If you buy the annual iteration of your favorite sports video game, chances are you haven’t had much to celebrate in recent years. Frankly speaking, the genre is struggling, and even the new generation of consoles has not been the answer to rejuvenate it. Take just this year, for example. The metacritic scores are anything but impressive for the biggest sports of the day. Madden NFL 22 got an appalling 60 NHL 22, which promised to change its metagame, disappointed with a 74. NBA 2K has largely been the franchise to beat, but NBA 2K22 only holds a 76, one lowest ratings in the series. in years. FIFA 22 and MLB: The Show 21 had the highest averages, around 78, but it’s telling that neither of these franchises can even cross the 80 mark.
This downward trend has been going on for quite some time now, and I am irritated to see largely intact fads and similar technical errors continue year after year. It’s like watching your favorite sports team when it’s in crisis. How long do you wait and watch the continual losses add up before you step down and hope next season is better?
The problem is, the hope that the next entry is doing better has been around for too many seasons now, and it’s not just with one or two franchises. It is at all levels. Last generation, the sports genre has exploded with innovation, making sports games more like real life. Additionally, the developers were looking for unique ways to build a community around them and cater for multiple types of gamers, from building robust franchise modes to offering skill-based online gaming. And, more importantly, they were finding new and exciting ways to captivate sports fans. Visual Concepts showed the power of sports storytelling, making NBA 2K’s MyCareer a must-have game by letting you create a player and take them on a cinematic journey that plunged into the highs and lows of stardom.
It opened up a world of potential and ignited a fire in their competition, with FIFA creating NHL’s Alex Hunter: The Journey and Be A Pro becoming a choice-driven story. Heck, Visual Concepts was so successful that it even implemented a storyline in NBA 2K18 and 19’s franchise mode, but with mixed results. But at the very least, the developers were trying new things, taking risks, and learning from each other about engagement and what made people play their game year round.
Sports games these days are playing it safe, offering graphical upgrades and a few new features to get by, but no series really tries to reinvigorate the formula or shake up what has been done before. And even when efforts are made, they feel lukewarm. For example, NHL 22 tried to take inspiration from Madden by featuring Superstar X-Factors and made an effort to shake up its metagame. The problem? These X-Factors ended up being a non-factor in making the gameplay more rewarding or exciting, and the metagame hasn’t changed enough to be noticeable except for its flaws.
What’s even more frustrating is seeing various fashions neglected without significant changes for years. I can’t remember the last time NBA 2K, NHL, or FIFA really hit Franchise Mode. Madden made an attempt this year with Franchise Mode, but it wasn’t enough to make it a must-have game. Worse yet, things that don’t work or need to be improved stay the same; The NHL’s dialogue in Be A Pro is laughable, and his poke check remains subdued while Madden is still full of weird glitches and a clunky interface.
The annual sports game releases leave no time for large-scale changes, but every year the developers have always made smart improvements to the foundation. I’ve come to expect that a game in any sports franchise will play more smoothly each year, and specific modes will receive more attention with more effort towards meaningful additions. And when the gameplay starts to fizzle out, the developers will start investing in new strategies to keep it interesting, like finding ways to change the metagame or implementing a new system that changes the way gameplay feels. , like the enhanced skating in NHL 19. But too much stays the same for too long in many franchises. Madden’s gameplay code is so old at this point that the developers are just getting around the same issues, from instant animations to players who meet after the game, even when they are trying to add new features.
It also feels like sports games are at a crossroads in deciding what they should be for this generation of gamers. I don’t envy this decision, as there are many reasons why sports fans choose the controller. Ask anyone what their favorite mode is and why, and you’ll get tons of answers. However, one thing never changes: These games are meant to have a long tail and be played all year round. This has led many developers to invest significantly in online centric modes that they can continue to update throughout the year. But even here the rewards never seem big enough, or worse, they feel very generic in their execution.
Limited resources make it difficult to decide to focus on developers. It’s a constant standoff between keeping fans hardcore and attracting new players through more relaxed offerings, like FIFA’s Volta, Madden’s The Yard, and NHL’s Pro-Am. Someone is always left behind, and lately, it’s the dedicated players to more single player businesses like franchise modes. Let’s face it: fads like these don’t make extra money.
NBA 2K22 has probably made the biggest leap this year, trying to merge its popular MyCareer mode with The City, its bustling online world, where players can play against each other in pickup games and tournaments and to shop. Visual Concepts still has a long way to go to reduce its intrusive microtransactions here, and it’s still too empty to be fun to explore, but I see the potential.
I just saw WWE 2K22 forgo its usual fall version to allow more time to consolidate things, and while the series has been full of ups and downs, I love the creativity that continues to shine in its different modes and how it responds to the things that excite hardcore fans. There’s 2K Showcase Mode, the playable WWE 2K documentary where you follow the career of a legendary wrestler or a historical period and face decisive matches; My Faction allows you to assemble and manage your own stable to compete with greats like The Four Horsemen; and this year it introduces MyRise, a new version of MyCareer that lets you guide a WWE rookie to stardom on a choice-driven adventure.
To be fair, the challenges of COVID-19 have undoubtedly made the past two years even more difficult and trying for the genre. However, these problems were already at their peak at the end of the previous generation, and they are not going away. An upgrade to the roster just isn’t enough these days to keep fans at bay, and it’s the loyal fans who end up feeling burnt that they’ve sparked their excitement for another season, to see the same problems reappear.
Developers shouldn’t be afraid to hit the reset button and maybe take a little longer to rethink their game. As it is, the sport contains a lot of creativity and excitement, but that experience doesn’t. not translate video games. Why? Because the developers continue to use the same playbook. They don’t want to take the risky game that brings glory for fear of failure, but I’d rather see these games try something new and fail than give me the same tired experience I’ve been playing for years now.