The Sport of Competition - Are Sports Games Dying?
NBA 2K. A franchise I have played for 12 years now and enjoyed it immensely. It has been one of the premier sporting titles for such a long time that it is so big it shouldn’t be able to fail. But it is failing, right now. Not in terms of sales or generated profits, because I am sure 2K will be once again swimming in cash because of the latest version’s release, but in terms of the players. It has become a greedy strain on players’ wallets, constantly trying to get extra money from people who have already paid upwards of $150 to play the game. This trend has been especially noticeable since the launch of the PS5 and Xbox series consoles but this year it is the worst it has ever been.
The career mode, my preferred mode to engage with, is almost impossible without spending extra, real-world money to upgrade my player. There is no ability to work your way up into the NBA to build skills, it is simply “Hey, you are now a starting player in the NBA, be better.” What’s worse is, the game punishes you if you reduce the difficulty by reducing the rewards you receive, thus making it even harder to upgrade your player without spending some cold hard cash on that nasty VC.
This has caused a huge uproar among players, with overwhelmingly negative reviews on Steam and Metacritic from those who have played it and a sense that the venerable franchise has finally gone too far. I know I am feeling that this may be the last time I actively seek this game out and that takes into account that I often get my copy from the publisher to review. For those who pay for the game, be it the standard $100 or so for the normal edition or the stupidly high sums for the various special editions, it must be such a hard pill to swallow to be asked to keep paying just to be able to be competitive.
But how did it get this bad? How did 2K get to the point where they are so blatantly putting money over players? I strongly feel it is because no one is around to force them to do otherwise. There is no one offering a comparable product to keep the decision-makers honest. Without competition, there is no drive, no feel to do better, to win their consumer’s hearts. Without another Basketball game out there, 2K don’t have to try, they can just focus on bleeding players of every red cent.
This seems to be a common occurrence in sports games. When a major sport is dominated by only one developer, the quality of the game inevitably starts to falter over the years. Whether it is the game becomes more greedy ala NBA 2K or the game itself fails to innovate or change as we have seen in the Madden over the last few years, without competition there is no driving force to make the games better, to excite players with each and every release because the bigwigs know they have a lock on the market.
Now this isn’t always true. Games like MLB The Show and FIFA still put out quality and innovative releases most years, but even they aren’t immune to things that could lead them down the NBA 2K path. Ultimate Team in the FIFA franchise is a very money-hungry mode, but thankfully it hasn’t infected the rest of the game yet and in the case of MLB The Show there is the option to buy stat-improving gear with real-world money, though it is easy to ignore. It is not hard to imagine that over the next few years, without any genuine competition, these money-making tactics may become more egregious and more invasive as those in charge of the dollars realise there is more money to be made.
Things can change without competition, 2K themselves managed it with WWE 2K, but unless the fan backlash is so spectacular that the game no longer sells, there is not going to be any desire to do that. What gamers need are more options, more competitors in the market. We need EA to bring back NBA Live, we need Pro Evo to make a triumphant return. Just as is the case with Sony and Microsoft, competition forces innovation, improvements and additions to win the hearts and minds of consumers, giving everyone a better product as a result.
If we don’t get this competition (and it seems increasingly unlikely) I fear that these sporting behemoths are going to continue to get worse, continue to bleed players for money and continue to stagnate. Sport games were once one of my favourite genres, but this trend has seen me engage with them less and less. I am not generally a doom and gloom type of fellow, but in this case, Sport games as a quality yearly product, may well be done and dusted and all we will be left with are clunky, money-demanding, loot-box-filled products that have ceased to innovate or improve. I am sure you can agree, that this is a future that no one, except perhaps the accountants at the major publishers, wants to see.