The Biggest Stories of 2010

Posted January 1st, 2011 at 12:00 pm

This year brought about many significant developments in sports gaming, from contraction and cancellations to the importance of cover athletes and the success of games on new platforms. There was a lot that happened that will influence the genre going forward. Continue on for a look at the most important stories of 2010.

NBA Elite 11 Canceled

EA Sports handled the transition from NBA Live to NBA Elite and its “revolutionary” control schemes and real-time physics poorly right from the start. The name choice was a misstep and one that would eventually lead to mockery. The company’s handling of the game from a PR and marketing standpoint was just as bad as they continually talked up the game to annoying heights while at the same time hiding it from view of the public.

Once the demo was released there was no getting around the negativity from the public, which included glitch videos that went viral. EA was all set to release the game until they realized doing so would irrevocably damage the potential of the series going forward. They “delayed” it at the last minute even though copies were already being produced, and the inevitable outcome of complete cancellation was later made official.

The series has been moved to Tiburon, and the studio head at EA Canada is out, in what looks to be at least partially related to the handling of NBA Elite 11. What to look forward to next? A new name for the series, and confirmation of whether there will be an NBA 12. I’d put the odds of that happening right now about about 60/40.

The Tiger Woods Scandal Affects Sales

The story that dominated the end of 2009 carried into 2010 with the discussion around whether Tiger Woods should stay on as the face of EA Sports’ golf franchise. The company stood by him and took a huge hit for doing so. Tiger Woods 11 sales were down 68% from Tiger 10. As predicted the biggest hit would be to the Wii version which has been the strongest version for the company this generation. The family-oriented audience there turned away from Tiger 11 which resulted in a drop of an almost unfathomable 86%.

EA Sports is sticking with Tiger Woods but that relationship may be coming to a close sooner rather than later. Recent comments suggest he will need to perform better on the golf course and start winning tournaments in order to stay relevant enough to carry the franchise.

“Online Pass” Introduced and Push for Pre-Orders

EA Sports was the first to lay out the concept of the “Online Pass”. Codes would be inserted in new copies of games that provide access to online functionality. Once a code is used though they are no good, meaning used copies or rentals would require a payment of $10 to get online (though they also offer a free trial period). This started with Tiger Woods 11 and has been in all EA Sports titles since.

THQ was the first to roll it out though with UFC Undisputed 2010 and in disastrous fashion. The company tried to hide the fact that they were even doing it, only admitting to it once it was first discovered by those who had early copies. The implementation was also poorly done which led to some consumers paying when they didn’t have to. THQ started with their “Online Pass” at $5 in UFC and then raised it to $10 starting with WWE Smackdown vs Raw 2011. Both SCEA and 2K Sports have expressed that they are considering implementing programs similar to the “Online Pass”.

How is the “Online Pass” affecting sales of games? Its hard to say at this point and the correlation may not be fully established, but early results (in games that didn’t crash like Tiger and UFC) are showing a trend of higher first month sales and sharper declines in later months. That combined with retailers pushing pre-orders with various incentives are making early purchases of games more attractive rather than waiting down the line for price drops or used copies.

The Rise of Mobile Gaming

This was a year where companies really started to take mobile platforms seriously and recognize the growth potential. Backbreaker emerged as a mobile phone app and did really well, EA Mobile delivered lots of good offerings such as Madden, NBA Elite, FIFA, and MMA, and THQ brought its UFC franchise to the iPhone with plans of doing the same for WWE. The iPhone, iPad, Android, and others will be getting games now that have received increased resources given how well they are selling and the idea that it could be a gateway for casuals to console gaming.

Microtransactions and DLC Initiatives Prove Lucrative

Wonder why EA Sports in particular has pushed downloadable content over the past few years? They’re raking in the big bucks by doing so. Even if total sales of a title fall they are finding more ways to make additional money from each copy sold. The standout is with the Ultimate Team modes.

Originally introduced in the FIFA series, added to Madden 10 in January via free download, and introduced fully in NHL 11 and Madden 11, the mode is basically built to make money. It is free to start and in theory play completely without having to pay anything. However the hook is in progressing faster and it becomes akin to a hobby for players in their collection of “cards”. It was recently talked about how there are people who have paid over $1000 in Madden Ultimate Team, and paid over $700 in FIFA Ultimate Team. Those people are not the norm but consider how many will have paid into it even a little and it becomes clear that they are bringing in a great deal through the modes.

Interestingly the widely regarded best sports game of the year, NBA 2K11, really didn’t utilize downloadable content or microtransactions. They get some good will for that, however it seems unlikely that they would leave money on the table in the future.

