Did Sports Video Games Really Get Any Better In 2012?

Did Sports Video Games Really Get Any Better In 2012?
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Earlier this week, Metacritic bemoaned 2012 as a year of poorer review scores for video games than the one preceding it. Fewer titles surpassed the all-important 90 — which practically guarantees job security to those who developed or greenlit the project — than in 2011. Interestingly, the three console platforms’ average review scores all improved slightly.

This isn’t proof of overall game quality any more than MVP voting is proof of overall player quality. If anything, it’s proof of how observers reacted to the product put on the field. But it made me curious enough to go digging into how sports video games were scored. And even then, the numbers were, on the surface, surprising.

On average, 78 sports games (this includes different platform versions of the same title) rated 74.19 this year, according to Metacritic. That’s up 6.4 points from 2011’s average of 68.10. The year before, sports video games averaged 67.10. (To clarify my methodology, I took anything that was classified sports by Metacritic, excluding iOS titles. To that I added any of THQ’s UFC and WWE licensed titles, and the F1 and NASCAR licensed racing games.)

To make sure I wasn’t crazy, I went to GameRankings. Measuring the same titles, it showed a smaller, but still significant increase of 5.83, from an average score of 69.23 in 2011 to 75.06 in 2012.

I know Madden was shades better in 2012 than the year before, but NCAA Football dropped about as much as its pro football sibling improved. Of the Big Four — the year-in, year-out Great Sports Games — FIFA and NBA 2K performed roughly the same in review scores while MLB The Show and NHL dipped by similar amounts.

It’s true that 2012 saw great games like UFC Undisputed 3 and SSX which didn’t appear in 2011. And series like Pro Evolution Soccer and WWE made modest but noteworthy gains. But 2011 had Top Spin 4, to 2012’s mediocre Grand Slam Tennis 2. And we also saw a slew of licensed Olympics video games that weren’t worth anyone’s time.

Did I miss something? Didn’t we just not award a Sports Video Game of the Year? Isn’t this the year in which no one is taking any risks?

Yes, actually. And that lack of risk taking in part accounts for the overall rise.

In tallying sports game reviews, it’s the cold souls who count most.

I’ve written about this before: Sports video game publishing is in a war of attrition. Licensing costs are not going down; development costs only rise, and now must straddle the next console generation, expected to be announced at E3, if not on shelves by November. The high licensing costs, and the modern phenomenon of exclusive deals, keep fewer publishers out of the real moneymaking end of a shrinking business. The high development costs and the repeated failure of alternatives without no league logo mean no one is really willing to go into sports publishing without them. Remember Backbreaker? Tecmo Bowl Throwback? All-Pro Football 2K8 or Blitz: The League II? All of these were PS3 and Xbox 360 games, but it feels like they came out a generation ago.

So the improvement of sports video games — well, in their critical scores anyway — is more in cutting dead weight than actual improvement among its annual titles. We don’t score reviews here at Kotaku (and, really, I thank Brian Crecente for that every time I write one), but we know readers feel there’s grade inflation going on, where a 7.5 is a disappointment, and an 8 is average. Others who must score reviews do, too. NBA 2K is one of the do-no-wrong series in sports gaming. But it was given a 70 by the guy who organizes the sports video gaming panel show I appear on biweekly. Another colleague’s publication gave it the same mark.

What does this mean for 2013? Well, it starts off on even better footing, considering MLB 2K had seven editions and the best of them last year couldn’t bust 70. Considering the upheaval at THQ, you can probably drop any WWE titles from the discussion, too. But you also won’t see anything from Fight Night, one of the most consistent and well regarded sports series over the past decade. EA Sports is busy with putting out an MMA title, a sport with which it fared only so-so back in 2010.

There’ll be no SSX or Top Spin, a boutique title but one that always did well. Spinoffs like NFL Blitz won’t be available. FIFA can’t put out a World Cup edition for another year, either. In dropping from 111 sports titles reviewed in 2010, to 96 in 2011 and 78 in 2012, it seems the surest path to addition is by subtraction.


    • Not sure exactly what you’re referring to here. I’ve actually been playing MyCareer in 2k13 for the last week or so, and haven’t had to spend a dollar. I wasn’t even aware you could buy VC until after I read your comment.

