The preseason may not matter in the standings. But look at the NFL's, look at baseball's spring training. It matters to those sports, and to their bottom lines. And it's starting to matter to video games.
NBA 2K10's Draft Combine released Thursday for the PS3, a week after it went out to Xbox Live. The $5, 362-megabyte package is thought to be unique. Whereas everyone releases a demo, Draft Combine delivers a standalone game experience of its own as well as one teasing the full release, and then integrating into its gameplay. Draft Combine's impact - read: the money it makes - is far from being known. But a preseason game of this type can make a lot of sense for sports publishers. For if leagues increasingly have no offseason, why should their video games?
"The jury's still out on this," said Mark Goodrich, senior brand manager of basketball for 2K Sports. "But I would not be surprised if, say this is a roaring success, we start asking ‘What could baseball do?' and ‘What could could hockey do?' and what makes logical extensions there."
Draft Combine is an extension of NBA 2K10's single-player career mode, new to this year's version of the game. This will be the second year 2K Sports hasn't produced a college hoops title, so "My Player" takes the place, and expands on, importing draft classes from the 2K college game. Draft Combine is set in the offseason period during which college talent visits the NBA's cattle call to showcase their talent and improve their draft position. Gamers create a player, customize his attributes, take him through a series of drills, scrimmages and workout games, and produce a draftable player who will then be imported into the full game once it releases Oct. 6.
Eric Boenisch, the lead feature designer for NBA 2K, said Draft Combine's genesis is purely borne of game design; it wasn't conceived of as marketing content, although Goodrich said he and his team were delighted to have it as such.
"One concept we wanted to is this My Player career mode, which we're doing in NBA 2K10," Boenisch said, "but we were wondering, ‘How can we give this to fans without them waiting until the release date?' We came up with the Draft Combine, where we can show off the gameplay, and allow people to start their careers early and continue that on."
Boenisch said his team "kicked around the idea for a few months" after NBA 2K9's release last October, eventually coming up with the game out now. It did not have its own separate cycle, per se, but was instead written concurrently with the rest of the NBA 2K10 content.
"You never want to do anything to hurt the full version of a game," Boenisch said, "but by making Draft Combine a part of the My Player mode, things really worked hand in hand in our favor."
Draft Combine's counterparts are, roughly speaking, something like last year's Fable II: Pub Games, definitely not a sports title, but one that allowed players to begin the full title with gold carried over from the downloadable game. In sports, this year's NCAA 10 Teambuilder was a free experience and not tied to downloadable content. But it, too, allowed its fans to tinker with their game experience and get fired up for the release.
Pub Games so far has proven to be a one-off, not really a proof of concept to the rest of the industry. And maybe Draft Combine will too - Boenisch says there are "no promises" that it will continue for future releases too. But at least the idea adds another dimension of the reality sports gamers prize.
Pre-season and draft activities are increasingly important to the major sports as they search out ways to market themselves and extend paying-fan experiences. Baseball's Hot Stove League is the original offseason intrigue, and observing the day its pitchers and catchers report for spring training is a celebrated tradition. When you think about the NFL's scouting combine and draft, covered in greater intensity than their NBA counterparts, both motive and opportunity would exist for EA Sports to do something similar in its Madden NFL series, with its Superstar mode.
In fact, it would not surprise me to see EA, in NCAA football, take its Road to Glory into some sort of preseason DLC. The player creation, high school playoffs and signing day in NCAA 10 could conceivably be stripped down to a game the size of Draft Combine, maybe even with room left over for your player's first college two-a-day practices. All of the preceding is speculation of course, but you'd be a fool not to think EA Sports is at least examining the trend.
And here's a big reason for that: Goodrich pointed out that leagues now dictate the earliest release date for a title, both to forestall a first-to-market arms race among competitors, and not to overshadow the league's debut itself. So preseason content is a bonus because it can get the title out ahead of that window without violating that league's edict.
On the flip side, anything licensed by a league is going to surrender a percentage of its sales to that league. So creating this kind of DLC is not the kind of no-brain moneymaker that creating solid original IP would be, Goodrich points out.
If preseason games become a new feature, create-a-player modes, such as Draft Combine, are the most suited to the experience. They allow you to do ahead of time all the dirty work in visual customization and attribute management, so on the day of release your virtual phenom is ready to storm the league. But the barrier to the acceptance of this kind of game experience is the superstar mode itself, in which you are fixated on the performance of a single player and not the entire team - which has been the norm in sports games for three decades.
Boenisch acknowledged that some in sports game forums have found Draft Combine difficult, albeit compelling. He chalks it up to the team-vs.-player mode disconnect.
"It's a different way to play the game; it's the God-mode," Boenisch said. "You always control the ballhandler. But in this experience you're locked on to your player. If you're the guy trying to grab a rebound or set picks, some people need a few games to adjust to that. But it allows people a different way to play the game."
And it allows publishers a different way to play their game. Both Boenisch and Goodrich acknowledge Draft Combine's dual marketing/gameplay role, and so its success will necessarily be judged on how well it fulfills both purposes. If downloads of Draft Combine dive off a cliff after Oct. 6, it's not a good thing for them; but it's not necessarily fatal to the concept.
"There's still the fundamental issue of how much did this cost to make, and if we lose money, is it then an acceptable marketing expense - did we see that parlay into sales of the regular game," Goodrich said. "If the game is well received, and is viewed as enhancing the 2K experience, then we'll have a strong case for looking to next year. But it's too early to call the ball."
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 10 a.m. U.S. Mountain time.