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Can Anything Topple Sports Gaming's Mount Rushmore?

Operation Sports

Can Anything Topple Sports Gaming's Mount Rushmore?

They say nothing lasts forever, but if you were to take a close look at the landscape in sports gaming today, you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

As we enter the final days of 2019, this decade is ending exactly as it began. Okay, maybe not culturally, politically or socially. But the stuff that really matters — triple A sports games in the big four North American sports (football, basketball, baseball and hockey) — remain identical to what we played back in 2010.

(Yes, FIFA is the one of the three biggest sports in terms of video games, but I’m still going to use hockey here to be consistent with history. Plus, it’s the only one with legitimate competition right now.)

The big guns in each of the four sports, the games that make up modern sports gaming’s Mount Rushmore, remain unchanged and largely unchallenged.

EA’s NHL series started the decade with a strong competitor in 2K Sports’ NHL 2K series, but when 2K pulled the plug on its hockey title in 2011, EA spent the remainder of the decade with no real competition. That is a far cry from the halcyon days of the ’90s when series like NHL Powerplay and NHL FaceOff legitimately pushed EA’s titles, at least in terms of quality and innovation.

Like NHL, MLB The Show started the decade with some competition in the form of the MLB 2K franchise, but that series died in 2013 and The Show has truly been the only show in town ever since. RBI Baseball emerged as a new (rebooted) entrant late in the decade, but to date it’s been little challenge to The Show.

NBA 2K spent the entire decade as the undisputed king of simulation basketball games while EA’s NBA Live series spent much of the same period in a state of perpetual ambiguity, cycling between cancellation and retooling before ending the decade as it began: canceled amid vague promises of a triumphant return somewhere down the line.

And, of course, the granddaddy of all sports simulations, EA’s Madden series, has been on top since the days of 16-bit consoles. Even the legendary NFL 2K5 is now 15 years in the rear-view mirror. Thanks to its stranglehold on the NFL license, EA’s juggernaut just continues to roll on even as many gamers would welcome some new competition in the sport.

Several console generations ago, it was routine to have two, three and sometimes four quality titles to pick from in any of the big four sports in any given year. Games like NFL GameDay, High Heat Baseball, All-Star Baseball, NBA In The Zone, NFL Fever, NFL Quarterback Club and so many others are now simply footnotes in the video game history books. However, there was a time when they presented gamers with legitimate alternatives to the industry leaders.

The real question is can we really expect anything to be any different 10 years from now?

Common sense would suggest we should. After all, technology will naturally evolve dramatically in that time. The power at the disposal of developers will absolutely dwarf what’s available on today’s PCs, PlayStation 4s, Xbox Ones and Switches. Things like VR and improving televisions, to make no mention of technologies we can’t even anticipate yet, will undoubtedly change the way we consume and interact with our games.

And yet it’s hard to foresee any of the current market leaders being toppled. The dynamics of sports game development, with exclusive — and prohibitively expensive — licenses and the requirement for huge teams and even bigger budgets to create the photo-realism demanded by today’s gamers, means upstart developers simply cannot compete on an equal footing.

Which means it would likely require an established publisher to take a run at the Maddens and NBA 2Ks of the world, but even that would require deep pockets and a lot of patience. After all, even Konami has been trying to take down FIFA for years now with only a modicum of success.

Of the four, Madden seems the least likely to be taken down, simply by virtue of the exclusive license it enjoys. It’s hard to imagine EA giving that up, and until that happens it seems like a safe bet Madden will continue to be the default for simulation football games.

Both NBA 2K and MLB The Show have such massive leads in terms of both sales and overall quality that it’s hard to believe either will be usurped any time soon.

That leaves the NHL series as perhaps the most vulnerable of the four. However, even NHL has an enormous head start over any potential rival, and hockey games don’t sell nearly as many units as any of the other three sports so it might be a less attractive target as a result.

It’s impossible to predict what the world will look like in 2030 (it’s not a simple assignment to guess what it might look like in 2020 these days), but it seems entirely reasonable to believe the majority of sim gamers will be playing Madden 30, NBA 2K30, MLB The Show 29 and NHL 30 a decade from now.

Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing remains to be seen.

What are your thoughts? Do you see any of the current leaders getting bumped from the top spot in the next decade? If so, which one and why?

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  1. As evidenced by the NBA Live debacle - it's really, really hard to bring a AAA title to the market - especially considering all the complexities associated with next-gen consoles.  The reason the Mount Rushmore hasn't changed is because those companies have had over a decade-plus to tweak the game with full resources devoted to it.

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