Although hardly a shock, the demise of the NCAA Basketball series is still on some level surprising. It's a publisher with an uncontested, major team sports title throwing in the towel, after all.
NCAA Basketball was not a poor game, but nor was it exceptional, and as such it didn't have either the sales figures or the motivated community to save it from the firing squad. But one thing I can't get over is the feeling that sports gaming is in, if not its own recession, a rather stark period of contraction.
Look at what's been cut going back to 2008, when 2K Sports walked away from NCAA Basketball by discontinuing its superior College Hoops 2K series. Later in that year, EA Sports BIG effectively vanished. It had been a source of spinoff titles like the NBA and NFL Street series but hasn't produced anything since 2008. Then last year, EA Sports confirmed it was no longer developing its NASCAR series, which ended in 2008 after a 12-year run. There are also serious questions that 2K Sports will continue its NHL series. It's confirmed nothing.
Meanwhile, sports simulation gaming on the Wii has turned out to be a very short lived concept. EA started the retreat by canceling its All-Play branding and axing Wii versions of NCAA Football and NBA Live, although FIFA and Madden did survive. 2K Sports, by designating NBA 2K11's platforms as "TBA" has raised speculation that its one-year run on the Wii has come to an end. MLB 2K10 will release for that console, but it's received practically no marketing and is probably through after this year too. Everyone seems to have found out that, for reality-based sports gameplay, this type of console is best suited to individual sports like tennis or golf.
Then there were the spinoffs, titles meant to help a publisher reach audiences beyond the hardcore simmer, or getting other studios into the sports business without building a full-scale version. Management sims like NFL Head Coach and Front Office Manager had short lifespans. The niche overall appears to be headed for the downloadables market rather than continue as full retail releases.
Finally, the PC is in a real transitional period, losing traditional boxed titles but gaining browser-based online games like FIFA and Tiger Woods PGA Tour. Madden last appeared on the PC in 2007. NBA 2K10 appeared on the PC last year but is not yet confirmed for this year.
What could be the next to go? NBA Live is perhaps the biggest name. As sales become increasingly important, having a presence in a major team sport becomes less and less so. 2K Sports hired back Mike Wang, whom EA Sports lured away to its NBA Live team, and who is credited with much of that game's improvement in the past year. But Wang's departure was attributed to the philosophy differences with the team, and with 2K selling two million copies of NBA 2K10, Live probably has to justify itself this year or face the gallows. It still is listed for its customary October release in EA's latest filing.
Where does all that leave us now? No college basketball of any kind, a sport that commands an 11-year, $6 billion television contract. No motorsports series simulation. No meaningful PC presence. Only two consoles fully serving the genre. Exclusive agreements further limiting choices, and only one head-to-head competition in a major team sport on all consoles - NBA Live and NBA 2K.
In 2004, the last year before EA Sports' exclusive deal with the NFL, a turning point in the history of sports video games, I counted 30 licensed sports games - the big four North American team sports, soccer, tennis, golf, boxing/MMA, motorsports, pro wrestling - available on three consoles. In 2009, I counted 22 (add-ons like NBA Draft Combine or the March Madness edition of NCAA Basketball were not counted.)
The number compares well, but bear in mind it includes the canceled Front Office Manager and NCAA Basketball, new releases like NHL 3 on 3 and Madden NFL Arcade that probably won't get a second version this year, and titles like Fight Night Round 4 and Grand Slam Tennis that are not annual releases. Based on what we know now, I only count 14 for 2010, maybe 16 if the online versions of FIFA and PGA Tour are included, plus the World Cup edition of FIFA.
None of this is meant to suggest publishers bear some kind of obligation to ramp up their production of sports titles. But it is a pretty clear indication that the landscape has changed significantly in the past two years with a bad economy only part of the picture. In some cases, we're simply seeing the market at work. Bad or uninteresting titles don't sell, and don't get continued.
But there are fewer choices overall, thanks to the era of exclusive licenses and the high barrier represented by development costs on the current generation. And, as NCAA Basketball found out, it's a climate that can easily offer gamers fewer choices than the only one they had.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 2 p.m. U.S. Mountain time.