The expiration of the MLB license for 2K sports led to the cancellation of the upcoming series and wiping any mention of previous games from 2K Sports’ official website and social media channels. While this news may not have come as a surprise to many, as Sony San Diego’s The Show franchise continues to be the dominant force in the market, the loss of a competitor is disappointing nonetheless.
As with any competitive industry, the pressure of rivals acts as an incentive to improve your own product. No more apparent is this than in the world of sports; the desire to be the best allows the greatest to rise above the competition.
History is laden with rivalries that have driven players to the pinnacle of their profession. Bird v Magic, Ali v Frasier, Ronaldo v Messi, all historically great, all sharing intense match-ups. Rocky Balboa reached the pinnacle of Hollywood’s boxing world not because he was the best, but the hungriest. Having claimed the title, Balboa struggles to find a worthy opponent, handily dispatching all who opposed his reign. Over time, the hunger faded. Then, Clubber Lang emerged from the shadows, a passionate fighter, and he’s starving. Rocky’s lack of desire costs him the championship, forcing him to revive his career from the bottom rung of the ladder.
This parable is true of game developers: if they have no need to be better, then why should they?
Sony San Diego produce excellent baseball sims year-on-year. The level of detail and intricacy in every game never fails to impress, and The Show has long been considered the best baseball offering for devoted fans. But the fact that there remained a contender to the throne out there is enough to keep a team on their toes. I’m not saying it is a foregone conclusion that Sony San Diego will take its collective foot off the gas and coast as the sole provider. Certainly, the latest trailer for the PS4 version of the game looked pretty impressive, and the enthusiasm the team oozed when discussing the upcoming title shows how much they care about the game. But this concern isn’t without precedent.
EA has two franchises on its roster which perfectly highlight the problem of lacking a direct competitor: FIFA and Madden. The FIFA series has become the best and most successful soccer (when comparing two ‘football’ games, we must refer to FIFA as soccer) franchise in the world, and rightly so. FIFA has continued to elevate its game by implementing new ideas that innovate on a great system. FIFA revolutionised itself throughout the past console generation, having played second-fiddle to Pro Evolution Soccer for the majority of the PS2-era.
In the PS2 generation, PES was far superior to FIFA. The classic PES versus FIFA debate became a one-sided argument as long-standing fans switched sides and continued to pick up games where Thierry Henry and John Terry graced the covers, shunning FIFA’s slow and clunky form. But at the turn of the next console cycle, FIFA brought a brand new engine to the next-generation, while PES arguably rested on its laurels. Thus began a huge role-reversal, and FIFA is now one of the most successful series in video games.
Every year the developers behind EA’s juggernaut do enough to render the previous title null, giving soccer fans enough reason to shell out another £40-50 every September.
FIFA has created its own monopoly through dominance of the market. PES continues to exist, but doesn’t sell anywhere near enough titles to compete, or arguably consider itself a successful sports title. Having already won the mind-share of the vast majority of fans, and continuing to win their hearts by consistently producing a quality product year-on-year, FIFA will also have control of consumer’s wallets.
Compare this to Madden, a series that has been stagnating for far too long. EA has held the exclusive license to the rights of the NFL for a decade now, preventing other developers from using official teams, names and stadia. EA’s control of the market has meant that gamers either put up with Madden’s offering every year, or simply don’t play the sport they love. The consequence of this is that there’s no real need for the game to take huge steps forward.
Madden hasn’t been up to scratch for many years, offering a merely serviceable game that acts as more of a roster update. Rather than work on creating systems and mechanics that work for the sport of football, the team has decided to adopt the Impact Engine from FIFA instead. There’s also been the release of the first next-gen Madden which, according to critics, doesn’t match the quality of the game considered to be ‘last-gen’. It has reached the point where people have begun to question the validity of yearly entries, but when you see FIFA successfully pull it off, you have to question the development process.
It is unfair to say a studio isn’t working hard enough to produce the best game possible, but it is too easy for EA to offer a passable game that players feel obliged to pick up as it is the only football game on the shelf. EA’s exclusive license with the NFL is due to expire in 2015, hopefully bringing some new blood into the fray, and also adding putting some much-needed fire back into EA’s collective belly.
Although it’s far too early to tell how this change in the landscape will affect The Show, having looked at the example set by EA above, it’s clear that it could go one of two ways. I just hope the developers continue on the path they’re on, and don’t go the way of the pigskin.