The Year In Sports Video Games

Every year in sports has its winners and losers, but in sports video games, the results aren’t about pennants and trophies. And they’re not always clear cut, either.

We expect the routine with sports video games, the only genre consistently delivering sequels on an annual basis. And 2010 was like most years before it, with its share of cover athlete announcements, new features, and top performers following last year’s edition with solid successes.

But Kotaku’s roundup of 2010 is not of the routine stories however, but the ones that had the most lasting impact on this year, and should into next year, too.

NBA Delete

By far the biggest sports news of the year was also one of video gaming’s biggest controversies overall – the cancellation of EA Sports’ renamed, remade NBA Elite 11. The decision went all the way to the desk of Electronic Arts CEO John Riccitiello, and his call to bag Elite marked the first time an annual, fully licensed sports game failed to release since Madden NFL 96. Riccitiello, in a candid discussion with Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo, acknowledged that glitches highlighted by a brutally humiliating YouTube video of Elite’s demo helped seal the game’s fate.

“We could have shipped a product we weren’t proud of dead against [NBA 2K11]their game that they are proud of and that we would have been proud of to ship ourselves,” Riccitiello told Kotaku. “We would have probably lost 5-1 in the marketplace against that and firmly cemented a reputation for being one to ship secondary sports titles.”

While the EA chief said he was proud of the company’s ability to make a very tough, very painful call, the outcome for the Elite team was not an A-for-effort slap on the butt. The general managers of EA’s two sports studios, Canada and Tiburon (in Florida), lost their titles in an organizational shakeup, with Canada’s boss leaving the company altogether. NBA Elite was then reassigned from Canada to Tiburon, the home of the publisher’s Madden, NCAA Football and PGA Tour games. Finally, a few NBA Elite 11 discs do make it out into the wild; one gamer lands a retail copy from an eBay seller for $US255. Though it is indeed a terrible game, the cancellation places NBA Elite 11 in a pantheon of rare video game collectibles.

A Legend and a Phenomenon

Deepening EA Sports’ misery over NBA Elite’s failure to launch was the comprehensive excellence of its competitor, NBA 2K11, which proved to be a quantum leap even for the dominant performer in basketball video games. 2010 began with 2K Sports stealing back Mike Wang from EA Canada – NBA Live 10’s dramatic improvements had been credited to Wang’s one-year defection north. In mid-spring, 2K Sports revealed it had signed Michael Jordan as both a cover star and a playable athlete in-game; by E3, it was clear that Visual Concepts (2K’s in-house studio) had a monster game coming down the chute. The Jordan Challenge, a 10-game re-creation of His Airness’ most showstopping performances, tapped a reservoir of nostalgia across all sports fans, not just basketball diehards.

After the game’s launch, overall excitement and celebrity hype helped it remain a trending topic on Twitter for a solid week, practically unheard-of for any video game of any genre. For October, NBA 2K11 is the sales leader among all video games (counting sales on all platforms.) NBA 2K11 earned the first Editor’s Choice gold star ever awarded by Kotaku in its new review format, and later was nominated for overall Game of the Year alongside Call of Duty: Black Ops, Mass Effect 2 and Red Dead Redemption.

No More Free Passes

Electronic Arts’ “Project $10” comes home to roost for sports gamers in April, when EA Sports announces that multiplayer features beginning with Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11 will be accessible only through a one-use code shipping free in retail copies. Those who buy used games will have to pay $US10 over Xbox Live or PlayStation Network to activate the service. THQ actually rolls out the concept first with the May release of UFC Undisputed 2010, charging $US5 for its one-use code. THQ later ups the cost of its online access to $US10, beginning with WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2011. The lone holdout remains 2K Sports, though an executive admits the publisher is studying one-use codes for possible use in 2011. Overall, the codes seem to do little damage to the trade-in value of sports games, which have a greater turnover and utility to gamers in the used market.

Martial Arts Mix It Up

UFC Undisputed, sports gaming’s breakout hit of 2009, releases a strong sequel in May but it fails to deliver the splash of its predecessor – and nowhere near the sales. EA Sports pushes into this growth market with EA Sports MMA, a challenger licensed by the sport’s secondary promotion (Strikeforce). On the day it releases, however, THQ and the UFC – whose boss, Dana White, has long nursed a grudge against EA Sports – announce a new eight-year exclusive pact. EA Sports, undaunted, vows a sequel to its MMA title will come, but not in 2011. THQ, seeing little to gain from an annual release, likewise shifts its series to a two-year development cycle.

