The Biggest Stories of 2014

Posted December 31st, 2014 at 12:30 pm


This last year has been more about continued trends than major shakeups in sports gaming. A lot has taken place that makes it evident where the genre, and maybe the industry as a whole, is headed. Here are the top stories and developments to come out of 2014. 

EA Sports Cites Digital Revenue for Success

It began with paid DLC many years ago (which wasn’t very effective) and has evolved into something that has taken over sports gaming as the big publishers/developers shift primary focus to modes like Ultimate Team. Hundreds of millions are being made on them so obviously that should be no surprise. As sales have dropped over the years digital revenue has been able to make up for that and then some.

With EA’s most recent quarter the company spotlighted growth in digital revenue with both console games and free-to-play mobile games (that have adopted the Ultimate Team model). Their stock has reached its highest point in six years due in large part to the digital revenue being generated.

With the company experimenting with free-to-play on PC now as well (FIFA World) it’s probably just a matter of time until they begin to offer other sports games with that same model.

Franchise Modes Take Back Seat to Revenue-Generating Modes

Unfortunately it has become evident that Franchise is no longer considered the most important mode in league-licensed team sports games. That honor now goes to the various versions of Ultimate Team.

EA Sports even admitted as much in an interview related to NBA Live 15 that it’s becoming “less prominent in the development cycle”. This is essentially the belief company-wide now.

Madden’s Connected Franchise didn’t improve (the additions of Game Plan and Confidence actually made it worse), NHL 15 saw the loss of GM Connected which won’t be back, and there were very limited improvements to them in other titles.

There was only one case where Franchise seemed to be any sort of a priority and that was with NBA 2K15 which had a brand new, highly-customizable, offline “MyLeague” mode introduced.

The Death of Online Leagues

For some even more depressing than Franchise modes being de-emphasized is the near extinction of Online Leagues. The only fully-featured and reliable Online League experience is with Madden NFL’s Connected Franchise mode.

Half-hearted attempts have been made in NBA 2K15 and MLB 14: The Show but those are really not viable and so unreliable that it’s best not to bother with them. Meanwhile there are series like FIFA which produce the biggest selling game in the world so really if any could do it right that one should. EA simply makes an excuse that an Online League feature isn’t cost effective.

So this is what it’s come down to: these companies don’t feel they can make additional money off Online Leagues so they’re better off putting their effort into areas that do make money.

Catching on to a trend yet?

Electronic Arts Introduces EA Access Subscription Service

Over the years many have felt that a subscription-based future for sports games could be in the cards, particularly as it relates to EA Sports. After testing the waters with the Season Ticket last-gen the company introduced a new service known as EA Access.

Sony turned EA away from offering it on PS4 so it is exclusively still on Xbox One. Subscribers, for $5 a month or $30 a year, get unlimited playtime with games in the “Vault” (older titles from this new generation of consoles), 10% discount on all digital purchases, and early playtime in the days leading up to new releases.

Choosing not to offer a demo for Madden NFL 15 appeared to be a bit of an experiment in placing all early opportunities to play a game behind the subscription wall. Whether that was the initial thinking behind it or it was just a coincidence it didn’t go over very well. But what has been proven is that some people will pay for extended time with a game prior to release.

This would seem just another step towards some sort of bigger subscription strategy with EA Access further acclimating consumers to the concept. It hasn’t been adapted widely but it has been received well by most as a “good value”.

Concerns Left to be Addressed Through Post-Release Support

There were certainly more extreme examples in other gaming genres of titles that released before they were complete or that were simply broken. However a few occurrences did take place with sports games.

NHL 15 had an extra year of development time but still lacked half of the features that consumers have come to expect from the series. A few were added post-release but not even the new content was up to the old standards. EA Sports UFC was misjudged as a series that could attract casuals by making the gameplay unrealistic and promoting things like the addition of Bruce Lee. It took four patches to turn UFC into the game it should have been in the first place. Finally, NBA 2K15 struggled once again as a largely “always-online” game with the servers down for much of its first two weeks of release.

First Year with No NCAA Football – O’Bannon Wins Lawsuit Over NCAA

A 20 year stretch with college football games ended this year with the NCAA Football series having been cancelled in 2013.

The lawsuit headed by Ed O’Bannon gets much of the blame for that happening but its win in court over the NCAA could bring about the return of a college game in the next few years.

The ruling, which the NCAA will appeal, was not the nuclear result that some surmised could take place for the organization. It’s actually something that they should be okay with. If things stand as they were laid out in the decision that could allow EA and/or another company to produce college-based games by compensating the athletes. There’s a lot still to consider when that time comes – whether profitability can be achieved under the new system – but there’s at least now some reason to be optimistic.

EA Makes Big Mistake Not Bringing World Cup to New Consoles

The every-four-years release of a World Cup game has been a big seller in the past. This is a worldwide event that captures the attention and imagination of so many people. Not only has EA been able to capitalize on that for the standalone games but they’ve acted as bridges to the yearly FIFA franchise.

For many that just didn’t materialize this year due to EA’s decision to release 2014 FIFA World Cup on only the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. They sorely miscalculated how quickly consumers would be moving on to the new consoles and leaving those behind. Both the PS4 and Xbox One had far exceeded internal sales expectations which were used to make the decision.

So World Cup released and didn’t get the usual fanfare and certainly not the sales that EA had expected of it. EA even had realized long before then that they had made a huge mistake.

Independent Developers Take a Chance on New Games

The major publishers have abandoned unlicensed or arcade titles but thankfully a few independent developers picked up the slack. Two of them produced great efforts considering the huge challenges in front of them.

HB Studios with The Golf Club and Metalhead Software with Super Mega Baseball did excellent work and consumers have seemed to take notice of both. It’s something that should be acknowledged and rewarded. These type of games simply aren’t going to come out of EA or 2K anymore.

Two More Series May Be in Danger of Cancellation

Contraction in sports gaming has meant the loss of almost all competition and even some sports that really should have their own games go without them. Two more franchises could be on the chopping block within the next year or two.

NBA Live 15 showed some improvement but its sales were absolutely dreadful. EA can’t justify continuing a series if it has no potential for growth and now that looks to be the case here. The NBA Live brand is damaged so severely that it may not be able to recover. It’s a toss-up whether there will be a NBA Live 16.

Before this year no one would have thought EA’s NHL could be in danger but now it’ll have to bounce back with NHL 16 after the drop in sales for NHL 15 that has been estimated at around 50%. It’s not as easy as just adding back in missing features that were the cause for people not to buy this year. The way EA alienated the hardcore fans of the series means some may never return. NHL was already struggling to be a profitable venture for EA so sales will need to return to previous levels or else it may sadly too get the axe.

Share Play Introduced on PlayStation 4

Though not a feature useful only with sports gaming, Share Play with PS4 is perfectly suited for the genre. It allows for a guest to join or take over playing a game on the host’s system. They don’t even have to own it!

In tests with various sports games only MLB: The Show was unplayable with Share Play. Madden, FIFA, NBA Live, Super Mega Baseball, and others were perfectly playable. In some cases the experience proved to be superior to standard head-to-head online games.

Share Play allows for some great possibilities whether as a teaching tool, replacement for demos, different way to experience a game along with a friend, or alternative way to play online.