Sports Video Games in 2013: A Year in Decline

To a video gamer, the pairing was so natural that I didn't recognize how unusual it really was. On Oct. 12, ESPN broke up its top two announcing teams to put Brad Nessler and Kirk Herbstreit in the booth for the network's Texas A&M-Ole Miss nightcap. The two have, virtually anyway, worked millions of games together in more than a decade with EA Sports' NCAA Football series. This was their first time calling a game together in real life.

Johnny Manziel, the Aggies' do-everything Heisman winner at quarterback, escaped a Rebel defender on another run en route to 124 yards rushing, his highest total of the season. "What do you call that in the video game you and I do?" Nessler asked Herbstreit. "That's R1, I think," Herbstreit said. Both laughed.

Over the years, Nessler had joked during recording sessions that ESPN should pair him with Herbstreit for a real call. It's a bittersweet irony that the network chose to do it now, after all this time. Two weeks before, on Sept. 26, EA Sports pulled the plug on the NCAA Football series and ended, among other things, the longest-tenured announcing team in sports video game history.

For a mostly bitter year in sports video gaming, I'll settle for a bittersweet moment to remember it. Generally speaking, I'm an evangelist for the segment, but I close out 2013 as dour as I've ever been. In the past I've wound down the year with sports-specific awards and an ode to the culture, heavily appropriating an old Ernie Harwell speech. I didn't do either this year. There was very little to celebrate of a genre that continued to shrink and, even among the best titles, seemed to take its most ardent fans for granted.

I'm not doling out awards for Best Multiplayer, Best Career Mode, Sports Game of the Year and the like because any excellence this year was earned largely by incumbency. I was on the fence until the Spike Video Game Awards—this year called the VGX—convinced me segmented awards would be a meaningless exercise. In years past, Spike's show honored two sports categories—best individual, and best team game. This year it was condensed into one: Best Sports Game. And the four named finalists were the consensus Four Good Games everyone has agreed on for the past seven years: FIFA, NBA 2K, NHL and MLB the Show.

Before we get to the recognizable disappointments of 2013, let's realize that these four didn't show much leadership either. On the current/now-previous console generation, they played it safe with largely incremental improvements. FIFA and NHL called attention to their big upgrades largely by disparaging their previous editions' performance and fidelity. MLB the Show didn't deliver in the areas that truly needed new polish—presentation and the Road to the Show career mode. NBA 2K14 remade its controls for a third consecutive year, basically admitting that heirloom editions with modes like "The Jordan Challenge" and "NBA's Greatest" had to be played with imperfect command sets.

Red flags also are raised on the current generation, none more than for NBA 2K. The PS4 and Xbox One version of the game did the most of any title to distinguish itself from its incarnations on older hardware, with new versions of its MyGM and MyPlayer career modes. Initial reviews praised the game for this. But the disaster of NBA 2K14's overall implementation is only now fully known.

2K Sports has long battled online connectivity problems, and they plague its flagship title even as we speak. Multiplying the problem is how NBA 2K on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 ties its gamesaves to online servers. You can play singleplayer modes without the 2K servers, but it requires creating a new gamesave while offline. The new Virtual Credit system seems to steer users toward, if not require, microtransaction purchases even for mundane activities; each week fills my inbox with outrage directed at this bizarre, poorly balanced. 2K Sports seems to admit this weekly by offering "locker codes" to gamers through social media to boost their stores of VC. Add it all up and this series has done the most of any, by far, to squander its advantage heading into the new console generation.

Then I look to 2014 and MLB the Show, which has ominously offered $20 in "Universal In-Game Currency" for the upcoming release in March. Previously you could do things like buy up lots of "training points"—which I have used in the past to boost career-mode stars—or acquire perks in a franchise mode. A unified currency was reserved for the game's largely ignored Diamond Dynasty mode. No one knows what "universal in-game currency" means right now. But after NBA 2K14's hamfisted implementation of virtual currency on the PS4, anything similar to that is going to face a vehement backlash.

Realize, I just got done talking about the best games in this segment.

The worst were transcendentally awful. It says a lot that NBA Live 14, EA Sports' universally panned return to simulation basketball, could still rate an A for effort ahead of an established series like MLB 2K. Its entry this year was nothing but a loss-recovery vehicle for 2K Sports, a reconditioned version of MLB 2K12 that supped up sales as the Xbox 360's unchallenged baseball title without paying a dime to development costs or post-release support. And 2K Sports could do this because Major League Baseball had no other dancing partner on the Xbox 360. MLB still has no plan for life on that platform or the Xbox One in 2014, though I can't rule it out entirely. After all, a year ago at this time we got the announcement that baseball would return on the 360.

The Wii U remains a quarantine zone for sports. Electronic Arts may have mumbled some heavily parsed bullshit about not ruling out development for that console, after it and its surrogates all but said they wouldn't build a game for Nintendo with a gun to their head. But actions speak louder than words. What the hell does it say when EA Sports will reskin FIFA—the world's No. 1-selling sports video game—for the original Wii for the second straight year but refuse to publish anything—even a roster update—for the Wii U?

These are the games that did publish this year. Next year we lose two powerhouse series—Tiger Woods PGA Tour, which goes on a one-year hiatus—and also lost its namesake—and the aforesaid NCAA Football. It is going to be a long, long winter in Maitland, Fla., home of EA Tiburon, where the only active series being published are NBA Live and Madden.

And Madden, long the message-board whipping boy, is due for a reckoning as its exclusive pact with the NFL (and its players association) is set to expire. If Major League Baseball can't transition from a deeply troubled series to a new licensee in a year's time, there's no reason to think the NFL could, or would, leave a stable and improving series, especially with a foothold on the next console generation. Still, that deal, how Electronic Arts will pay for it, and whether a new agreement leaves room even for hypothetical discussion of a competitor, drives a lot of the discussion going into next year.

There are few stars on the horizon for 2014. I count one, actually—EA Sports UFC, which appears to be in solid hands with the label's Fight Night crew, and should get a proper showcase on next-generation systems. But of course, that pushes Fight Night itself off its cycle. Off-year releases like tennis—either for 2K Sports or EA—are out of the discussion. Licensed arcade titles—things like The Bigs, or NFL Blitz or NBA Jam—were shut out of 2013 and look to be a nonfactor for 2014 as well.

I have long argued—and vehemently—that sports are as much an indispensible component of mainstream gaming as Call of Duty, Super Mario, or whatever PC gamers were cooing over this month. Sports will always be a natural subject for video games because the sports themselves are very well designed games, balanced over decades, if not centuries, of play.

Yet as I have made this argument, I have also recognized that having special awards for the genre also reinforced the message that it was an outlier, something whose best specimens had to be judged by a separate standard. And now, when sports has never been more distant from the mainstream video gaming discussion, I can't even feign an awards ceremony to prop it up.

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

To contact the author of this post, write to owen@kotaku.com or find him on Twitter @owengood.