It drives me nuts every time I hear it. A professional athlete delivers a gobsmacking statistical performance, whether for a single game or a longer span, and a commentator or a columnist inevitably describes him as "putting up video game numbers." When the Texas Rangers' Josh Hamilton unloaded nine home runs and 15 RBI in a week — in any postseason series, both figures would set records — we heard it again. The cliché says this type of feat is only seen on your living room couch. And if that's the case, I'd like to ask what game is being played. Because it's not really the state of the licensed sports video game market at present.
In one realm, we are a long way from the days of R.B.I. Baseball or Hardball!, in which a game that aspired to simulation quality, played on standard difficulty, regularly delivered 10-run, 20-hit games for human-run teams, and human-controlled players could finish a season with 100 stolen bases and home runs.
Bot more importantly, in another, arcade-style and secondary licensed titles are becoming less common, thanks to production costs and customer expectations that naturally increase as the gaming hardware gets more advanced. 2K Sports' inability to make enough money even with something well regarded like The Bigs is a reason many expect the label's parent to soon declare it will part ways with Major League Baseball after seven years. In fact, that could come during Take-Two Interactive's quarterly investor call on Tuesday.
Let's go back to 2004, the last year before exclusive licenses spoiled the buffet of options for sports video gamers. In that year alone, EA Sports released two versions of NFL Street. Midway, now defunct, published NBA Ballers and MLB SlugFest: Loaded.
The year before, 2003, had seen NBA Street 2 from EA and NHL Hitz Pro NFL Blitz Pro and another Slugfest from Midway. In a two-year stretch, the four major North American sports leagues combined for seven titles, all of them alternate arcade-style offerings.
These were the halcyon days of sports video gaming, for reasons more than just MVP Baseball and NFL 2K5 and the fact Madden was, yes, very good. So what happened?
• Sports leagues started realising the value of their licence. The exclusive licence the NFL sold to EA Sports in 2004 is best known for killing off NFL 2K. But then Major League Baseball followed suit with the third-party exclusive it granted to 2K Sports, and the NBA for a time was said to be considering the same approach, later backing away. A broad effect of this shift was to drive out both the means and the will for competitors to get a cut of the action through arcade-style offerings
• For the licence holders, better hardware made the bets more expensive and riskier, in addition to the premium paid on getting the rights. Just as the MLB and NFL exclusives were taking shape, the Xbox 360 released, and it caught both EA Sports and 2K Sports flatfooted in their NFL and MLB offerings on it. As the major labels struggled to shore up disappointing simulation offerings, there were no licensed arcade-style sports titles for the Xbox 360 in its first year of release. In its debut year, the PS3 got NBA Street Homecourt and The Bigs. The rise in production costs has helped create a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby the only labels that can afford to strike a licensing deal are also the only ones that can afford to make them look any good. A tanking economy has taken care of the stragglers.
•Finally, the dilution of the arcade-style sports catalog has a lot to do with leagues being more circumspect about how they are presented in video games. These are, necessarily, outlandish affairs. I am still astonished at how the NBA lifestyle was depicted in NBA Ballers, not because it was offensive — but because of how sensitive that league has since become to its players' conspicuous displays of wealth, power and fame. NFL Blitz was driven away by the league's exclusive deal; when Blitz returned, the league forbade late hits, owing to the increased scrutiny of concussions and head injuries in the meantime.
*** The next console generation is practically assured by 2014. Scuttlebutt suggests that all the major developers have the kits in their studios. I've been told more than once that EA Sports' biggest priority is not getting caught out, like it did in 2005 and 2006 with the Xbox 360, a shift that dealt cruel blows to both Madden and NBA Live.
What does that mean for the diversity of offerings? In one sense, it would suggest that secondary titles like NBA Jam are going to take a powder while a publisher gets everything right with the main product — especially as smartphone gaming has emerged as a cheaper development alternative still delivering profitable add-on products for a licence holder.
But if you look at where arcade-style games have published lately — NHL 3-on-3, NBA Jam: On Fire Edition and NFL Blitz, it's mostly been as downloadable titles. FIFA Street, reviewed poorly, may be the last licensed arcade title to release on a disc. And it's a mortal lock that the next console generation is going to drive even more first-run content, if not all of it, to the consumer through digital distribution. This wasn't fully in place as the PS3 and 360 got off the ground.
We won't see the diversity of offerings that we did in console sports gaming's golden age. But the frequency of alternate titles may pick up as the prestige of being stamped on a disc becomes decreasingly relevant. Whatever hardware will be announced, if any, at E3 in two weeks, this bears watching.