When buying the annual iteration of your favorite sports video game, you probably haven’t had much to cheer about in recent years. To be clear, the genre is struggling, and even the new generation of consoles hasn’t been the answer to rejuvenating it. Take, for example, this year only. Metacritic scores are far from impressive for the greatest sports out there. Madden NFL 22 earned a miserable 60, NHL 22 promising to change their metagame disappointed with a 74. NBA 2K was largely the franchise to beat, but NBA 2K22 only holds a 76, some of the lowest grades, that the series has seen in years. FIFA 22 and MLB: The Show 21 had the highest averages at around 78, but it’s telling that none of these franchises even hit the 80 mark.
This downtrend has been going on for some time and I get irritated when I see the modes are largely untouched and similar technical errors carry over from year to year. It’s like watching your favorite sports team when they’re in crisis. How long do you wait and watch the constant losses pile up before you just walk away and hope that next season does better?
The problem is, the hope that the following entry-level price will do better has been going on for too many seasons now, and not just one or two franchises. It’s across the board. In the last generation, the sports genre has exploded with innovations that make sports games look and play like they ever get closer to real life. Additionally, the developers looked for unique ways to build a community around them and serve multiple types of players, from creating robust franchise modes to offering skill-based online gaming. And most importantly, they found new and interesting ways to captivate the sports fan. Visual Concepts showed the power of sports storytelling and made NBA 2K’s MyCareer a must-have by allowing you to create a gamer and take them on a cinematic journey delving into the ups and downs of fame.
It opened a world of potential and lit a fire in their competitors, with FIFA developing Alex Hunter: The Journey and NHL’s Be A Pro into a decision-making story. Hell, Visual Concepts had so much success that it even implemented a storyline in NBA 2K18 and 19 Franchise mode, albeit with mixed results. But at least the developers were trying new things, taking risks, and learning from each other about engagement and what kept people playing their game year-round.
Nowadays, sports games play it safe and offer graphical upgrades and a few new features, but no series really tries to revive the formula or shake up the previous one. And even when efforts are made, they feel half-hearted. For example, NHL 22 sought inspiration from Madden by introducing Superstar X-Factors and urged it to shake up its metagame. The problem? Those X-factors weren’t ultimately a factor in making the gameplay more rewarding or exciting, and the metagame didn’t change enough to be noteworthy aside from its flaws.
What’s even more frustrating is seeing how different modes are neglected for years without meaningful changes. I can’t remember the last time NBA 2K, NHL, or FIFA really touched Franchise Mode. Madden gave Franchise Mode a try this year, but it wasn’t nearly enough to make it a must-have. What’s worse is that things that don’t work or need improvement stay the same; The NHL’s dialogue in Be A Pro is ridiculous, and his poke check remains overwhelmed while Madden is still full of weird glitches and a clunky user interface.
The annual releases of sports games don’t leave time for sweeping changes, but each year it’s about the developers making smart improvements to the foundation. I assume that every year a game will run smoother in every sports franchise and that certain modes will receive a greater focus with more effort for meaningful additions. And when the gameplay falters, the developers will start investing in new strategies to keep it interesting, like finding ways to change the metagame or implement a new system that changes the gameplay like this improved skating from NHL 19. But too much stays the same for too long in many franchises. Madden’s gameplay code is so old at this point that the developers are just working on the same issues, from animated snaps to players running into each other after playing even as they try to add new features.
It also feels like sports games are at a crossroads in deciding what they need to be for this generation of gamers. I don’t envy this decision because there are many different reasons why sports fans turn to controllers. Ask anyone what their favorite mode is and why, and you’ll get a variety of answers. One thing never changes, however: these games are meant to have a long tail and be played all year round. This has led many developers to invest heavily in online-centric modes that they can update all year round. But even here the rewards never seem big enough, or worse, they feel very generic in execution.
The limited resources make it difficult for developers to decide what to focus on. There’s a constant tug-of-war between satisfying hardcore fans and attracting new players via more casual offerings like FIFA’s Volta, Madden’s The Yard, and NHL’s Pro-Am. Someone is always left out in the cold, and lately It was the committed players to more single player ventures like franchise modes. Let’s face it: modes like this don’t bring in any extra cash.
NBA 2K22 has probably made the biggest leap this year, trying to merge its popular MyCareer mode with The City, its busy online world, where players can compete and shop in pickup games and tournaments. Visual Concepts has a long way to go to shut down its intrusive microtransactions here, and it’s still too empty to be fun, but I see the potential.
I just saw WWE 2K22 forego its usual fall release in order to have more time to prop things up, and while the series has been full of ups and downs, I like the creativity that continues to shine in its various modes and how it is geared towards the things that will excite hardcore fans. There is the 2K Showcase Mode, the playable documentary from WWE 2K, in which you follow the career of a legendary wrestler or a historical period and play crucial matches; My Faction allows you to build and manage your own stable to compete with greats like The Four Horsemen; and this year it introduces MyRise, a new version of MyCareer that allows you to lead a WWE newbie to stardom in an election-oriented adventure.
To be fair, the challenges posed by COVID-19 have undoubtedly made the past few years even more difficult and taxing for the genre. However, these problems became more acute at the end of the previous generation and they will not go away. A roster upgrade just isn’t enough these days to keep fans in check, and it’s the loyal fans who end up burning to add their excitement for another season only to see the same ones Problems reappear.
Developers don’t have to worry about pressing the reset button and maybe taking a little more time to rethink their game. While there is a lot of creativity and excitement in exercise, that experience doesn’t translate video games. Why? Because developers continue to use the same playbook. You don’t want to take on the risky game that brings you fame for fear of failure, but I’d rather see these games try something new and fail than give me the same tired experience I’ve played for years have.
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