Sometimes I wonder if, in the future, a sports commissioner raised among our generation will fire up NBA 2K37 at the end of a terrible week, and let his cares melt away in a league where nothing bad ever happens.
Video games aren’t just an escapist fantasy for working-class fans or talk radio regulars who agonize over their team losing a big game and can go home to make sure it never happens on their PlayStation 3. Sports simulations present just as much of an idealized landscape to the sports leagues they represent.
A video game offers a league the absolute best of both worlds.
The difference is, the leagues are assured of their vision before the first whistle is blown, in every video game ever played in their name. Because as a licensing partner, a sports league such as the NHL or Major League Baseball exercises extraordinary control over how its product is depicted.
And its product is, to millions of consumers, the sport itself.
We’re now in the sixth year of modern sports video game licensing, an era of exclusive agreements that are starting to resemble something like a league’s broadcast television rights held by one, maybe two partners on a nationwide scale. Both are powerful brand projectors and markers of a league’s legitimacy.
So in addition to the money a league makes off the licence, and the promotional effect it generates, the control it enjoys over a video game might be even more valuable. A television network will broadcast a couple hundred games a year, depending on the league and its schedule, and God knows what will happen in any of them. Fights, ejections, obscene gestures to the crowd, embarrassing celebrations, whatever. Video games will serve up millions more – each one in such a controlled environment that each game functions like an advertisement impression.
I’ve heard some wild anecdotes about what happens when the league comes into the room to approve a game. A game’s depiction of money can be a real bugaboo, largely because image managers know if anything keeps regular fans from relating to or embracing players, it’s a fat contract for playing a kid’s game, even though such deals have come to signify a player’s superstar status as much as an MVP or championship ring. You might get achievements or trophies for those awards, but I guarantee you David Stern will swallow a hairbrush whole before NBA 2K10 ever offers one for signing your first superstar deal in My Player.
We don’t even have to talk about such blatantly out-of-bounds, off the field subjects as criminal arrests or substance abuse scandals. Consider officiating. In the baseball titles, which release new version on Tuesday, arguments with the umpires are included for good-natured verisimilitude. None of the disputes carry any implication of incompetence. The most you’ll get is Matt Vasgersian deferentially asking what a fictional umpire might have been seeing. But MLB 10 The Show will this year gather up the umps to hash out a home run call, and Madden and NCAA have held their officiating up to replay scrutiny even longer. Yet the NBA is by far the most subjectively officiated game in North America, surpassed only by soccer worldwide – except in video games. Both are cleanly and consistently called there, without review. And, I’d argue, it’s because both sports suffer from enough controversy over how their rules are enforced in real life. What’s more, ask yourself how many technical fouls you’ve ever seen in an NBA video game.
In NCAA Football, the BCS Title game is controversy-free, usually because if you’re any good and playing with a major conference team, you’re in it. The BCS is a major licensing partner, after all. Even the suggestion that a team could get screwed by the formula in the game was carefully dismissed when I brought it up with EA Sports last year.
I’ve never been privy to a any licence negotiation or content approval meeting and if I ever were, I’d be no more influential than someone filling the water pitcher at the conference table. But I have to wonder just how much a video game’s positive promotional value does or should figure into the discussion. Especially considering there are in fact fewer credible competitors to deliver a quality product deserving a major sports video game licence than there are for a national broadcast contract.
Then again, sports leagues moved decisively into broadcasting in this past decade. Could publishing their own games lay ahead for them in the next?
Stick Jockey is Kotaku’s column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 2 p.m. U.S. Mountain time.