MLB 2K Series: Stories More Interesting than MLB 2K10

It was a fascinating year for the MLB 2K series. The game remains overshadowed by The Show, and though it was a decent offering it continues to leave 360 gamers yearning for better. But what struck me was the number of compelling stories that came out of a game that is largely irrelevant these days.

In a move meant to generate sales, 2K Sports offered $1 million to the first person who would throw a perfect game in MLB 2K10. Though there were a number of strict rules to abide by the contest was won on release day. Some controversy emerged over the demo for the PS3 as 2K expressed frustration that it was being held back and likely due to Sony not putting out a pre-release demo for The Show. There was also the decision to remove check swings from the game, which was an easy thing to latch on to and question the competence of those in charge, and eventually they chose to patch it back in. Finally there was the continued disparaging comments from Take Two that make it look like the 2K series is just playing out the string and will be gone when the third party license expires as they lost over $30 million on it just this year.

A Cover Athlete Can Make a Difference

The cover athlete is often seen as just a piece of the traditional marketing for sports games and the general belief is that there is little impact on sales based on whoever is chosen. NBA 2K11 though featured Michael Jordan, and it took the series to a brand new level. He was used in a unique way that added a ton of value through The Jordan Challenge, Creating a Legend, and his inclusion on historic teams. His presence elevated NBA 2K from a strong sports game to a cultural presence that rivaled Madden. That was shown most prominently in how much the game was talked about on Twitter landing in the trending topics for the good part of a week and how it has even received attention from some outlets as being amongst the best games of the year.

No College Basketball Game

2010 was a year that had no college basketball offering. EA Sports canceled the NCAA Basketball series and no other company appears eager to make one. Why is that the case? College basketball games don’t sell and there is too much concern over player likeness lawsuits. The contraction of the sports genre continues with the loss of college basketball completely as well as the NHL 2K series which folded its HD offerings and went Wii exclusive with NHL 2K11 and may be done completely now.

First M Rated Game from EA Sports

The announcement that Fight Night Champion would be M Rated came as a surprise as it will be the first one ever from EA Sports. A graphic and explicit story mode will be the main focus of that angle, however the increased presence of blood in the fights is also part of that. Will an M Rated take charge up interest in the title which fell a little flat with Fight Night Round 4? We’ll see when it releases on March 1st.

Arcade Games Struggle at Retail

What a flat year for arcade sports games. NBA Jam was the only one that really was worthy of any attention, and even that game had its viability severely damaged by how it was handled and its association with NBA Elite 11. NBA Jam proved weak at retail becoming another in a long line of arcade games that have failed to break out as successes. The futureĀ of arcade sports games may be as downloadable offerings since they don’t appear to be accepted as retail games these days.

Motion Gaming Gaining Credibility / Facebook and Browser Gaming Continues Growth

The Wii has been around for years, but with the introduction of Playstation Move and Kinect motion gaming has started to gain traction amongst the more hardcore crowd. While it still fits more for individual sports than it would for team sports look for more implementation in standard titles going forward. MLB 11: The Show will have Playstation Move optional for its Home Run Derby for example. Meanwhile games like Kinect Sports or Sports Champion have started to be accepted by gamers instead of shunned outright. Kinect has the potential to be especially interesting in how companies either build games around it or bring it in to established franchises. The other big gimmick right now is 3D, but that has gained no traction, and doesn’t seem likely to even in 2011.

Meanwhile there has been expansion in the way of browser based gaming. Along with Tiger Woods PGA Tour Online and FIFA Online came a push by EA in the way of Facebook games. FIFA Superstars and Madden NFL Superstars launched over the summer as free-to-play but microtransaction supported games and have been successful. Meanwhile QUICKHIT NFL Football added the NFL branding which was a significant move, and Sega announced the similarly structured MLB Manager Online.

Topical Ratings Updates

It was interesting to see player ratings take on a new element this year as some of the changes have been topical in nature. EA Sports introduced the “Swagger” rating which drives the celebrations of players. Guys like DeSean Jackson, who have shown a likelihood to showboat, have moved up in that category. EA also jumped on the chance to get some publicity by dropping Donovan McNabb’s stamina rating after Mike Shanahan questioned it at a press conference. 2K Sports followed it up by dropping Tony Parker’s loyalty rating to 0 after the news hit that he had cheated on his wife Eva Longoria.

Roster Updates Prove to be Game Sellers

If there ever was question that updated rosters are what sells a yearly sports title more than anything it was shown to be true in 2010. Games that have little in the way of roster turnover such as UFC just won’t have the same appeal on a year-to-year basis. Because of that many sports that don’t see roster turnover have moved to being bi-yearly. UFC shifted to that strategy, and EA Sports is alternating years on their Fight Night and MMA series.