Are Sports Video Games Worth Reviewing Any More?

Earlier this week I got several versions of a small talk question I always field this time of year: "I haven't played Madden in X years. Should I buy it this year?"

To me, that's no longer even a relevant question for this or for any sports video game. The real question, and its answer, make me wonder if they are worth reviewing any more.

The way I see it, the real question now is simply "Do you want to play NFL football this year?" Or "Do you want to play NBA basketball?" "Do you want to play the NHL, or the NCAA?" Or do you want to box, swing a folding chair in the WWE or swing a golf club on the PGA Tour? Because in all of those cases, on consoles—by far the dominant sports gaming platform—you have only one option today.

If that's the case, I have to ask what the bother is with appraising these games, because there's nothing to compare them against, except previous versions of themselves. These are by definition iterative products. Provided the game's makers have not completely screwed up and made the gameplay worse, then the game is on a fundamental level better and worth buying over any predecessor, because it carries accurate rosters, the latest uniform changes, and other details delivering the authenticity a sports gamer prizes.

Problem is, that's not a feature, it's an expectation. That's the "roster update" slur, hurled predominantly by people who have no intention of buying or even playing sports video games. We'll see it in about a dozen comments below from those who also had no intention of even reading this far before mouthing off. (Right after the dozen or so about NFL 2K5). Even so, I'm certainly not going to stake a positive review to the presence of such a baseline expectation.

For Madden no one else did, either.

It wasn't a stellar week for the game. It is isn't cherry-picking to cite Madden NFL 12's 80 Metacritic average when such a source is constantly mentioned by Electronic Arts executives as a measure of their games' quality. After 22 reviews—and we don't score ours, so what I have to say Tuesday will not move the pile—the grade is in. This is the lowest-rated edition on this console generation since Madden NFL 07 five years ago.

Facing a league lockout that would chill casual fans' enthusiasm, Madden 12 sought to consolidate its position with diehards who wanted any NFL they could get. They were rewarded with long-requested features, from esoteric mechanisms like an accurate injured reserve list to the means to police cheating and bad behavior online, through the new Online Communities.

Still, in what Madden NFL 12 does well, it is largely a refinement of a past version. You can do that when you're refining an already highly regarded product. FIFA 11, MLB 11: The Show and NHL 11 demonstrate this. Madden 12 attempted to do so against much more critical skepticism, thanks largely to its exclusive license from the NFL, and it did not go well.

Despite the lower score, nothing in the reviews I have read, and certainly nothing in the game I have played for nearly two weeks, and wrote over 9,000 words about this week, suggests that Madden NFL 12 in any way plays worse than Madden 11. It is, visually, still a beautiful game. It may still do infuriating things with its linebackers and still make some boneheaded run-blocking decisions, but the running game is an improvement, after two years that also saw improvements. I still can't return a punt more than 10 yards, but I've dealt with these things for years. With the exception of the commentary, which took a completely mystifying step back from last year's game, the lower scores mostly reflect a disappointment in something the game didn't do, not something it did wrong.

I've written before that Madden probably suffers in these subjective appraisals more because there's nothing to compare it against. A lack of a better competitor may mean it gets an 80 instead of a 75. It also means the game really has no shot at a 90 unless it reinvents itself. And after what happened with NBA Elite I doubt anyone at EA Sports has much stomach for trying to reinvent another title, much less one of Madden's importance.

But the issue isn't really peculiar to Madden either. As I said above, NHL, MLB: The Show and FIFA's most recent editions were all very well regarded. NHL is also the only licensed simulation in its sport. MLB: The Show, is a de facto exclusive product on the PS3 thanks to MLB 2K's repeated disappointments. FIFA likewise towers over Pro Evolution Soccer. In the few instances where there are direct competitors, the gulf is so wide that the reviews of the dominant product make no comparisons to the runner-up.

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So what's the point? Increasingly, the criticism of these games comes down to comparing it to the previous year's edition, and increasingly that means trying to justify a great or even good game by evaluating subtle changes, like the end of "suction blocking," for whether they're landmark achievements.

Reviewers have to justify the two weeks they spent playing the game. Developers have to justify the year they spent building it. Marketers have to justify the millions spent flogging it, and lifers have to justify the $60 they just plunked down, knowing they had just as many options if it was a crummy game as they did with a good game.

I think that all gets in the way of a question the consumer can answer without all of that noise: Are you ready for some football?

Are Sports Video Games Worth Reviewing Any More?
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays.