Sportspocalypse. Sportsmageddon. Spörtsnarök? Whatever you want to call it, the coming month is packed with sports video game releases - a seven-way showdown of licensed sports titles in a month that normally sees only two baseball games. How'd we get to this point?
The seven titles here all took different paths for specific reasons even if, in hindsight, a few of them might have wished they picked a different month to hit store shelves. In the current console generation - an era of exclusive licenses and contracted offerings - we haven't seen anything like this.
Last year, October saw five licensed sports releases on a console, but four of them had their dates set by league licensing partners. Only two titles, the baseball releases, are governed by such agreements this month, meaning five elected to compete against them, or join a very crowded field.
Here's a guide to the upcoming month of releases - what's coming to shelves, what they'll offer, how they should do in this battle royale and, importantly, why they're here in the first place. We'll also note if/when a demo is planned, so readers may try before they can buy. Because if one bought all seven, they'd pay more than they would for any console bundle. And the Nintendo 3DS releases in March, too.
Fight Night Champion
Why March? Company documents as far back as 2009 had pointed to a then-untitled fighter being released in the first quarter of 2011. By November, EA Sports had fixed the date as March 1. The series has no traditional release date; Fight Night Round Four came in June 2009.
What's It All About? Fight Night Champion is EA Sports' first M-rated game and the first major sports title to get the designation. With the real-life heavyweight division in a long decline, the sport resonates most with the public through cinema, such as this year's Oscar-nominated The Fighter. Fight Night Champion therefore introduces "Champion Mode," an R-rated narrative concerning the career of fictitious fighter André Bishop. The game's standard career modes and online play all return, with dozens of licensed boxers. The M-rating means Fight Night will show the sport's brutality as never before.
March Madness: Boxing enjoys heavy crossover with core gamers who are not big sports fans otherwise. It may lose some sales because of the more restrictive rating - though many parents may still feel this is an M-rated game their teens can handle. Whatever the difference is, it shouldn't be much.
Demo? Yes. One's been available for a month. You get a three-round fight between Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson, plus online multiplayer.
MLB 11 The Show
Why March? Major League Baseball's simulations, by contract with the league, come out on the same day, about a month before the season begins.
What's It All About? A PS3 exclusive, The Show is undisputably the top baseball simulation available and is one of the best team sports simulations overall. MLB 10 The Show was a high quality release even if its new feature set wasn't vastly different from the previous year. This year, a new analog control set has been added, two-man co-operative online multiplayer debuts, and the game's Road to the Show career mode receives a package of upgrades.
March Madness: Firmly established as a March buy for hardcore sports gamers, The Show shouldn't be hurt by the glut of releases on its turf. In quality, early impressions based on the game's demo peg it as another top performer.
Demo? Yes, it's out now and it is a whopper - 2.97 GB.
Major League Baseball 2K11
Why March? See above.
What's It All About? MLB 2K11 is the only baseball simulation on the Xbox 360. Still the black sheep of sports gaming because of the disastrous MLB 2K9, 2K Sports has plenty of heavy lifting ahead if it's to win back gamers. What I saw in a January preview showed a game that looks decisively better than MLB 2K10. The analog pitching it introduced last year, which was fun but a little too easy, has been refined. A focus on fielding marries that part of the game to your pitcher's success as well. It will be the best in the series since it moved to Xbox 360, but will likely be the game many felt they should have gotten years before.
March Madness: It also benefits from March incumbency, though MLB 2K11 may have fallen short of sales expectations without the extra competition anyway. Take-Two Interactive's leadership has roundly badmouthed its exclusive MLB license as a money-loser.
Demo? 2K Sports says it will be available March 1.
Top Spin 4
Why March? Top Spin 3 was a June 2008 release, traditionally the month for Tiger Woods PGA Tour. Perhaps 2K Sports sought to move it up earlier for that reason. They fixed March 15 as the release date in mid-January - two weeks after EA Sports' surprise announcement that Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12 would feature Augusta National, and would be moved up to March 29 to be on shelves in time for The Masters.
