Sports Genre Stumbles as Companies Take Fewer Risks and Reap Fewer Rewards

Posted January 13th, 2012 at 10:15 am

In 2011 EA Sports saw sales of their major franchises (Madden, NCAA, NHL, FIFA, Tiger) rise – what that really amounts to however is a blip rather than an actual expansion of the consumer base. Meanwhile other highly regarded series like NBA 2K and MLB: The Show had their sales drop off after especially strong years.

The sports genre of video games simply hasn’t grown this generation. As console sales continue to expand the potential number of consumers that hasn’t carried over in the past seven years to the pool of sports gamers. That is a major concern now and one that will have to be addressed soon – whether immediately or with the next generation of consoles.

Is there a compelling reason for someone to get into the sports genre of gaming now that wasn’t present years ago? There doesn’t seem to be any at all besides just doing so because one is a fan of that sport. As kids many of us grew up on these games and were drawn in by the fun factor and quickly advancing technology. Now frustration seems to arise more than simply being able to enjoy the games from year-to-year and potential goes untapped.

Though I continue to get indications that EA is working on a college basketball game there is (and will remain to be) little market to support one – even if there was the threat of lawsuits provides the dagger to consideration. We’ve seen contraction all across the sports genre throughout this generation. 2K Sports has essentially been reduced to just their NBA game given that this will probably be the last year of their MLB series. Development costs suddenly rose and potential consumer base either shrunk or got stagnant. That isn’t a combination that will elicit significant investment in risky products.

Arcade-style games are quickly dying out. Being handcuffed by the leagues is the biggest reason for that – but the companies haven’t found a way to compensate creatively. NFL Blitz, though a reasonably fun game, is about as bland as can be and appears as though it will likely be a one-off release with no future as a franchise. NBA Jam has been immensely disappointing, The BIGS (the best arcade game of the generation) is now dead. EA has attempted to resurrect arcade franchises but thus far completely mishandled them. Coming up are FIFA Street and SSX which will hopefully fare better otherwise there isn’t much hope for the arcade-style games in the future.

Meanwhile post-release support seems to have fallen off as companies either look to cut their losses or turn their full attention towards the next iteration in development. Madden NFL 12 only had one feedback-based patch though it has gotten great dedication in terms of consistent weekly roster updates. EA has abandoned promises to provide roster updates for NBA Jam: On Fire Edition. NCAA Football 12 got a number of patches mostly aimed at fixing problems and bringing the product to release-day standard. It doesn’t appear NFL Blitz will get a single roster update. The NBA season has been underway for nearly three weeks and the rosters are still missing many rookies and other transactions in NBA 2K12 while features like the web-element to Online Association are now over three months late. Many series like 2K and The Show have had terrible online experiences as a whole.

Downloadable content has become the big way to compensate for the troubles. EA makes tens of millions off each game that has an Ultimate Team mode and offer $50 worth of extra courses for Tiger Woods. Other sources of DLC/microtransactions are now provided by every company and there are elements such as the “Online Pass” to factor in as well. That, unfortunately, looks to be the direction things are heading. If sales of the base product aren’t up then they need to get the average dollar amount spent by each consumer that has been obtained to rise.

Sports games are in a dangerous position right now – the only franchise that is really flourishing is FIFA. These companies only have themselves to blame as they’ve struggled to provide compelling products and on occasions that they have they’ve followed them up with disappointments. They’ve also rubbed people the wrong way with bug-ridden efforts and a reliance on patches to “fix” rather than “improve”. Consumers have grown weary of the same old rhetoric coming out and no longer are fooled by it.

Some will point to NBA Elite 11 and say that is the exact reason why no push towards innovation is made. The game ended up getting cancelled at the last minute because it was going to bomb and kill any chance of EA building back up an NBA series. The problem is that game had core issues that extended beyond just being a troubled gameplay experience due to a rushed development cycle. The leadership on down through marketing took the completely wrong approach and the warning signs were obvious – I was calling it out months in advance while other outlets instead glossed over all those indications. Going a different direction with a series doesn’t have to result in disaster – EA brought that one on themselves.

It may come down to the launch of the next generation of consoles to either rejuvenate the genre or see it fade into an afterthought for good. The opportunity will be there to innovate and try and capture a new group of consumers. Should these companies continue to play it safe and make minor transitions from year to year they’ll continue to see their sales degrade – there may be ‘one year wonders’ mixed in but not the consistent true growth that is needed to sustain for the long-term. There will always be a game representing each major sport but as competition dwindles, league control grows, and companies cut corners there isn’t much reason to get excited for where things are headed.