Are Sports Video Games Worth Reviewing Any More?

Earlier this week I got several versions of a small talk question I always field this time of year: "I haven't played Madden in X years. Should I buy it this year?"

To me, that's no longer even a relevant question for this or for any sports video game. The real question, and its answer, make me wonder if they are worth reviewing any more.

The way I see it, the real question now is simply "Do you want to play NFL football this year?" Or "Do you want to play NBA basketball?" "Do you want to play the NHL, or the NCAA?" Or do you want to box, swing a folding chair in the WWE or swing a golf club on the PGA Tour? Because in all of those cases, on consoles -- by far the dominant sports gaming platform -- you have only one option today.

If that's the case, I have to ask what the bother is with appraising these games, because there's nothing to compare them against, except previous versions of themselves. These are by definition iterative products. Provided the game's makers have not completely screwed up and made the gameplay worse, then the game is on a fundamental level better and worth buying over any predecessor, because it carries accurate rosters, the latest uniform changes, and other details delivering the authenticity a sports gamer prizes.

Problem is, that's not a feature, it's an expectation. That's the "roster update" slur, hurled predominantly by people who have no intention of buying or even playing sports video games. We'll see it in about a dozen comments below from those who also had no intention of even reading this far before mouthing off. (Right after the dozen or so about NFL 2K5). Even so, I'm certainly not going to stake a positive review to the presence of such a baseline expectation.

For Madden no one else did, either.

It wasn't a stellar week for the game. It is isn't cherry-picking to cite Madden NFL 12's 80 Metacritic average when such a source is constantly mentioned by Electronic Arts executives as a measure of their games' quality. After 22 reviews—and we don't score ours, so what I have to say Tuesday will not move the pile -- the grade is in. This is the lowest-rated edition on this console generation since Madden NFL 07 five years ago.

Facing a league lockout that would chill casual fans' enthusiasm, Madden 12 sought to consolidate its position with diehards who wanted any NFL they could get. They were rewarded with long-requested features, from esoteric mechanisms like an accurate injured reserve list to the means to police cheating and bad behaviour online, through the new Online Communities.

Still, in what Madden NFL 12 does well, it is largely a refinement of a past version. You can do that when you're refining an already highly regarded product. FIFA 11, MLB 11: The Show and NHL 11 demonstrate this. Madden 12 attempted to do so against much more critical scepticism, thanks largely to its exclusive licence from the NFL, and it did not go well.

Despite the lower score, nothing in the reviews I have read, and certainly nothing in the game I have played for nearly two weeks, and wrote over 9000 words about this week, suggests that Madden NFL 12 in any way plays worse than Madden 11. It is, visually, still a beautiful game. It may still do infuriating things with its linebackers and still make some boneheaded run-blocking decisions. I still can't return a punt more than 10 yards, but I've dealt with these things for years. With the exception of the commentary, which took a completely mystifying step back from last year's game, the lower scores mostly reflect a disappointment in something the game didn't do, not something it did wrong.

I've written before that Madden probably suffers in these subjective appraisals more because there's nothing to compare it against. A lack of a better competitor may mean it gets an 80 instead of a 75. It also means the game really has no shot at a 90 unless it reinvents itself. And after what happened with NBA Elite I doubt anyone at EA Sports has much stomach for trying to reinvent another title, much less one of Madden's importance.

But the issue isn't really peculiar to Madden either. As I said above, NHL, MLB: The Show and FIFA's most recent editions were all very well regarded. NHL is also the only licensed simulation in its sport. MLB: The Show, is a de facto exclusive product on the PS3 thanks to MLB 2K's repeated disappointments. FIFA likewise towers over Pro Evolution Soccer. In the few instances where there are direct competitors, the gulf is so wide that the reviews of the dominant product make no comparisons to the runner-up.

***

So what's the point? Increasingly, the criticism of these games comes down to comparing it to the previous year's edition, and increasingly that means trying to justify a great or even good game by evaluating subtle changes, like the end of "suction blocking," for whether they're landmark achievements.

