An Xbox 180 Drags Sports Back From the Future of Gaming

Until Wednesday there seemed to be very little selling the Xbox One to a sports video gamer. The questionable ability to rent, share or re-sell its games—fundamental to a culture built on annual releases and punching friends on the couch—was only the beginning. It's a console that cost $100 more than its competitor, with no future in any baseball product.

Microsoft may have rolled back requirements that had no articulated consumer benefit—checking in once every 24 hours? Reselling games through ... what again? How? But its reversal didn't guarantee sports gamers' current lifestyle would continue into the future as much as it reminded them that their experience is tied to the past—a past of physical media, no different from consoles' cartridge days, because others can't part with their old games as easily as we do from ours.

A lot of contrarian opinion on the Xbox One has since been offered, to hoots of derision. But as sports gamers already effectively pay an annual subscription for their favorite title, with none of the benefits accorded by fully digital, subscribed games, they should be aware how mainstream gaming's vehement indignation may have set back, by years or more, a system that could benefit sports fans more than any other constituency.

Rare is the day that I don't post some workaday update on an annual sports video game release and see underneath it a comment—from someone who probably doesn't even play the game—wondering why these titles aren't offered every two or three years, with roster updates and other adjustments delivered as patches. The short answer is because these are licensed games, and their licensors, the leagues and the players' unions (and the BCS and the NCAA) expect a new release every year, because they earn more royalties from a new product than an old one sitting on shelves 18 months after release.

You can argue until you're blue in the face against that—many developers I know would agree with you. Every year they face the unreasonable expectation of making a transformative work based on a sport more than a century old. But as long as games are primarily stamped on physical media, that is the model. It disregards the consumer and it puts developers on a treadmill to a fast burnout. Only publishers and their licensors benefit.

Digitally delivered games—games which can't be shared, which can't be resold and, if they don't exist physically, need some sort of control to limit widespread copying—potentially change all of that. Right now, physical releases have to sucker you back to a GameStop every summer with promises of a quarterback vision cone—or mid-game ratings progression whose effects are rarely ever seen, or ballhandling that is, we swear this time it's really real, until next year, when we say, nah, it really wasn't so great.

A game that exists as a single, continually updated edition, sold through an annual subscription, puts an end to that cynical courtship. The NFL and the NFLPA's license with EA Sports and Madden runs out at the end of the year, so maybe that's the last domino to fall before we start seeing the transformation to subscription-based sports gaming models. I have heard plenty of rumblings in those I talk to that Electronic Arts, not just EA Sports, wants to sell whole classes of titles on a subscription basis. For more than the price of one game, but less than the cost of two, you could theoretically get access to a huge catalog of offerings. Sports. Action. Shooters. The man in charge of EA Sports was recently made the head of Electronic Arts' Origin service. "Software as a service" has been a company goal for years.

The tradeoff, of course, is the consumer doesn't completely own what he subscribes to. People still have a huge and understandable problem with this. But that concern is much less relevant to sports video games, which greatly depend on their leagues' current year, than it is to other game types.

Past editions of Assassin's Creed, even if they don't include their successors' gameplay advancements, remain compelling for the same reason rereading a book from The Leatherstocking Tales is still fulfilling. Compared to the currently available product, a past edition of a sports video game is about as interesting as rereading a Clemson football media guide from three years ago. Sure, I still own it; I can still use it without restriction. I can sell it to someone willing to buy it. But it is fundamentally outdated and inferior.

As idiotic as its messaging has been since May 21, the Xbox One, and not the PlayStation 4, was the console pushing more toward a future of digital delivery, rather than having its product catalog driven by physical media, or facsimiles of it. They lost control of the message by failing to describe any benefit to consumers. Maybe they should have gone after the sports crowd to sell this concept.

Instead, sports video gamers—an almost exclusively console-based constituency—must wait until other gamers also accept the idea that there's a difference between nostalgia and value, and that most games of a certain age possess a lot more of the former than the latter. Then maybe we, and those who develop the games we enjoy, can get off this treadmill. Until that day, we'll continue shoveling cash into the furnace of disc-based offline gaming, and we will be the last to feel any warmth from it.

Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Sundays.