Are Sports Games Dying Out?

Senior Contributor
01.07.14 35 Comments

If you’re a fan of baseball, and would like to play some MLB-approved games on your Xbox 360 or Xbox One, the MLB does not want your money. In fact, the MLB and 2K Games are essentially pretending a decade of games were never published: The MLB series has been completely erased from 2K’s forums and website. And this raises an important question… are sports games dying out?

Yes, we know, FIFA is hugely popular and Madden isn’t going anywhere. But stop and consider for a minute sports games in general. Baseball is an instructive example: Here’s a fairly complete chronology of baseball video games courtesy of Wikipedia, because of course Wikipedia has a chronology of baseball games. You might notice a distinct trend in the games available, and it’s not heading upwards. The same is true of hockey, and basketball

It’s worth noting that this doesn’t reflect a downward trend in the popularity of either sport: While hockey is arguably a niche sport, the number of games televised has been growing, and while baseball doesn’t enjoy the same TV ratings as football and basketball, thanks largely to steroid scandals, it’s not like it’s some sort of obscure cult sport you only see on ESPN at 3am. A good baseball team can still sell out a park.

And if it’s hard to explain with baseball, it’s utterly baffling with basketball. True, the beleaguered NBA Live franchise isn’t helping. But again, there’s been a plunge in games that’s hard to understand as the ratings rise and the fans become more involved. What’s going on?

The problem appears to be two-fold. First, it’s unlikely to be a coincidence that the number of sports games started really dropping off when EA infamously kneecapped NFL 2K by signing an exclusive deal with the NFL. That, combined with the failure of games like Backbreaker to catch on despite critical praise, more or less signaled the end of the off-brand sports game, which hadn’t been doing well in the first place.

Secondly, if you can land an official license, you have to put out a top-tier console game on a yearly basis. Leagues are very strict in their licensing: If you sign up for a license, you have to put out a game every year by a set time. It was part of the reason NBA Live 13 got canceled more than a few times; the NBA required the game to be out by the start of the regular season, and EA couldn’t do it.

In other words, it costs too much, the deadlines are too severe, and the rewards are too spotty… so why bother? It’s a shame, though, as it means there’s fewer and fewer sports games for fans, and it raises the uncomfortable spectre of a question… if EA starts struggling, will there be any sports games at all?

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