Reviewers have to justify the two weeks they spent playing the game. Developers have to justify the year they spent building it. Marketers have to justify the millions spent flogging it, and lifers have to justify the $US60 they just plunked down, knowing they had just as many options if it was a crummy game as they did with a good game.

I think that all gets in the way of a question the consumer can answer without all of that noise: Are you ready for some football?

Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games.


Comments

    Certain people only 'upgrade' sports titles every two years, because thats when they seem to do sweeping upgrades to the game/engine/gameplay. Instead of just the yearly tweaks + list updates.

    Reviews are only worth doing if there's a direct competitor in that same sport ie; Fifa and Winning 11/Pro Evolution Soccer.

    Not for sports like maddern which no other company except for EA decides to bother making into a game.

    Madden is a good example of why you can't put too much faith in reviews. It's a game where reviewers, who probably don't really care too much for the sport or game, just regard it as a roster update. I often see them give the game a lower score simply because there "aren't any new modes".

    I've said it before and I'll say it again, how many more modes could you possibly tack onto an NFL game that leans more to simulation than to arcade "Blitz The League" type gameplay?

    Reviewing sports games is still useful though, when you get a reviewer who is actually worthy of the title. It's nice to hear about the new changes from someone who will actually appreciate them and notice them.

    Want more awesome sports games. Like Deathrow. And Jet Set Radio Future. Why sports game devs limit themselves to recreating existing events at real-world locations is beyond me.

    I'd be so much more inclined to play a game that's basically tennis if the field was different and there were shiny lights and a storyline or something. Sorta like Unreal Championship 2's storyline, maybe?

      Because some people are sports fans. I love nhl 11, one of my fave games from last year, awesome fun to play and insane balanced. Now for a proper rugby league game (rugby league live was awful).
      in saying that, i have deathrow, jet set and aggresive inline and their all fun, but only deathrow is what i'd call a sports game.

        Rugby league live was awful. Made me wish my ps3 was backwards compatitable so i could play rugby league 2 on ps2.

          After playing the NHL 12 demo, I can't play NHL 11 again. I played the he'll out of NHL 11. This years game is a huge improvemen over last years.

          Agreed. The game was an embarrassment but similarly to the AFL games, there is just not a market that justifies a large production budget. Sucks.

      No offense, but I doubt anyone seriously considers JSRF a sports game.

    If they're not worth reviewing, then it follows that they're not worth playing, and then it follows that they're not worth being made.

    I would argue that these games are worthwhile - maybe if the author doesn't need a review of them, surely a fact-sheet on each release would be essential.

      Actually a simple facts sheet would be extremely welcome. We could see a list of things done better, things done worse and changes - be they good or bad.

      Something like this would be a much better way for people who play iterative products like Madden to make an informed decision.

    I stand by the fact that Madden 09 was still the best madden I've played. 10 and 11 don't do the series justice

    I kind of scoffed at the title after what happened at Gamescom.

    Fifa 12 beat out Mass Effect 3, Uncharted 3 and Bioshock Infinite to take Best Console Game.

    So are sports games worth reviewing? Uhhh... Obviously?

    Event sports games, like say, UFC2010, UFC3, are. Why? Because they're not rushed out. They take time, polish them, release a game that plays differently each time, for the fans.

    Madden? No. Why? Because as has been said many a time, its an incremental upgrade every year, it feels like its only ever changed every five years or so.

    I find reviewers comparing these sports games against their previous editions is handy as I own most of the EA/2K "11 series". I have my own opinions of these games and will know if its worth upgrading to the various 2012 versions. It doesn't particularly matter to me that there are few competitors to place the games against; people just want to know if the game will run smoothly, look good, and most importantly be enjoyable. I do like Awnshegh's idea of a simple table of what is better and what is not.

    I just bought MLB 10 as it's so cheap now that it's "old".

    What a great game. I played it for hours.

    "A lack of a better competitor may mean it gets an 80 instead of a 75. It also means the game really has no shot at a 90 unless it reinvents itself."

    I pray for the day gaming journalists the world over collectively decide to do away with review score system, forcing the lazy and the thick to actually read the review and properly gauge whether a game is for them.

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