If it wasn’t obvious at its launch in November, then this past week should have made it clear: The Wii U is functionally irrelevant to sports video games, and there is no reason for any sports fan to buy the console. The only question now is how much that will really matter to the fate of the machine.
Several intemperate, since-deleted tweets from an EA Sports software architect on Friday, slamming the Wii U as “crap,” and Nintendo as a console-maker with a self-centered, stone-age approach, may cause that guy a lot of trouble internally. I doubt he loses his job for it. Words are but the skin of thoughts, and he’s worked with EA Sports for a very long time. For termination to be on the table, he’d have to be jeopardizing some productive and profitable working relationship with such candid and unauthorised remarks. If EA’s own official and authorised statements preceding the outburst are any indication, then none exists. Alienating the Nintendo constituency, however sensitive it may be, is meaningless if you’re not even making games for it to buy.
And Electronic Arts isn’t. The world’s largest maker and seller of sports video games straight up told Kotaku on Thursday it has not a thing in development for the Wii U. Then, to Eurogamer on Friday, an official company statement blamed the “disappointing” sales performance of FIFA 13 on the Wii U as the reason the series wouldn’t make another version for the console. Madden was confirmed out a couple of weeks before that. Elsewhere, NBA 2K14 remains “TBA” for its release in October, with WWE 2K14 specifically named for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 only.
Despite the Wii’s stepchild status in the core-gaming discussion for the past eight years, it still had a more meaningful presence in the sports genre in any year than its high-definition successor does in its debut, especially in the sports where its motion controller was naturally suited. Yes, EA Sports embarrassed itself with outsourced, de-rigeur ports of its team sports franchises like Madden — not to mention last year’s scandalously retreaded FIFA 13, in some ways worse than what MLB 2K13 attempted to pass off. Still, Tiger Woods PGA Tour‘s Wii version was, through 2011, the critical winner against all other platforms; Grand Slam Tennis — remember that old thing? — had a solid Wii-only release in 2011 before it thudded on the core consoles in 2012. Today, if you want to play golf or tennis on the Wii U — not an unreasonable expectation given the Wii brand’s whitebread family reputation — you have to do it with a used copy of Wii Sports or Wii Sports Resort.
Even ice hockey, in 2010, was once a hot topic on the Wii. Three years ago, 2K Sports scrapped its NHL 2K series but stuck with its Wii edition because, despite being a standard-definition port of a team simulation, it still sold well with Canadian mums. That year, EA Sports decided to horn in on the turf with NHL Slapshot, featuring a mini-hockey stick peripheral that I still love fooling with. At E3 2010, I asked a 2K Sports representative why they didn’t try the same thing, given the explosion of cheap plastic peripherals on that console. “Oh, we tried,” he groaned. Nintendo just didn’t dig their pitch. Along came EA Sports though, with clout and cash, and they got approval. Anecdotally, it speaks to the arbitrary success and failure awaiting third-party publishers, going back generations, on platforms built by Nintendo, for Nintendo.
Does any of this really matter? Nintendo may have done just fine, going back to the DS, with a platform suited only to one developer — itself. But even if cartoony sports offerings like EA’s embarrassing All-Play series, or token “core” games like The Conduit, Red Steel or Madworld, were sales losers — as the EA Sports tweeter obstreperously, and correctly, reminded us — their presence nominally bootstrapped the Wii to a high-definition hardware generation in which it did not belong.
Now, two days before Microsoft unveils its next console, with EA and EA Sports removing its Nintendo commitment — and 2K Sports sure to follow — the Wii U does not even have that. If the Wii U wasn’t faced with being a technological backwater after two years, it’s looking at being a niche platform in its first. Sure, Sega — and God, after Aliens: Colonial Marines, what a desperate operation that must be right now — locked arms with Nintendo for three exclusive Sonic the Hedgehog titles on Wii U. That means a treacly minigame collection like Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games is the only licensed sports title, for the foreseeable future, on the Wii U.
I wish it did not come to this. Despite the tone of my remarks above, the only two pieces of gaming hardware I have bought, with my own money, on their day of release are the Wii U and the 3DS — and I recently upgraded to a 3DS XL. As I have written, if the Wii U GamePad was properly used, it could be a godsend in the sports genre — as a yardage book in Tiger Woods PGA Tour; as a recruiting notebook in NCAA Football; as a whiteboard on the sideline in NBA 2K14. Menu sludge is a plague to sports unlike any other genre, and Lord knows how it could help streamline storylines and matchmaking in WWE‘s career modes.
Maybe this would work if Nintendo was the only, or the clearly dominant console maker, and games were developed for it and then ported to other hardware with the unique features stripped out. Those days are gone forever. Console publishing today is like a series of high-class parties on the same night. Sure, you can have a strict dress code. The B-list guests will be there if they they can wear the same outfit from another event. The A-list will be there if it’s worth being seen.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku’s column on sports video games. It appears Sundays.