‘Madden,’ ‘NBA 2K’ And The Future Of Sports Video Games

Sports games have carved out their own gigantic niche in the video game marketplace, and a schedule all their own. Unlike a title in the Call of Duty or Super Mario universes, you know that every single year, EA Sports will drop its latest FIFA, Madden, or NHL game, or a new NBA or WWE 2K release will hit the shelves. The clockwork of the gaming calendar is well-established: The next 364 days are spent playing said game, and on the 365th, the cycle begins anew, with the little number at the end of the release increasing by one.

In terms of brand loyalty, sports sims are as strong as any genre of video games. This is despite the fact that sports games are oftentimes quite flawed. Sure, they’re fun, and getting a look at the new bells and whistles each series adds over a year of development can be a blast, but it is exceedingly rare to find a perfect sports video game. And in a lot of ways the innovation possible in the genre is largely unexplored as deadlines on each title loom year after year.

The good news is that in gaming, support and sales can create the opportunity to innovate. And considering the two authors here play a lot of sports video games and are often up playing FIFA and NBA 2K until 3 a.m., we’ve given some considerable thought to how these games can improve. It may not be realistic, but we tried to stay within the realm of possibility that major changes can be made within the span of a year or two.

1. Space, space, space

Video games, just in general, are getting bigger and bigger. Players can oftentimes deviate from main stories and take a more choose your own adventure path, pouring hours into exploring gargantuan worlds and doing side missions. Sometimes, it’s nice to just run around and mindlessly marvel at the carefully-crafted scenery. The main thing that stood out to me about, say, Final Fantasy VII Remake or Marvel’s Spider-Man was how there were lengthy stretches where I forgot that I was playing a video game, because it just looked like I was consuming something real.

Sports games are not afforded this luxury, as there is a finite amount of space upon which games can be played. You have assuredly played games of 2K or NHL where your teammates just cannot get out of your way, a deep irony as the modern NBA is embracing the pace-and-space era. Or perhaps you’ve played Madden and found the attempt at making something as simple as “running the football” ultra-realistic to be remarkably and unnecessarily clumsy — think of every complaint that one friend has about how NCAA was fun and modern Madden can be so frustrating.

The drive to make games realistic just does not gel with sports games. They oftentimes feel clunky, trying their best to fit into the confined space they are given by nature of the sports we are virtually playing. An exception to this are soccer games like FIFA and PES, as the 10 outfield players have more than enough space to operate, but even they can get rather frustrating when space is at a premium — the newest FIFA game, for example, received critiques for being too favorable to defenders and not as free-flowing as some of its predecessors.

At a certain point, sports games will be similar to the evolution of iPhones. For years, Apple’s thinking was that people did not want big, so iPhones began getting smaller and smaller before Apple changed course. Now, iPhones are bigger than ever. For sports games, the emphasis in recent years has been on being as realistic as possible. Here’s to hoping that 2K, EA, and other game publishers realize that’s not necessarily the best thing for sports games.

2. Embrace being a game

Modern sports sims seem to have split in this regard. The main feature of a title is a product as photo-realistic as the sport you watch on TV, and in many ways the game has tried to mimic the television product as much as possible. But the more realistic games get, the less fun they tend to be. Each year it’s tougher to create a major sports sim that is fun and joyful and lets you turn off your brain while you pour hours into something that is never trying too hard. This isn’t to say that basketball games need to be more NBA Jam than NBA 2K, but feeling the influence of the former on the latter might not be the worst idea in the world.

The “fun” arcade-y version is often siloed away in faraway corners of The Neighborhood or in a game mode that’s experimented with for a few years and usually sundowned due to lack of attention or creative neglect. In many ways, games tend to feel too big, but not in a way that gives you too many fun things to do. They’re just trying to be all things, and most of them are not actually executed very well or presented in a coherent way.

The classic games that people go back to aren’t enduringly popular because they are lifelike, but because the mechanics are extremely fun, the learning curve creates the sense of real progress and there’s often nostalgia that comes with the experience. Much of what games have become — platforms for major musical releases, opportunities for brand collaborations or celebrity integrations — have nothing to do with actually making a game fun to play.

3. Tighten it up

Apologies for another metaphor here, but sports games are like a steak. They’re quite good, and a little fat is a good thing. When the fat gets to be overwhelming, and to the point that it feels like it is taking away from what you’re there to do, it can be a bit much.

An example: There are times when NBA 2K can be a remarkably frustrating game. It’s fun when you’re actually playing basketball, but it could use a few tweaks. It is hard, however, to feel like gameplay is all that important when you hop into The Neighborhood and see all of these things that aren’t really all that necessary, like the ultimate frisbee course that exists around the perimeter or The Cages, which exist because … I’m not totally sure.

NBA 2K has done a great job in recent years, for example, of adding advanced analytics to help evaluate your gameplay. It’s an excellent feature for a hardcore 2K player looking to sharpen skills and train more like a pro, and embracing an area the real league is headed is a smart one for a dedicated simulation. Those advanced features are often buried in clunky menus that are increasingly difficult to navigate.

It’s an understandable problem, and one that’s inevitable on titles that are so huge that entire teams are working on specific features and modes independently. But in many ways these big sports titles need to follow the simplicity and ease of use that indie games made by small teams create with ease. Not every game can be What The Golf, but if every game had a title screen like it we’d all be much happier.

4. Microtransactions, no

This is the genie that would be the toughest to shove back into the bottle. Microtransactions are an unavoidable reality in many games, and in sports games, they can be particularly pesky. For Ultimate Team players in the EA Sports universe, microtransactions that unlock loot boxes and other various card packs are a nuisance — in the final quarter of 2019, FIFA 20 brought in nearly $1 billion from microtransactions, an absolutely staggering number that led to lawsuits in France. This problem also exists in Madden and NHL.

And of course, there is NBA 2K, a game built so brazenly on you spending money beyond the $60+ you forked over for the game that it would be funny if not for the fact that it is so exploitative. Microtransactions are as much a part of NBA 2K as layups, as constant in FIFA and Madden as the blades of grass that make up virtual fields. That doesn’t mean it’s a good thing, or necessarily something that makes the games any better.

It’s a system that has spun out of control, even as it provides the backbone that props up and stabilizes the industry. And the worst part is that doing this can be necessary — for those who head into The Neighborhood for the first time in 2K, microtransactions make your player better and, if you value this, give your player a sense of style that makes them less boring. In Ultimate Team, microtransactions are crucial as you work to build better teams. They exist in MLB: The Show as well, but Sony has at least attempted to curb them in the past.

Gaming companies need to either figure out ways to either reduce microtransactions or reduce their importance in games. It takes away from the experience of actually playing and growing as a player in them, incentivizing cutting the line in its place. And just from a moral standpoint, people are already spending money to play in the first place, double dipping beyond that feels like pure greed.

If microtransactions need to exist, though, there is an opportunity to use that model to institute many of the hopes and dreams mentioned above. If you talk to game developers they’ll tell you many of the major ideas and areas for innovation in sports sims take far longer than a single development year to institute. There just isn’t the time to dream big when yearly deadlines for incremental updates loom large.

While new features will always make their way into game releases, an overwhelming amount of players buy new games simply because their team’s players will appear on the right roster in the newest edition. If many of these major titles were to, say, offer roster and uniform updates as a microtransaction and spent the majority of that development year on major updates and streamlining, the developers could have considerably more time to fine-tune and streamline various game modes to make a much more cohesive and polished title. It may be a missed opportunity for the traditional $60 game and microtransactions that come with it, but the result could dramatically shift the industry for the better.