Contraction Pains

Mixed martial arts and pro basketball weren’t the only sports seeing changes or cancellations in their development plans. The year began with EA Sports’ NCAA Basketball officially getting pink-slipped. In a conversation at E3, EA Sports president Peter Moore acknowledged March Madness’ wide appeal, but cited the release date of college hoops’ video game and the sport’s short time atop the calendar as factors in the game’s weak sales. 2K Sports’ NHL series was rumoured to be dead at the beginning of the year; the publisher then revealed it would release a Wii version of the game for 2010 and retrench its core console development to come back with a title in 2011. NHL 2K11 fetches U.S. Olympic hero Ryan Kesler for its cover, but the series’ unchallenged status on the Wii comes to an end with NHL Slapshot from EA Sports, which ships with a hockey stick peripheral that 2K Sports was said to have sought originally but couldn’t get approved. NHL 2K11 releases two weeks before Slapshot, perhaps as a concession from the league.

All Politics Are Local

President Obama appears in not one but three sports video games in 2010 – in championship ceremonies for both Madden NFL 11 and NBA 2K11, and as an unlockable celebrity character in NBA Jam. Other politicians appearing in Jam include Vice Presidents Biden and Cheney, Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, Sen. John McCain and Bayonetta Sarah Palin. All Republicans appearing in NBA Jam are rated, perhaps not coincidentally, an 8 out of 10 in “steal”.

NBA Jam’s Sticky Return

Confirmed for the Wii early in 2010, enthusiasm for EA Sports’ reboot of NBA Jam dominates the sports discussion over the spring and summer. EA hires the series’ creator, Mark Turmell, and its original play-by-play voice, Tim Kitzrow, to bring back the boom-shakalaka. In the summer, EA Sports announces plans to include NBA Jam as a free download in retail copies of NBA Elite 11 for the Xbox 360 and PS3. But Elite’s late-October cancellation forces NBA Jam to a retail release about six weeks after the Wii version’s debut. Originally intended to include just multiplayer and two singleplayer modes, with the game’s “Remix Tour” to come later as paid DLC, NBA Jam on the PS3 and 360 instead ships with everything, and in high definition presentation, for $US50, the price of the Wii version. Rumours later circulate that EA Sports acquired the rights to NFL Blitz in the sell-off of Midway’s assets; Turmell also is the creator of that series, stoking speculation that Blitz may return in 2011 or 2012.

Fight Night Matures

The fifth installment of EA Sports’ boxing franchise will be unlike any other in the series – or in sports gaming. Announced in November, Fight Night Champion’s darker, story-driven “Champion” mode earns the game an M-rating, the first such title for EA Sports and believed to be the first in licensed sports video games. Champion, which will release March 1, will tell the story of Andre Bishop’s rise through the ranks of professional boxing, a journey that intersects with the sport’s seedy, manipulative characters, and even a stretch in prison.

Winning One For the Little Guys

Though THQ, 2K Sports and EA Sports dominate the sports game industry every year, some of 2010’s most newsworthy developments did not come from the big three. QuickHit Football, the free-to-play online American football simulation, lands a rare licence to use the National Football League’s teams and symbols – one of only two video games other than Madden with such branding. NLL Lacrosse 2010, which ships over the Xbox Live Indie Games channel, becomes the first indie game fully licensed by a professional sports league and also using its players’ likenesses.

Backbreaker, the console challenger to Madden, delivers a new gameplay perspective and ultra-realistic physics to the contact sport when it arrives in May. Critically panned at release, developer NaturalMotion Games regroups and delivers a patch that practically remakes the game by the time Madden NFL 11 ships in August. NaturalMotion sees more success with its Backbreaker iPhone apps, a port of the console game’s popular /”Tackle Alley” minigame. The U.K. based developer then confirms it is working on an ice hockey simulation, “Icebreaker/”.

Million-Dollar Baby

Coming off an abysmal showing with MLB 2K9, 2K Sports ramps up the publicity machine for MLB 2K10, laying out a $US1 million bounty for whomever throws the first perfect game (all 27 opposing batters retired without reaching base). The studio scores the heartwarming PR coup of 2010 when the winner turns out to be Wade McGilberry of Semmes, Alabama, an earnest, 23-year-old married man for whom a $US60 video game purchase is something of an extravagance in the household budget. Wade, who came home from work and twirled the perfecto on release day, declares the prize money will go to pay off the mortgage on their home. And, with the security of a seven-figure sum in a savings account, he and his wife, Katy, made plans to have their first child. “We were waiting for our finances to come together before we started,” Katy said. Thanks to a video game, “Now we can.”

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