Did Sports Video Games Really Get Any Better in 2012?

Earlier this week, Metacritic bemoaned 2012 as a year of poorer review scores for video games than the one preceding it. Fewer titles surpassed the all-important 90—which practically guarantees job security to those who developed or greenlit the project—than in 2011. Interestingly, the three console platforms' average review scores all improved slightly.

This isn't proof of overall game quality any more than MVP voting is proof of overall player quality. If anything, it's proof of how observers reacted to the product put on the field. But it made me curious enough to go digging into how sports video games were scored. And even then, the numbers were, on the surface, surprising.

On average, 78 sports games (this includes different platform versions of the same title) rated 74.19 this year, according to Metacritic. That's up 6.4 points from 2011's average of 68.10.

That's remarkable. Taken at face value, that's an astonishing jump in overall quality—for an entire segment—especially one whose most visible releases are most vulnerable to criticism that they're insufficient updates of the previous year's version.

In 2010, sports video games averaged 67.10, so the seven point jump to 2012 looks even larger. (To clarify my methodology, I took anything that was classified sports by Metacritic, excluding iOS titles. To that I added any of THQ's UFC and WWE licensed titles, and the F1 and NASCAR licensed racing games.)

To make sure I wasn't crazy, I went to GameRankings. Measuring the same titles, it showed a smaller, but still significant increase of 5.83, from an average score of 69.23 in 2011 to 75.06 in 2012.

I know Madden was shades better in 2012 than the year before, but NCAA Football dropped about as much as its pro football sibling improved. Of the Big Four—the year-in, year-out Great Sports Games—FIFA and NBA 2K performed roughly the same in review scores while MLB The Show and NHL dipped by similar amounts.

It's true that 2012 saw great games like UFC Undisputed 3 and SSX which didn't appear in 2011. And series like Pro Evolution Soccer and WWE made modest but noteworthy gains. But 2011 had Top Spin 4, to 2012's mediocre Grand Slam Tennis 2. And we also saw a slew of licensed Olympics video games that weren't worth anyone's time.

Did I miss something? Didn't we just not award a Sports Video Game of the Year? Isn't this the year in which no one is taking any risks?

Yes, actually. And that lack of risk taking in part accounts for the overall rise.

In tallying sports game reviews, it's the cold souls who count most.

I've written about this before: Sports video game publishing is in a war of attrition. Licensing costs are not going down; development costs only rise, and now must straddle the next console generation, expected to be announced at E3, if not on shelves by November. The high licensing costs, and the modern phenomenon of exclusive deals, keep fewer publishers out of the real moneymaking end of a shrinking business. The high development costs and the repeated failure of alternatives without a league logo mean no one is really willing to go into sports publishing without them. Remember Backbreaker? Tecmo Bowl Throwback? All-Pro Football 2K8 or Blitz: The League II? All of these were PS3 and Xbox 360 games, but it feels like they came out a generation ago.

So the improvement of sports video games—well, in their critical scores anyway—is more in cutting dead weight than actual improvement among its annual titles. We don't score reviews here at Kotaku (and, really, I thank Brian Crecente for that every time I write one), but we know readers feel there's grade inflation going on, where a 7.5 is a disappointment, and an 8 is average. Others who must score reviews do, too. NBA 2K is one of the do-no-wrong series in sports gaming. But it was given a 70 by the guy who organizes the sports video gaming panel show I appear on biweekly. Another colleague's publication gave it the same mark.

What does this mean for 2013? Well, it starts off on even better footing, considering MLB 2K had seven editions and the best of them last year couldn't bust 70. Considering the upheaval at THQ, you can probably drop any WWE titles from the discussion, too. But you also won't see anything from Fight Night, one of the most consistent and well regarded sports series over the past decade. EA Sports is busy with putting out an MMA title, a sport with which it fared only so-so back in 2010.

There'll be no SSX or Top Spin, a boutique title but one that always did well. Spinoffs like NFL Blitz won't be available. FIFA can't put out a World Cup edition for another year, either. In dropping from 111 sports titles reviewed in 2010, to 96 in 2011 and 78 in 2012, it seems the surest path to addition is by subtraction.

Did Sports Video Games Really Get Any Better in 2012?
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Sundays.