Wrestling Faces a Long Comeback After THQ's Bankruptcy

If there's truth in advertising, then three weeks ago, 2K Sports was looking at changing its name to the singular form. Major League Baseball 2K was justifiably believed to be a dead series; the company had canceled online support for legacy titles like All-Pro Football 2K8, College Hoops 2K8 and Top Spin 4. Outside of NBA 2K—formidable though it is—the label was looking at no other presence in sports publishing for the foreseeable future.

Here at the end of January, though, 2K Sports is back to being a multi-title label. It's publishing another year of MLB 2K and—though corporate parent Take-Two Interactive has not confirmed this—it is said to be picking up the WWE license from the remains of THQ, once the terms of that deal are finalized. (EA Sports has definitively said it is out of the picture.)

Instead of a landscape dominated by EA Sports, with 2K no different from boutique operations like MLB The Show, Pro Evolution Soccer, Activision's NASCAR products or Codemasters' motorsports line, we're back to—well, a landscape still dominated by EA Sports, with 2K Sports as a solid runner up. If this news is true, and we've been given no reason to think it isn't.

The question remains what 2K Sports would do with a WWE license, given the parent company's on-the-record wariness of expensive licenses and 2K Sports' inability to sell spinoff titles under the expensive pact it had with Major League Baseball from 2006 to last year.

The bigger question, meantime, is what is being done about WWE '14 if anything. A bankruptcy filing in December showed a product development budget for WWE stretching into THQ's 2014 fiscal year. In June 2012, THQ shut down its San Diego studio, responsible for WWE All Stars, the license's arcade title. That points to Yuke's Future Media Creators proceeding as normal on the simulation title.

What happens to that work? Since 2008, 2K has dealt with all of its sports development in house, principally through Visual Concepts, located at 2K Games headquarters in Novato, Calif. It closed Kush Games, formerly responsible for the label's MLB and NHL lines, as well as PAM Development, makers of the Top Spin line, in 2008. Like EA, 2K deals with sports publication entirely in-house, possibly because of the licensing relationship and cost the comes with it.

One of sports video gaming's major licenses is up for grabs, and whoever gets it must be a major player.

Now, it's obvious that whoever is negotiating for the WWE license to produce video games was doing so outside of the spectacle of THQ's bankruptcy auction this past week. This is a deal being cut with the WWE, in other words. That said, those who ended up with certain assets from THQ's liquidation also assumed contracts attached to them. I'm thinking of Ubisoft, which bought THQ Montréal and its obligations, among them the contract of Patrice Désilets, who created Assassin's Creed before splitting in 2010. It's a reunion that reminds me of Barry Switzer coming back to coach Troy Aikman in Dallas. But I digress.

The next publisher of a WWE game may have bought whatever Yuke's was working on this year, raising all sorts of questions as to whether they will (in order of likelihood) kill it, continue with it, or try to adapt it in-house. My gut feeling is that 2K Sports, if it is acquiring the 2K license, is going with an arcade title. It's the version that is fastest and easiest to produce. If you enjoy "simulation" wrestling—as hilarious as that label sounds, it is an incredibly deep management simulation in video games—pick up WWE '13 and hang on, because it's not clear that it's getting a successor.

2K Sports has to have learned its lesson from its infamous semi-exclusive license with Major League Baseball. Though 2K published admired arcade titles like The Bigs, it's a sport that is overshadowed by the expectations of a real-life simulation, thanks to competitors and the fact that, yeah, it's a real sport. In professional wrestling, "simulation" means a hell of a lot less. The focus is on "sports entertainment," which offers a wider range of gaming experiences than something that must adopt real-time physics or examine batted-ball trjectories You can make as much money with lower development costs pumping out an arcade-style fighter that still satisifies the sport's mainstream appeal: rock 'em, sock 'em action.

As much as customized ring entrances, storylines, rivalries and other events can be appreciated—when you think about it, WWE under THQ was the ultimate sports entertainment management simulation—it all gets in the way of the real lure of professional wrestling: the spectacle in the ring. In my dabbling with WWE, I've spent three times as many hours creating characters and storylines than I have fighting bouts—in a combat system also mind-bendingly deep.

Right now, we have three outcomes, and none of them point to a successor to WWE '14 this year. Take-Two could buy up the license and contract with Yuke's to finish WWE '14. I'm not sure how it realizes a profit from that. Take-Two could buy up the license and elect to develop its own simulation title in-house. If so, there's no way it's done by November, which raises the question of why Take-Two would take on that kind of expense now, if it's not going to see revenue until 2014. More likely, the next publisher of a WWE-licensed game is going the arcade route.

Whatever becomes of WWE video games, it's the end of a publisher who has made WWE/WWF titles since the late 1990s, a relationship as long or longer than the current publishers of the leading professional sports simulations. This is one of sports video gaming's signature licenses. And if it ends up back in 2K Sports' hands, it makes that label a top performer once again.

Wrestling Faces a Long Comeback After THQ's Bankruptcy
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Sundays.