In between two of the most-watched college basketball games ever played in November, the NBA's Doomsday Clock inched closer to midnight when its players rejected a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum and dissolved their union. It's the nuclear winter scenario analysts imagined when they pegged worst-case losses at $40 million for NBA 2K12, the lone video game caught in the crossfire.
Unlike fans with a remote control, there's no college hoops to turn to in video gaming. Two years ago yesterday the last title, NCAA Basketball 10 released with a thin feature set that telegraphed what everyone expected, which was EA Sports dusting its hands of a franchise with steep licensing and development costs and little opportunity for sales growth, to say nothing of the litigation that also imperils its football sibling.
Bet they wish they stuck with it now, huh? Someone making a college hoops video game would be making out like bandits with no NBA, right?
No. This is grass-is-greener nostalgia. Like the clipboard-carrying backup quarterback, whoever's not in the game gets a heavy benefit of the doubt. (See NFL 2K5, and MVP Baseball). Especially when those who are on the field are struggling, in this case an NBA Live/Elite visibly absent for a second year and an NBA 2K12 that has battled vexing online problems.
College Hoops 2K, remember, went out a critical winner when 2K Sports chose to pull the plug on it in early 2008. Consistently well regarded, 2K shuttered it not because it couldn't get the game right for customers' tastes. They got rid of it because it cost too much to make and didn't sell enough, hamstrung by a release date set more than a month after the NBA titles. EA Sports' March Madness/NCAA Basketball series lasted only two more full editions after that.
It's telling that when I've asked about something like EA Sports MMA, the label has refused to rule out its later reappearance, even though that's been dealt a death blow by the UFC's purchase of the Strikeforce series that licensed the game. Yet in the past when I've brought up NCAA Basketball, it's been spoken of the way one fondly remembers an ex; we had a lot of great memories, but it just wasn't going to work out.
This means there are a number of barriers to a successful college basketball video game. Like most things in the divide between what gamers and publishers want, few have anything to do with product quality.
• Legal troubles: Though EA Sports has prevailed or won dismissal of claims against it in other cases, it's still battling litigation, alongside the NCAA, over the thinly-veiled use of amateur athletes' likenesses in their college video games. It's no surprise that we've seen many cases filed almost at the deadline of the statute of limitations. Starting up a new game restarts that clock for an entirely new class of potential litigants, and is a risk that isn't worth taking unless there's huge money to be made.
It's impossible for a sports title to stand out against November's triple-A competition.
• The worst release date imaginable: There isn't huge money to be made for two big reasons, both of them pertaining to November. The first is that the college release—dictated by the NCAA—is in November, six weeks after all the NBA products, from NBA Jam to NBA 2K hit shelves. In football, NCAA Football arrives in July, to Madden's late August, so it is a true alternative to the lack of a professional game, for six weeks every year.
The bigger reason is November itself. This is the month when every heavy hitter across video gaming comes out, and it will include Call of Duty each year. Further, a college hoops title would be releasing on the last Tuesday before Thanksgiving, when practically every new game coming before it that year is already on shelves. It is nearly impossible for a sports title to stand out against that much triple-A competition.
• Hamstrung marketing: For the same reasons listed above, you cannot market a college sports video game with any of its currently performing stars. Period. Because the star must be someone who has turned professional—who may be struggling or completely anonymous in his rookie year (Michael Crabtree, anyone?)—the cover projects a yesterday's-news image that has been extremely vexing for publishers to overcome.
• Limited downloadable content opportunity: As EA Sports was the last to publish an NCAA basketball game, let's start there. Their online revenue has soared since the introduction of the Ultimate Team model in FIFA, Madden and NHL. Because of the prohibition on using college players' actual likenesses, there is no chance to employ it in NCAA Football or in any college basketball product. Other sports DLC types, like classic teams, won't work here for the legal reasons described above. And things like alternate uniforms or venues either don't interest gamers or are features that really should be free on the disc to start.
• Limited opportunity as a downloadable title: NCAA Basketball 09 did publish a $15 "March Madness Edition" featuring just the 65 teams from that year's field, largely overshadowed by the main product and—this is important—had no online multiplayer. While there's considerable enthusiasm for the NCAA Division I basketball tournament and all of the unknowns and Cinderellas in the field, that doesn't translate well to a video game. Gamers want to play as one of the top teams in the country or as their favorite school, especially if their favorite school didn't make the field in real life. It's a long shot EA Sports would go back to this simply because it leaves out too much to have wide appeal, and would cost too much if they added it all in.
• Uphill development climb: Singleplayer career modes are now the norm across all team sports simulations. NCAA Basketball never had one. NBA Elite was to have included one before it was canceled, but it's not as simple as importing over code from the pro game, as careers are limited to four years and face their own progression and milestones. Also NBA 2K12 stands out for its incredible attention to signature animations and player traits in its game. Because of their shortened careers and general lack of familiarity with individual players (there are 10 times as many in college as in the pros), generic animations are the rule in a college basketball title. It's something for which a basketball series is always downgraded in reviews.
It seems incredible that a sport commanding a billion-dollar television rights contract, and one that captures an entire nation's attention for a month, was both canceled as a video game two years ago and cannot step into a gap left by a professional counterpart that has made its league deeply unpopular among fans.
But the NBA's implosion is not taking place within a zero-sum game by which college basketball benefits, either in real life or on a video game console. In fact, what average fans have said, year after year, with their wallets and their remote controls, is that they are largely interested in postseason basketball. That's why the NCAA doesn't sell well until March, and NBA 2K12, whose predecessor was a top 10 title every month it was on shelves, has another four months before the true damage is known.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays.