What modern sports games tell us about competition in the market
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
There's been hubbub lately about Sony's upcoming baseball simulator MLB 13: The Show being, for the first time, the only baseball video game on the market. Sports video games, once a genre full of games made by competing companies in each sport, are nearly now down to a single game per sport. Want some NFL? Better play Madden. Want hockey? Better play NHL 13. Many people worry that this lack of competition in the annual sports game market will lead to studios getting lazy and publishing the same product year after year, since consumers have no other choice if they want to enjoy their preferred sport in virtual form.
Let's take a closer look at the last ten years of critical reception to sports video games. Any farther back and the market gets veritably flooded with other competing sports game franchises, many of which lasted only a year or two; the last decade has seen a relatively consistent market. I normally don't look at aggregate review scores to judge the quality of games, but annual sports games are a unique genre--objective improvement is slightly more conceivable here than in other types of games. All my statistics in this article are taken from the review aggregator site GameRankings.com.
We want to believe competition breeds innovation, right? Nobody likes monopolies. It's simple economics. The posterchild for this is the biggest sports game franchise in the United States, EA Sports' colossal Madden NFL series. While the series has gone downhill since 2004 when EA bought the exclusive rights to NFL video games, this may be the exception, not the rule, when it comes to the results of competition (or lack thereof) in sports games:
We talk about competition in football videogames like it was yesterday, but Madden has had nearly a decade on its own now. It's been a bumpy road that's never quite reached the glory days of a bygone gaming era. Much of players' anger directed at EA stems from the fact that rival 2K Sports ended its football career on a high note--the final game in the series, ESPN NFL 2K5, is considered by many fans to be the pinnacle of virtual gridiron.
2K Sports' pigskin franchise was a life cut tragically short by EA's multimillion dollar deal. So what did 2K do? They fired back, of course, by buying the exclusive rights to the next-biggest American sports league: Major League Baseball. But unlike EA's NFL deal, 2K didn't take into account that they only got exclusive third-party rights to MLB. The major console manufacturers are still allowed to internally develop their own pro baseball games, and that's exactly what Sony has done. Let's take a look:
2K managed to knock out EA's industry-leading MVP Baseball. But their MLB 2K series became lethargic, and Sony took advantage with its MLB: The Show franchise. Despite only being released on Sony's PlayStation consoles, The Show has effectively manhandled MLB 2K. The butt-whooping has been so extreme that when Sony releases its new game this March, 2K won't even publish a competitor. For the foreseeable future, you won't be able to play baseball in videogame form unless you own a Sony PlayStation. Despite 2K's exclusive license, it now seems Sony will have the monopoly on baseball in 2013.
While EA nudged out the competition in NFL games by playing dirty, they've conquered the competition the honest way when it comes to hockey:
It seems every time a new console generation is introduced, the tables are turned when it comes to competing sports games. In each of these charts, major changes occur between 2005 and 2006--the years that the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii were launched. Hockey games are the classic example of this. While EA had the upper hand in the Super Nintendo/Sega Genesis era with classics like NHL '94, 2K Sports took the advantage in the PlayStation/Nintendo 64 era with their NHL 2K series. Then, as we've seen since 2005-2006, EA steadily outpaced its competition once again, to the point where 2K stopped publishing hockey games last year. This isn't because of some devious scheme by EA, but simply because 2K delivered a vastly inferior product. In the years since the decline of NHL 2K, EA's series has remained steadfast in its quality.
Not only is this the only sport without a single change of advantage in the last decade, but the demise of EA's big-budget NBA Live made its already-dominant rival NBA 2K skyrocket in quality. This chart looks like a Newton's cradle, where the rising momentum of the struggling EA franchise in its dying years seems to carry over to 2K's series as NBA Live dies. EA has tried to reboot its basketball sim numerous times, but it's failed to deliver a product for the last three years. It'll be interesting to see if they can create something in the future.
[Also published on my personal blog, A Capital Wasteland]