In 2011 NASCAR returns to consoles with a dedicated video game. Among the landscape of multibillion-dollar sports enterprises, it had been one of a few without its own game for the past year, much less the past three.
Sports video games often are criticized for lack of innovation, and much of this seems to come from the rigid nature of the sports they represent. Truly new shooters, adventure or role-playing games are launched every year. But sports remain dominated by licensed titles, and the major licensed properties have remained the same for decades: Football, American football, hockey, basketball, baseball, etc.
There are very few properties left in major North American sports - which absolutely drives the sports development bus - without representation in a game. Though the UFC had appeared in games before, in years when it had a smaller appeal, its re-emergence with UFC 2009 Undisputed marked probably the last games debut of a mainstream sports league for some time.
That doesn't mean there's nothing new under the sun in sports video gaming. There still are major leagues, licenses and personalities with no current representation in a game. It's not to say that their stature automatically makes financial sense to either them or to a games developer. But for fans, their absence is conspicuous.
It's hard to tell if boxing fans want this guy in a video game to fight as him, or to fight against him. Manny Pacquiao is in Fight Night, ready to go anytime, anywhere, but just as in real life, Mayweather is nowhere to be found, except as a custom boxer among the Borats, Ron Burgundys and David Hasselhoffs created by Fight Night users. Producer Brian Hayes has described Fight Night's boxer-by-boxer licensing negotiations as a nightmarish process, and it must be doubly so for Mayweather, whatever he wants. If EA Sports were willing to pay it, it might as well put him on the cover of a boxing game, and given fight fans' antipathy toward Mayweather for ducking Pacquiao, that may not be such a smart idea.
2K Sports bailed on its highly regarded College Basketball series in early 2008, and EA Sports canceled its NCAA Basketball series after last November's release. The Final Four is easily the biggest sporting event in the world without any current representation in a video game, and the problems with it are well known. A collegiate basketball game ships after the professional game's title (whereas NCAA Football has a one month head start on Madden) and competes against the NFL and other sports until, roughly, February, when college basketball takes center stage only for about six weeks. As staggering as it is to consider, a zillion-dollar television contract, the college ties that make even a casual fan interested, and everyone filling out a bracket on the second Monday in March simply do not add up to enough of a video game audience.
The Tradition Unlike Any Other. Tiger Woods has had his name on a video game for 12 years, and his presence has dominated the Masters Tournament throughout it. But the Masters - and Amen Corner, the Sarazen Bridge, Butler Cabin and the Green Jacket - are by far, the most famous symbols of sport never to appear in any video game, ever. All are overseen by a famously protective - and selective - private organization, the directors of Augusta National Golf Club. Unlike the PGA or any other sports enterprise, Augusta National doesn't face the same financial pressure to grow its brand or business. In short, they don't need anyone's money, and can negotiate almost anything on their terms alone, which is why The Masters has remained a Salinger-esque recluse among sports video gaming. So far, no one's been able to convince Augusta National to join the new medium. Maybe it's the other way around, that the club hasn't been convinced to admit video games to its membership. Either way, to see this fabled golf course in a game will take far more than money, and it would be the last great coup among major sports events.
When the economy was stronger EA Sports could afford to try a bunch of new things. MVP 06 and 07: NCAA Baseball was one of them, necessitated by 2K's acquisition of Major League Baseball's exclusive third-party license. Generally well regarded, the game was developed only for Xbox and PlayStation 2, faded out as the current console generation took hold, and appealed to a niche audience at best. Rule variants, the more than 200 different NCAA Division I teams and their home fields, and the legal entanglements raised by realistic collegiate rosters make it unlikely we will ever again see the College World Series in a video game, even as a game mode within a larger baseball simulation. Maybe Rosenblatt Stadium could reappear as a novelty venue in a future MLB title, but as the park will be sold to pay for the CWS' new venue, its new owner probably would want money for that.
The World's Most Famous Arena is represented in EA Sports' NHL products, but not any NBA game, nor NHL 2K11 on the Wii. More importantly, in boxing, while Fight Night features both Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, you can only recreate their Fight of the Century in the generic "New York Arena." 2K Sports' Don King Presents: Prizefighter, from 2008, did feature MSG, but that game's boxing roster was dwarfed in starpower by EA Sports', offering no matchup worthy of such a stage. Madison Square Garden is considered a boxing mecca - its original ring was retired in 2007 and is now on display at the International Boxing Hall of Fame. But with no sequel likely for the poorly reviewed Prizefighter, Madison Square Garden remains a notable omission in boxing's current titles - and especially from NBA simulations.
Television ratings show this outdoors hockey game has tremendous appeal, especially among casual hockey fans or those otherwise uninterested. Technically, it's not absent from video games. But a hodgepodge of licensing agreements has kept it underexposed and a year behind. NHL 2K10 and the Wii-only NHL 2K11 are the only games to feature the outdoor settings, likely because 2K already had the Wrigley Field and Fenway Park venues coded for the current generation, and licensing agreements in place to feature the baseball stadiums. The Winter Classic has never been featured in the best-in-class NHL series from EA Sports. This season's game will be played at Heinz Field, the Pittsburgh Steelers' home, so perhaps we'll see the Winter Classic in NHL 12. It would be better if we could play the game in its current year. But the NHL is known for not permitting things to appear in a video game before they appear that season, such as new alternate jerseys.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 2 p.m. U.S. Mountain time.