone willing to pay. There were multiple excellent video games using the licenses, such as EA's Madden NFL,. EA's NFL Street. Sega's NFL 2K, and Midway's NFL Blitz. Entering the 2004 season, competition between the NFL 2K and Madden NFL series was fierce. Sega launched ESPN NFL 2K5 that year against Madden NFL 2005 and chose to sell the game for $19.99 at launch. ESPN NFL 2K5 became a massive hit thanks to its enticing price and is now widely considered to be the finest football game ever made. EA's response to this? The publishing giant secured an exclusive rights deal with the NFL to make themselves the sole provider of NFL-licensed video games.

Fast forward to the present and the quality of the Madden NFL franchise has been in a tailspin for countless years. With no competition to drive innovation or action, it sits on shelves as the only video game option for NFL fans. Each season, the core gameplay and in-depth modes are largely ignored in favor of the Ultimate Team feature, a trading card game that uses exploitative microtransactions to further enrich EA's bottom line. Add in a never-ending circus of throwaway modes featuring celebrities and gimmicks and its easy to see why die-hard NFL fans have been hoping for the day when literally anyone else could get a shot at releasing a competing NFL game. -Chris Jarrard


FIFA

Now there may be some other soccer games out there, but there is not a game full of more options than FIFA. This franchise has fallen victim to a lot of the same problems that plague the Madden NFL series, as Ultimate Team has dominated FIFA development for years. FIFA has admittedly improved its graphics over time, but the gameplay has been pretty stale. The introduction of the Journey single-player campaign was not well received, and it seems like the studio just flips the lob pass and shoot buttons every other year for the sake of doing something. While eFootball PES 2021 exists, FIFA remains the dominant soccer game. This sport is not in as dire of shape as others when it comes to video game choice, and at least the FIFA devs port a version of the game over to PC and Switch every year. -Asif Khan


NBA 2K

In the wide pantheon of sports video game franchises and their anti-competitive state, 2K is admittedly one of the lesser offenders. This however doesn’t change the fact that the 2K games have reached their worst state in recent releases. With a strong emphasis on MyCareer mode, NBA 2K has turned into a VC machine over the last several years. It’s become increasingly difficult to upgrade your player from the ground up, without spending a penny on VC. VC also seems to have dropped in value, with much more needed to purchase upgrades than before. Microtransactions used to feel like a bonus for anybody looking for something extra but are now a necessity for any player looking to get online and compete. 

Once upon a time, you could upgrade your MyPlayer with skill points, experience earned through play that couldn’t be purchased with real-world money. I think reverting back to a system like this would be a great step in the right direction.

The other major problem plaguing the NBA2K series is its online design. The process of loading into a park, inviting your friends to the session, finding them, joining a squad, and then all standing at the walk-on arena doors at the same time is stupidly unnecessary, and usually never works on the first attempt. Having to restart the game, swap lobbies, and just try over and over has become a common occurrence among my friends with the 2K games.

Take the convoluted jankiness out, and NBA2K’s servers themselves are pretty awful. Games are unstable, with noticeably more lag and latency than other titles. There are also countless instances where after the completion of a game or a purchase in the store, the number of VC isn’t properly allocated to an account. 2K is so close to being an amazing basketball game but is stifled by the same issues every year. The lack of any legitimate competition (sorry, NBA Live) means that there’s no reason to expect better from the franchise anytime soon. -Donovan Erskine


NBA Live

Hey kids, remember NBA Live? EA Sports has done a terrible job of keeping this sports game franchise relevant. The company hasn't been able to release the game consistently over the past decade. Sports games that don't stay up-to-date with new rosters every year do a huge disservice to their fanbase, and NBA Live is extremely guilty of this. It's unfortunate that EA has been unable to give 2K proper competition each year. NBA Live used to be a premier sports game franchise for EA, and now it doesn't even get an update each year. The game hasn't been ported to PC in many years, and it doesn't seem like that is even something they care about at EA. -Asif Khan


UFC

When it comes to a lack of competition in the sports video game space, the UFC franchise is in a bit of a different spot than other titles. Unlike most of their sports siblings, the UFC series is not an annual release because the UFC doesn’t have seasons. We get a new UFC game about every two years instead of every year, but it still suffers from a lack of competition.
 
Just like the NHL has all the best hockey players from around the world, the UFC has the best fighters. I’m sorry, Bellator, but you just don’t have a roster that can compete. This is the main problem with the UFC games in my eyes because the biggest draw to an MMA game is being able to fight with and against real mixed martial artists that you’ve watched on television. You don’t think I was genuinely nervous to go up against Francis Ngannou when I played for my UFC 4 review? Those names add realism.
 
If another developer made an MMA game, they could nail the gameplay and even roll out a high-quality presentation package, but it’s not the same fighting against fake fighters or those that couldn’t crack the top 10 in the UFC. They know this and therefore nobody is doing it. Because nobody is doing it, the UFC franchise can comfortably push forward knowing that nobody is coming to take a piece of their action.
 
Does this hurt the quality of the game? I think UFC 4 was a good game, honestly, but it could have been a lot better. You do have to wonder how much better it would have been if there was a concern that there was another competitive MMA game coming around the same time. That’s not a shot at EA Vancouver, either. I’ve enjoyed every UFC game they’ve released. As a consumer, though, I do wish there was some pressure from another studio to push things along. -Bill Lavoy


WWE 2K

For years, pro wrestling fans have been clamoring for a return to the heyday of wrestling video games like WWF No Mercy or WWE SmackDown! Here Comes the Pain. What they've gotten over the last twenty years from the publishers have been giant sacks of crap. Admittedly, there have been flourishes within these games that are cool, but no single pro wrestling video game using a major license has managed to offer what could accurately be described as a desirable package, save for WWE Smackdown vs Raw 2006 for PS2.

In recent years, the games released from Yuke's and Visual Concepts have been run the gamut between underwhelming and embarrassing, culminating in the release of WWE 2K20, a game so bad that it forced the series into hibernation for the first time ever. More popular on Twitter for gifs of its bugs than its merits as a game, WWE 2K20 may have poisoned the well for an entire genre.

Thankfully, some alternatives exist, such as the wonderful Fire Pro Wrestling World. Additionally, pro wrestlers Kenny Omega and Cody Rhodes of AEW fame have teased hints on social media of an attempt to produce a wrestling game built on the foundation of the classic AKI-produced titles (No Mercy, WCW vs NWO: Revenge). -Chris Jarrard


Racing Games

While most sports game franchises are teetering on the edge of falling into the dump, racing games using professional league licenses are in a period of prosperity. Arguably one of the best video games of any type, F1 2020 from Codemasters launched earlier this year as an outstanding digital representation of its sport, complete with a strong custom team mode that is as deep and rewarding as fans have come to expect from the franchises whose sports pare played on fields and courts.

The WRC series has been growing stronger each year, offering players the chance to tackle all the real-life stages that professional drivers experience as part of the FIA World Rally Championship. Even NASCAR fans have some reason for optimism as the NASCAR Heat series continues to evolve in a positive direction after a lengthy hiatus from video game prominence.

NASCAR fans and sim-focused fans of other racing disciplines are also able to have a good time thanks to the rise in popularity of iRacing. The game garnered national attention from sports media this year during the COVID-19 pandemic when it was used by real-life drivers for nationally-televised virtual races. -Chris Jarrard


What do you think about the state of sports video games in 2020? Let us know in the Shacknews Chatty comment thread below. 

From The Chatty
Hello, Meet Lola