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Traditional Sports Gaming is Threatened by Microtransactions


Traditional Sports Gaming is Threatened by Microtransactions

Developers continue to face the same conundrum. Do they continue to feed the purists and supply resources to classic, traditional game modes? Or should they continue to invest heavily into microtransaction-based features that exceedingly impact the bottom line.

You could make the argument that there are two types of “sports gamers” in this world now. There are competitors and there are “sims” — for lack of a better term. One embraces sports gaming as a competitive field (ironically a sport, if you will). The “sims” group embraces sports gaming and its titles for the opportunity to re-create reality as they so choose with modes like season and franchise. Surely there’s a spectrum there, and the two are not mutually exclusive, but for this exercise let’s say most gamers fall somewhere along a sliding scale.

Where We Were

For many years, gamers didn’t have readily available competition at their fingertips at all times. The only head-to-head competition happened when two opponents were seated next to each other. Modes like season, franchise, career and playoffs were how gamers were able to fall in love with a game. Creating fantasy teams and grooming them to immortality was how they’d get their fix. Creating themselves and leading their character through a professional career helped make impossible dreams come true.

Games were $60. End of story. You got the full experience with your initial purchase. Anything a developer had to offer came with your one-time purchase. But developers were being dealt a tough hand with the recycled games market and rental services featured at places like Blockbuster.

Fast forward some years, and now more than ever developers are electing to pour their resources into modes that profit off in-game microtransactions. This is a new era in gaming. On one hand, it’s a newfound revenue stream for developers and gaming is healthier than it’s ever been in some respects. On the other, traditional offline game modes have become stagnant. The obvious question begs, is this the new normal?

Where We Are

Electronic Arts and specifically Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11 introduced the world to Online Pass, a $10 one-time pass code to “premium online services, features and bonus content.” The snowball was officially rolling down the hill. Online Pass was a way for EA to still profit on a market marginalized by users sharing secondhand games. This pass would ensure EA at least a $10 purse for any user who wanted to play online and take in the full experience a game had to offer. The brand-new copies of their games would include this one-time code, but subsequent users of these purchased products would need to pony up. This was the first time, at least in sports titles, that additional funds were required to play a console game to its fullest potential — assuming we don’t count something like paying for Xbox Live as a whole.

In 2009, we were introduced to the world to Ultimate Team and card packs. By 2011, EA had made it possible to use real-world currencies to purchase in-game packs and players on games like Madden and FIFA. While earning Madden Ultimate Team coins and FIFA Ultimate Team coins organically through in-game play was very much encouraged, the ability to buy packs with cash was a brand-new concept. This was the first opportunity for users to engage in pay-to-win tactics to gain a competitive advantage in online play.

Users could power up their respective teams with better cards and better players to gain the competitive edge. And they did.

Where We’re Going

Skip ahead seven years, and things are accelerating.

With the added supplemental revenue, it’s hard to envision developers moving away from a landscape peppered with microtransaction opportunities. Loot boxes and card packs have been criticized and labeled as gambling by some entities, but it doesn’t appear they’re going anywhere anytime soon, at least not in the United States.

According to EA’s annual report from 2017, in-game microtransactions spent on live services accounted for 69.3 percent of all EA revenue. A glaring example, the purchase of FIFA points, accounted for 11 percent of EA’s total sales numbers for 2017. That’s roughly $500 million spent on FIFA points. For some perspective, EA released 11 titles in 2017.

Another roughly $150 million was brought in on Madden Ultimate Team.

In a 2018 interview with Trusted Reviews, Rob Jones, NBA 2K19 Senior Producer, spoke about microtransactions in the current landscape:

“Every game, at some point, in some way has currency and they’re trying to get additional revenue from each player that plays the game. You know, the question has to be when does it feel like it’s a straight money grab versus when does it feel like it’s value added, right?”

Games are not “forcing” you to move up in the virtual world. They are not forcing you to spend your money on card packs, or in-game basketball shoes or marketplace additions. But when so many consumers are doing just that, it’s easy to find yourself falling behind, or at least feeling like it. And that feeling can be accelerated when your team can’t compete with “super teams” that have been purchased. From there the pressure mounts, and then many of us cave. We’re human.

The microtransaction train is here, and it’s only gaining steam. When games like Fortnite are generating hundreds of millions of dollars each month, developers are going to take notice. You better believe leadership from those companies is going to impose outlandish budgets. The fact of the matter is, the complete experience is no longer a $60 endeavor. It is a subscription. It’s a monthly stipend.

So where does this leave modes like franchise? Or Connected Careers? What about Road to the Show? Well, in lesser ways, microtransactions have become a piece of those modes as well. Make your job easier as a GM by purchasing in-game “shortcuts” to quicker success. Buy new cleats that boost your player and his offline career. Pay for the ability to negotiate trades or make signing free agents easier. The options are there. But they’re not developing the revenue streams that Ultimate Team and MyTeam are at this juncture.

For now, we’ll simply have to wait and see. The community has been clamoring for an overhaul in many conventional game modes on several sports titles. In some cases, these modes have become stale.

However, the fact of the matter is jobs depend on the bottom line. If you were a developer, and you were required to hit a sales figure, would you invest in modes that do not create revenue after launch? Would you cater to the whole community, or cash in on the lucrative corner of the market?