        • What kind of significant progress are you being impeded by here? Is it a “lack of minutes, thus a lack of VC, thus not getting your skills up to help gain more minutes” vicious circle?

          Because if it is, I don’t think blaming it all on the VC/skills is an issue. There may be a number of factors at play. It could be the team you are on, I.E. the positional battle you are dealing with might be easier on another team.

          What I found for me was it was my shooting stroke/animation – nothing do with skill points. I couldn’t score enough to drag myself out of Sixth Man territory for most of the season until I decided to play around with different animations. I finally found one where the release suited my timing and I could hit buckets at a much higher percentage, even shots I had fairly low ratings for, and the rest is history: moved to Starter, won ROY and just won the title in my first season (soured by the fact that Finals home court advantage was swapped because of a bug, meaning we had it when we shouldn’t have).

        • Significant progress can be made easily though. Like I said, I’ve been playing for about a week now, and wasn’t even aware micro-transactions existed. Without that knowledge I’ve become a starter for the Magic, with more minutes than any other player on the team. I wouldn’t say that lack of VC is where the issue lies here.

          • I played for a solid month (pre patch) (Real Time), averaged 30pts, 9ast per game. I could never get past 6th man, then when I signed a STAR contract for a new team I was a role player. Tried this with two other characters in different positions same thing situation happened again.

            *also my understanding is post patch you get more VC per game now, but the blacktop loophole is fixed
            *the first PC version was actually recalled in Australia… But PC users were still screwed over…

          • as for post patch I played 5 full games as my pg got A ratings, 35pts+ each game, 8+assists and 4stls per game playing time decreased…

          • I’m not sure about patches, I am playing on Steam and haven’t seen any actual updates via Steam, though I do get the in-game ones like rosters, and the shoes, etc. as mentioned. I bought the game on release, which on Steam was the end of October and played MyPlayer immediately.

            I can’t find the version number anywhere in-game, sorry. I was just checking the files to see is there was a changelog text file in there and found something really interesting. There are data files for All-Star game transitions, dunk contest transitions, 3pt shootout, etc. so the data might actually be there for PC users, it’s just locked out in-game! Very curious… all of the Blacktop 3-on-3 files are there as well… What the hell 2K?

          • PS. I would totally pay for DLC to bring these features in, even if the dunk contest is just a bad imitation of Guitar Hero. Make it happen 2K!

    • I think what’s even more shameful is how cut down it is for PC users…

      At least you get the option of having VC!

      There are NO All-Star weekend/events, NO MyTeam mode with the cards, NO branded gear stores, NO earning VC in multiplayer to add to your MyPlayer stats.

      We still have the “pick the winners” minigame during breaks but it serves absolutely no purpose. Oh and I guess one upside is that we do get new shoes such as the Xmas day editions/new releases but even on that front they couldn’t get it right. The various Christmas Day uniforms show up as textureless white outfits.

      It is a horribly unfair situation that shouldn’t be happening. I still love it and play it to death but it pains me to know what else I am missing out on.

          • Nope…

            Also I very rarely bother with sports game for my PC (minus FM, and other text based management games from the guys at wolverine studios and greydog software). in fact the last basketball title I played on PC was live 06… which in my view was the last good EA basketball game…

          • Well, when you don’t own a console, you can’t exactly make the choice!

            There should be no major reason why the versions are different on either medium, but it is what it is, I suppose. I am already missing out on my other favourite sports game, NHL, because of this notion that PC gamers don’t play sports games, so I’d at least like the ones that are on there to be fully featured (Case in point: the PES series have always been very solid on PC, nothing lacking and even with the option to fully overhaul the licenses and everything thanks to the modding scene. Too bad 2K and EA don’t bother).

  • I still really want backbreaker to happen and actually deliver on its potential. A sporting game with no pre recorded footage for all collisions, just amazing. Slo Motion of that game truly made me feel like the next gen was finally here. I will admit that the core gameplay fell short of expectations and as a result failed, but man it was still amazing to play something that dared to take risks and try something differrent. Kinda like when skate came around when tony hawk was all we had before it..

    I want that feeling again and while I don’t play sports titles, taking more risks would certainly make me consider it.. Unfortunately, I get the business and as is always the case, risks cost money and that gamble is not worth it for most if not all publishers out there…

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