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Sports Games Are Stuck In A Rut

by Kimberley Wallace on Nov 26, 2021 at 05:00 PM

If you buy the yearly iteration of your favorite sports video game, chances are you haven’t had much to cheer about the last few years. To put it bluntly, the genre is struggling, and even the new console generation hasn’t been the answer to rejuvenating it. Take just this year, for example. Metacritic scores are anything but impressive for the biggest sports around. Madden NFL 22 earned an abysmal 60, NHL 22, which promised to change its metagame, disappointed with a 74. NBA 2K has largely been the franchise to beat, but NBA 2K22 only holds a 76, some of the lowest marks the series has seen in years. FIFA 22 and MLB: The Show 21 earned the highest averages, around 78, but it’s telling that none of these franchises could even crack the 80 mark. 

This downward trend has been going for some time now, and I’ve grown irritated seeing modes largely untouched and similar technical errors carrying over year to year. It’s like watching your favorite sports team when they’re in a slump. How long do you wait it out and watch the continual losses pile up before you just walk away and hope next season fares better? 

The problem is, the hope that the following entry fares better has lingered for too many seasons now, and it’s not just with one or two franchises. It’s across the board. Last generation, the sports genre exploded with innovation, making sports games look and play the closest they ever have to real life. In addition, developers were looking at unique ways to build a community around them and cater to multiple types of players, from creating robust franchise modes to offering skill-based online play. And, most importantly, they were finding new and interesting ways to captivate the sports fan. Visual Concepts showed the power of sports storytelling, making NBA 2K’s MyCareer a must-play by letting you create a player and take them on a cinematic journey that delved into the highs and lows of stardom.

It opened a world of potential and lit a fire in their competitors, with FIFA creating Alex Hunter: The Journey and NHL’s Be A Pro becoming a choice-driven story. Heck, Visual Concepts had so much success it even implemented a storyline into NBA 2K18 and 19’s franchise mode, albeit with mixed results. But at the very least, developers were trying new things, taking risks, and learning from one another about engagement and what kept people playing their game year-round.  

Madden NFL 22

These days, sports games play it safe, offering graphical upgrades and a few new features to get by, but no series is really trying to reinvigorate the formula or shake up what’s been done before. And even when efforts are made, they feel half-hearted. For instance, NHL 22 tried to get inspiration from Madden by introducing Superstar X-Factors and made a push to shake up its metagame. The problem? These X-Factors ended up being a non-factor in making the gameplay more rewarding or exciting, and the metagame didn’t change enough to be notable, except for its flaws.

What’s more frustrating is watching various modes just go neglected without meaningful changes for years on end. I can’t remember the last time NBA 2K, NHL, or FIFA really touched Franchise mode. Madden made an attempt this year with Franchise mode, but it wasn't nearly enough to make it a must-play. Even worse is the stuff that doesn’t work or needs improving stays the same; NHL’s dialogue in Be A Pro is laughable, and its poke check remains overpowered while Madden is still full of odd glitches and a clunky interface

Sports games’ annual releases don’t allow time for wide-scale changes, but each year has always been about the developers making smart improvements to the foundation. I’ve come to expect a game in any sports franchise will play smoother each year, and specific modes will get a bigger focus with more effort toward meaningful additions. And when the gameplay starts to fizzle, developers will begin to invest in new strategies to keep it interesting, like finding ways to change the metagame or implementing a new system that changes how the gameplay feels, like NHL 19’s improved skating. But too much is staying the same for too long in a lot of franchises. Madden’s gameplay code is so old at this point that the developers are just working around the same problems, from snapped-to animations to players running into each other post-play, even when they try to add new features.

It also feels like sports games are at a crossroads of deciding what they need to be for this generation of gamers. I don’t envy this decision, as there are many different reasons sports fans pick up the controller. Ask anyone what their favorite mode is and why, and you’ll get a multitude of answers. One thing never changes, though: These games are meant to have a long tail and be played year-round. This has caused many developers to invest significantly in online-centric modes that they can keep updating throughout the year. But even here, the rewards never seem great enough, or worse, they feel very generic in their execution.

The limited resources don’t make the decision of what to focus on easy for developers. It’s a constant tug-of-war between keeping the hardcore fans happy and bringing in new players via more casual offerings, like FIFA’s Volta, Madden’s The Yard, and NHL’s Pro-Am. Somebody is always left out in the cold, and lately, it’s been the players dedicated to more single-player ventures like franchise modes. Let’s face it: Modes like these don’t bring in any extra cash. 

NBA 2K22 probably made the most significant leap this year, trying to merge its popular MyCareer mode with The City, its bustling online world, where players can play against each other in pickup games and tournaments and shop around. Visual Concepts still has a long way to go with dialing down its intrusive microtransactions here, and it’s still too empty to be fun to explore, but I see the potential. 

I just saw that WWE 2K22 is forgoing its usual fall release to allow more time to shore things up, and while the series has been full of highs and lows, I like the creativity that continues to shine in its various modes and how it caters to the things that excite hardcore fans. There’s 2K Showcase Mode, WWE 2K’s playable documentary where you follow the career of a legendary wrestler or a historical period and take on pivotal matches; My Faction allows you to assemble and manage your own stable to rival greats like The Four Horsemen; and this year, it’s introducing MyRise, a new spin on MyCareer that allows you to guide a WWE rookie to stardom in a choice-driven adventure. 

To be fair, the challenges of COVID-19 have undoubtedly made the last couple of years even more difficult and taxing for the genre. However, these problems were already coming to a head at the end of the previous generation, and they’re not going away. A roster upgrade just isn’t enough these days to keep fans at bay, and it’s the loyal fans who end up feeling burned for getting their excitement up for another season, only to see the same problems pop up again.

Developers need to be unafraid to push the reset button and maybe take some extra time to rethink their game. As it is, sports contain a great deal of creativity and excitement, but that experience isn’t translating video games. Why? Because developers keep using the same playbook. They don’t want to take the risky play that nets the glory for fear of failure, but I’d rather see these games try something new and fail than give me the same tired experience I’ve played for years now.