Around halftime of a game on an NFL Sunday is a good time to take the temperature of the Madden NFL crowd. It's like the water department analysis that shows everyone flushing the john when the Super Bowl goes to the break. In this case, online gamers, many of whom have their consoles running and connected to the servers throughout, often jump in for a quick match during the network highlights and recaps. Here was the picture on the Xbox 360 at midafternoon: 31,080 Madden players connected to the EA Sports servers; 2,978 were in a game. On the Wii U: 42 were online. One was in a game.
It may be an off-peak time, and it may be a version releasing three months after the game's main launch. The numbers still aren't good. That's forty-two people in North America playing Madden NFL 13 on a Sunday on the Wii U.
While the Wii was probably the worst console of all time for sports video game development, I don't see much in the Wii U's current offerings — all of three simulation sports — that makes its high-definition successor any more of a full partner in the same landscape. And as we're soon embarking on another console generation, possibly next year, signs point to the Wii U being, like the Wii, left behind as soon as it arrives, with third-party titles mostly there because it's one of the few viable extra products their publisher can sell under licence.
The three games in question aren't bad. But they aren't exceptional, either, despite the new capabilities the Wii U GamePad should offer. The lack, so far, of any in-game microtransaction support also means the one thing they have in common — Madden NFL and FIFA's Ultimate Team, and NBA 2K's new MyTeam — is absent. These modes drive more than online participation, they're responsible — in EA's case, anyway — for huge growth in new revenue streams, the kind that get investors' attention when traditional sales are suffering across the industry.
Until that comes aboard, sports video game publishers won't have much interest beyond planting the flag on this platform, and the feature set in the current releases unfortunately show this. Though FIFA makes the greatest use of the GamePad by allowing you to send attackers on runs with it, and Madden's byzantine pre-snap commands are intuitively simplified, almost across the board the console's main distinguishing feature is under-used. NBA 2K13 makes the least use of the second screen of the three.
It especially disappoints me that Madden makes no application of the GamePad beyond in-game playcalling. Because EA Sports appeared with Nintendo on stage at E3 2011 to talk about Madden for the Wii U, we can reasonably assume this title had a two-year development window, whether or not EA Sports chose to use all of it. For a game given to menu sludge, almost unavoidably, much of the player management, scouting and draft tasks would seem well suited to the notepad-like quality of the GamePad, a second source to check before pulling the trigger. But Madden uses none of this potential.
If it took any steps in this direction, it could be a preferred play option — especially in singleplayer franchises — despite the lack of realtime physics and aggravating framerate drops with every snap. I still don't know if EA Sports will put the Infinity Engine into this game next year, because Nintendo has been so cagey with its machine's computing power. Hell, it removed the means to see all of the machine's specifications with the Wii U's first firmware update.
That last quality speaks to the real barrier for sports video games on the Wii U, as it raises the ages-old complaint that Nintendo offers an outstanding platform — for Nintendo. Which doesn't make sports video games. Not the licensed simulations that define so much of the genre, anyway. The games the Wii U has are plainly ports of existing games built on engines that are years old. Even though these are the launch offerings, they won't be remade anytime soon. Outside of adaptations like EA Sports' regrettable All-Play series for the Wii, I couldn't name for you the last licensed sports title built specifically for a Nintendo platform. And I can't foresee any future instance of one, either, not with two new consoles getting ready to eat up escalating development costs.
While it is, at last, a high definition experience under the Nintendo nameplate, I'm not optimistic that sports video gaming will be much better than a stepchild on the Wii U, as it was on the Wii. Not when there are a total of 86 players online, right now, in FIFA 13 on the Wii U. Not when Cabela's Dangerous Hunts has a larger Miiverse community than NBA 2K13. And not when you've got one person in all of North America in Madden searching for an opponent on an NFL Sunday. For all I know, that person may have been me.