Every year in sports has its winners and losers, but in sports video games, the results aren't about pennants and trophies. And they're not always clear-cut, either.
In many ways 2009 was like most for sports games - every major team sports title put out a new version; Madden sold a ton for EA Sports; cover athletes were leaked and/or announced; titles such as EA Sports' FIFA and NHL followed their own strong traditions, while ones like THQ's UFC Undisputed broke new ground. Kotaku's roundup of 2009 is not of the routine stories however, but the ones that had the most lasting impact on this year, and should into next year, too. We invite you to continue the discussion in our comments.
The Race is Over for NASCAR
In early February, EA Sports announces there will be no sequel to NASCAR 09, ending a series going back under various names to 1998. The title's biggest problems were in the franchise's poor sales and limited growth potential. Later, EA Sports boss Peter Moore reveals that the NASCAR development team has been repurposed to its upcoming EA Sports MMA, and the publisher has no plans to restart the racing franchise.
Lawsuits Threaten College Titles' Realism
In May, former Arizona State and Nebraska quarterback Sam Keller files a class-action lawsuit alleging that the NCAA and EA Sports use and/or profit from the use of college athlete's likenesses in video games, without their permission. Keller's complaint points to the two-faced nature of the college sports authority, which requires its athletes' adherence to strict amateur codes while reaping millions off, in effect, their labor. But compensating Keller, or any other athlete, for the use of their likenesses while they are still in school would render them ineligible. Keller's suit points out how easily identifiable he and other players are in the NCAA games - indeed a cottage industry has cropped up to rename roster files, which are disseminated via the EA Sports Locker feature in both its football and basketball titles. Later in the year, former UCLA standout Ed O'Bannon also sues on the same grounds, but said he would use the suit to create a trust fund that could compensate players after they graduate, to preserve the value of the products in which they appear without violating their rights or eligibility. Neither suit has yet gone to trial, but NCAA Football and Basketball without realistic rosters would seriously damage both titles.
Mixed Martial Arts: The Sport of the Future
UFC 2009 Undisputed by THQ debuts in May and is immediately that month's biggest seller, helping put a gold star over mixed martial arts as the newest it-franchise for sports gaming. Although THQ has the UFC license for foreseeable future, rumors that EA Sports has eyes for the sport come true at E3 2009, when EA Sports MMA is announced. Voluble UFC boss Dana White unleashes invective at EA, saying the publisher years before had told his outfit, "You're not a real sport," and "EA doesn't give a [expletive] about mixed martial arts." White also warns fighters they "won't be in the UFC," if they sign on to EA Sports MMA. EA Sports boss Peter Moore doesn't respond directly to White, but says he's backed MMA in video games going back to 2000 on the Dreamcast. Meanwhile, EA Sports MMA signs names such as Fedor Emelianeko, Randy Couture, Jason Miller and, ultimately inks a deal with MMA promotion house Strikeforce. Word spreads that UFC 2010 Undisputed is due in May - and EA Sports declines comment on a rumor that EA Sports MMA won't be out until September.
Trash Talk on the Court
NBA 2K10 is again the consensus leader among pro basketball titles, but NBA Live 10 is a significant improvement over previous years' lackluster offerings. This year, it becomes easily the most competitive, and heated, rivalry among published sports titles. It gets personal when EA Sports is praised for putting out a comprehensive patch that it says was built with community feedback. A representative of 2K Sports, in a post later taken down, goes into a forum to question whether such a patch could have been built and passed certification so quickly - which implies EA Sports began work in advance of the game's release and knew it was shipping substandard code. The NBA Live team returns fire on its blog with a wave of screenshots showing people offering NBA 2K10 for sale on Craigslist, insulting its quality, and pledging allegiance to NBA Live.
Catch a Tiger with Tail
Golf superstar Tiger Woods' failure to keep it in his pants is the subject of a hilarious machinima re-enactment from China, but as the scandal wears on it starts getting less funny and starts costing more money. As Woods' major corporate sponsors such as Accenture and Gatorade begin dropping him or scaling back his appearances, the question is put to EA Sports, which has the golfer at the front of both its console golf title and an upcoming free-to-play online version. At first EA Sports stands by its man, but later issues a second statement that, reading between the lines, is a little more qualified in its support. Woods is taking an indefinite leave from the PGA Tour heading into 2010, and it becomes clear that as long as he is away from the course, EA Sports will face these questions.
Not a poor game, but not exceptional in its later years, the consensus still places 2K Sports' NHL franchise a distant second to EA Sports' NHL in 2009, and that seems to be enough for the Take-Two leadership. In December, the game is conspicuously left off a corporate filing that announces upcoming dates and platforms for other sports titles in 2010. Asked if NHL 2K has been canceled, a 2K Sports spokesman replies only that no plans have been made for that property, which is taken as a "yes," by most. Furthermore, the same listing shows NBA 2K10 - by far 2K Sports' best team property - as "TBA" for the platforms to which it will release. This likely means the end of that series' brief Wii experiment.
Baseball Been Bery, Bery Bad to Take-Two
This was a terrible year for horsehide under the 2K Sports brand. MLB 2K9 wasn't just a regression from the series' previous offering, it went out the door with a staggering number of glitches in the product. Terrible graphics and even comical player faces also contributed to the savage reviews it received. Spinoff titles like The Bigs 2 and Front Office Manager, concocted to help offset what one analyst thinks is the $40 million paid for MLB exclusive licensing back in 2005, failed to sell according to expectations. In December, Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick singles out the company's baseball franchise for blame when the company announces it will miss earnings projections. Two weeks later, Take-Two announces a $137.9 million loss for the fiscal year.