It’s a balancing act, and lately the proverbial seesaw has leaned toward Ultimate Team and rewarding profits. The only question now is, will the industry ever swivel back the other way?


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  1. I am old school (going back to the Pre-Atari era). Never got into online play, let alone UT modes. So for me, the micro transactions were discouraging from the start. That being said, I know I am in the minority, and I can't complain if a publisher chooses to cater to a customer who will pay more than the $60 that I am willing to pay. That is just good business.
    Although it is worth noting that I have yet to upgrade from my XBOX 360, and I am still playing games from 2013.
    I usually wait to find a sale at this point that way if I want to get in the card mode that year I’ll spend $20 or so then let the rest of it grind, or wait till they do a half off sale. 
    I am an old school gamer.  The UT modes do not interest me..  I like building my teams realistically through managing, franchise, or GM options.  Franchise has become stale, which is sad because the games we have now have so much more to offer, but because UT generates much more revenue we will not get a chance to see their full potential.
    I've never once played an Ultimate Team mode, and I never will. They'll never do this, but if for some reason sports games decide to take away Season/Franchise, I just won't buy sports games any longer.  There are plenty of other games to play.
    I, too, am a simmer and I don’t play online. If microtransactions are the way they’re going, then they need to lower the price of their games.
    At $500 million in profits you can afford to make the game however you want to.  I will never play anything that I need to pay micro transactions for. It’s not at all about the money it’s just those type of modes don’t do anything for me. I don’t want to collect , or grind out my games. I want to take control of my favourite team and run them how I want. It’s what the essence of sports gaming is. It’s why we have official licences. 
    Im not at all saying don’t make  the micro transactions  game and roll around in all your dough but at $500 million it doesn’t at all need to be one or the other.  Put more resources and make  complete sports games that cater to all sports fans. That’s what  is supposed to happen.  If we lose all semblance of artistry or passion for the games and it turns completely iinto just the money than I will be very  disappointed in the industry I have loved for 30 years.
    Publishers are making a fools choice. They can and should invest in both modes. I’m fact, with the windfall of money from UT, they should be able to add resources to make solo modes better. Maybe one day publishers will realize not everyone wants to play online. They are leaving money on the table by ignoring solo gamers.
    Sent from my iPhone using Operation Sports
    As long as there is a profit to be made, can't blame the publishers. It's the consumer's fault.
    I think I read something about those smartphone games and the effect it has on the brain. There's gotta be a similar impact with microtransactions, and the rush of getting something cool. It's an addiction.
    The one year I played Madden Ultimate Team, I could feel it. Getting Jarvis Landry or a player I liked in a pack was cool. Grinding to get a weekly reward became addicting.
    No one is on here to defend microtransactions because they are too busy filling that addiction.
    Can't blame publishers.
    But what will probably happen sometime in the future (not saying a year from now or even five years from now. Someday) is a game company will create a really solid licensed sports title that does not focus on micro-transactions and instead charges a reduced price for everyone that wants a traditional sports game with franchise mode plus online PvP at most without all the gimmicks and the core gamers will abandon the giants.
    Obviously, it won't have a big impact on EA and 2K because they'll still make the same revenue from their card games so I don't see that stopping them at all.  But when that day comes, they'll abandon being simulation sports titles and it's up to them to decide if that's what they want to be.
    The EA Online Pass wasn't an additional $10 to play online. It was code you had to enter and you would get it free if you bought the game new. You would have to pay $10 to get a code if you bought the game second hand.
    Looks like I’m the only one that plays hut. Now I don’t spend money, I grind a ton but I love playing online. I’m very competitive and playing the cpu just doesn’t cut it for me anymore. Maybe if the cpu was improved to actually resemble how players and teams operate but in madden it’s pretty much the same thing with every team. 
    Maybe if the cpu was improved to actually resemble how players and teams operate but in madden it’s pretty much the same thing with every team.*

    Agreed here. But this has NEVER been a focus of EA. I am a few Madden's behind, but in their 25th iteration of the game, the CPU was not able to make simple clock management decisions, let alone the far more complex decisions required to compete with a human.
    I actually don't mind the card games, but then, I only play those for the wheeling and dealing.  Those modes need to have space for a merchant base, but few do. Now with different sets coming out all year long in some titles, even basic buying and selling is getting passé.  What, exactly, IS a basic set, when it's constantly being expanded?  And if catering to instant gratification junkies with deep pockets ends up being the straw that stirs the drink, why bother with season, career, and the rest?   And so, in the end, long-form modes are getting short shrift, because developers can't find a happy medium.
    They are totally missing the add-on market place $s available from solo-sim gamers. Purchases of additional stadiums, uniforms, schedules, historical teams, historical equipment etc. etc would most certainly top the after sale revenues they are now generating from a select few ---- Sell to the masses what the masses want and that is add-on purchases for offline games!
    I'm not blaming a company for including an option to advance faster in their games. The fault lies with the users who buy in every year. I played UT in Madden one year (maybe '15) just to see what it was about. I could easily see the appeal of playing and unlocking better players. But it became boring because it feels more like work than a game.

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