What's It All About? Well regarded, if a bit of a boutique title, Top Spin offers simulation-quality tennis and greater realism than its Xbox 360 and PS3 competitor, Virtua Tennis. Top Spin 4 has modified its control set to be more pick-up-and-play friendly than the timing system that many found baffling in its predecessor. A career mode with off-the-court decisions regarding tournament entries, sponsors and coaches will be added.
March Madness: EA Sports' announcement for Tiger Woods PGA 12 had to catch 2K Sports completely off guard. Pro tennis is well overshadowed by golf in real life, although on a participatory level it has grown, and its players are typically very passionate. Top Spin 4 will resonate with them, but this is not the month for it to be asking sports fans at large to give it a try.
Demo? 2K Sports says it will be available March 1, as well.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters
Why March? Because The Masters Tournament, the holy grail of golf video gaming, is the week after this releases, April 7. Typically a June release, EA Sports Tiburon hacked three months off its development calendar to get it out in time for the tournament.
What's It All About? The addition of Augusta National, which had only appeared in an obscure Japan release in the 1990s, dominates the story of both Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12, and likely sports gaming in the first half of 2011 as well. Laser scanning technology developed over the course of three years will deliver high fidelity capturing all of the course's detailed beauty and challenging layouts. Caddies are also added as an advisory presence during tournament events. They'll wear the trademark white jumpsuit when you play the Masters. Jim Nantz, the voice of the tournament, now leads the broadcast team.
March Madness: Only this game, for this reason, could move into an already crowded month without fear. The addition of the Masters will draw golfing fanatics in droves, especially those who may have taken a year or two off from the series. Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12 will likely be a strong performer through April, and may even pick up a Father's Day bounce. EA Sports, the leader in team sports simulations, will dominate an extra month on the calendar with two very desirable games.
Demo? EA Sports has a particularly robust one coming March 8. Golfers may play Augusta's par-4 No. 18 as Woods, with Nantz in the booth. Nos. 1 to 5 at TPC San Antonio Oaks also will be in the demo, and once completed it allows players to bypass the Amateur Tour in the full release's "Road to the Masters" career mode and proceed straight to the Nationwide Tour. The PS3 demo includes PlayStation Move support.
NASCAR: The Game 2011
Why March? Delay of game. It was originally to have released Feb. 15, in time for last week's season opening Daytona 500. In January, developer Eutechnyx pushed it back another six weeks to give it more time for polishing, testing, and gameplay tweaks.
What's It All About? NASCAR, though it appeared in Gran Turismo 5, has not had a dedicated licensed video game title since EA Sports walked away from the series in 2008. Eutechnyx, a studio specializing in racers, will bring all 22 NASCAR tracks to the game, plus every regularly competitive driver on the series to its roster of licensed personalities. One wonders if that includes 20-year-old rookie Trevor Bayne, who won the Daytona 500 in just his second start. Before the race, Bayne didn't even have a contract to race the entire season. Changes to the points system and the weird push-drafting racing strategy have also made the NASCAR we watch now different from what it was when Eutechnyx began its work.
March Madness: Despite the branding this is sill largely a niche title that will most appeal to super-committed NASCAR fans. There's a sense that as much as stock car racing is exciting to watch, it's not so much fun in a video game where realism equals turning left four times for 500 miles.
Demo? None is planned.
Why March? THQ, which showed All-Stars at E3 in June, had planned for some time to get its arcade-style rassler out in the first quarter of 2011. Alternate title WWE: Legends of Wrestlemania was also a March release, in 2009.
What's It All About? Seems crazy to differentiate between "simulation" and "arcade" in professional wrestling, which is, ahem,
fake "sports entertainment." But this is a rowdier, rock-em-sock-em beatdown featuring stylized character models and over-the-top finishing moves and animations. Meant to be pick-up-and-play fun, WWE All-Stars will also include the first appearance of Randy "Macho Man" Savage in a WWF/WWE game for the first time since 1994.
March Madness: Like Fight Night Champion, pro wrestling and the nature of its video games gives them an appeal that doesn't depend on being a big sports fan. The over-the-top fighter design will also resonate with fans of that genre. It won't piledrive the big boys on this list, but it could sneak into the ring and whack someone from behind with a folding chair.
Demo? One is planned before the March 29 release but a date is not yet certain, THQ says.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 2 p.m. U.S. Mountain time.