Box Score: The Top 7 themes of the last years sports game season

Looking back on a mostly solid year, what did the collective group of sports titles tell us?

Real-world sports seasons have their own unique rhythms; so, too, does the sports game landscape. Its unofficially kicked off every July with college football and concludes the following March with baseball. In between, pro football, soccer, hockey, and basketball titles all compete for our attention.

Many themes develop over the course of a sports release schedule; a time capsule of sorts, and I love to analyze where these games intersect and diverge. Now that the dust has settled on the last releases of the 2011-12 sports game season, these themes are easy to spot.

1) The annual roster update is a myth

The next time someone dismisses a console sports simulation as nothing more than a roster update, glare at them. Nastily. The notion that developers have large teams of 50 or more people building games that are simply adjustments to player ratings and team affiliations is an insult to all of us. Simply put, 2012s major sports titles all contained significant modifications to core gameplay, presentation, and/or online features that took significant effort and risk to build.

Did all of them work? Of course not. Just because someone spends 4 months and $350,000 to create a new mechanic or control scheme is no guarantee that it will be well-received by the public. Did I like MLB 12 The Shows new Pulse Pitching? Not hardly but it introduced a new way to play a major part of the game. What about FIFAs new Impact Engine? It altered the way players interacted with each other (often well but occasionally with hilarious results) and set the development team up nicely for future adjustments for realistic physics. These are just two examples.

Anyone claiming a new sports title is just a roster update doesnt come close to understanding what our games are about, and I guarantee you they havent spent more than a few minutes (if at all) experiencing what theyre dissing. The proof is right there in front of them.

2) Online is a mess

At least were not alone. The recent launch debacle of Diablo III proved that just about any game with an online element can suffer at release, and plenty of sports games failed miserably; some continue to struggle.

A few of my favorite games of last year top the list of online messes. NBA 2K12 was a disaster out of the gate with online play. Between dropped connections, a non-functional website, and a comically under-explained Online Association mode that confused everyone, it was an ugly underscore to an otherwise amazing experience. MLB 12 The Show continued its sad legacy of lousy online multiplayer, with atrocious lag and dropped games on both the PS3 and Vita. NCAA Football 12 had a near-catastrophic series of bugs in its Online Dynasty mode that ruined the experience for a number of its dedicated fans.

There are legitimate reasons for each of these, too. Online code is often built on top of creaky previous-generation infrastructure thats too expensive or risky to rebuild, and the unpredictability of an exponentially larger group of people playing your game than you can ever test for is an issue. Even so, that doesnt help gamers like me who play the majority of their games versus friends over the internet and doesnt sit well moving forward, either.

3) Sports sells

Despite some of your hardcore gamer friends scoffing at your collection of sports titles, the fact is they consistently sell well. FIFA, Madden, and NBA 2K typically stay in the top 10 sales numbers for several months after release (if not longer), which is good news in a constantly evolving games landscape. After all, in the sales downturn were experiencing now, so-called sure things are much more likely to get made and supported than riskier bets.

On the other hand, sports games are incredibly expensive to develop, in large part because of the massive license fees publishers must pay for the rights to use the player names and the leagues. As weve seen with other titles, a good sales number doesnt necessarily equal a profitable one. With several key licenses up for renewal over the next few years including the MLB and NFL it will be interesting to see if exclusivity remains, or if license fees are reduced in order to open the floor to a larger group of players like the old days.

4) Its a patch culture

Go ahead, name one sports game from this past season that wasnt patched. Cant do it, can you? Like most games anymore, the patch culture has settled permanently on us and shows no signs of waning. This is obviously good for many reasons roster adjustments after the game releases, and the ability to fix potentially game-breaking bugs that arent discovered in time but inherently it gives developers and publishers an out. Release dates are easier to hit when you know you can fix things after the fact.

But what about the experience between Day One and the patch? And what if the patch actually makes things worse which are the claims of many people about certain updates made to several games this season?

With sports games being so hyper-complex to build and test these days, its inevitable that software will ship with issues. Theres no studio in the world that can prevent that, no matter how good they are. However, the inevitability of patches with sometimes comically huge lists of fixes made does nothing to dissuade people from feeling that these titles are released as incomplete works instead of finished games.

5) Legends are the new hotness

Between NBA 2K12s sublime The Greatest mode, featuring a mother lode of Hall of Fame players and classic teams, and NHL 12, loaded with hockey greats like Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky, theres been a heavy push towards historical representations. Madden 12 also got into the fray, although you needed to buy Legends Pack for use in Ultimate Team to use guys like Barry Sanders and Jerry Rice.

Mining the history of sports can be a beautiful addition to many games, especially when its done well. Between the period-specific presentation and complete rosters of full teams, NBA 2K12 ran away from the field. Meanwhile, NHL 12s rather clunky implementation of their legends in Be A Pro combined with the fact that hockey players are infinitely less distinguishable on the ice from their instantly recognizable hoops-playing counterparts left much to be desired.

Even so, theres much more to be done with players from the past. In many ways, truth is better than fiction, and there are hundreds of real-life tales that can be told if developers can dive into the personal or emotional sides of players. Imagine trying to get 56 straight hits as Joe DiMaggio or inhabiting Charles Barkley trying to win an NBA title at the end of his career. Heres hoping the door thats been cracked this past year gets kicked wide open as we move into a new console era.

6) Pleasing everyone is impossible

I enjoyed most of the big games this year, but at times I have felt like an idiot for feeling that way. Ive played hundreds of games of NHL 12 against friends, for example, having a blast the whole time. Yet a perusal of message boards reveals a vocal group of people railing against cheesers in the EASHL and money goals that can be abused online. Are they right and Im wrong?

Same thing with MLB 2K12; Ive sunk 40+ hours in the My Player mode for my starting pitcher, thoroughly enjoying much of it. I rarely see the bugs and choppy gameplay that many others do; does that invalidate others or make me an outlier? I cant deny that Im having a good time, even though my experience is a small chunk of the overall package.

The bottom line is that its simply impossible for developers to please everyone or, for that matter, even close to everyone. For every highly-rated game, there are hundreds of detractors complaining about items small or large that for them render the game busted. The closer that these games get to ultra-realism, the louder the criticisms get. Its not an enviable position, and the internet makes that vocal group that much more powerful.

7) Newbies are in trouble

7) Newbies are in trouble There are few things more painful than introducing someone to a modern sports game. Handing a controller to a friend or family member who hasnt played in the past few years is a recipe for frustration. Several years ago, the Wii had several sports titles geared toward newcomers that didnt sell particularly well, and since then the pendulum has swung wildly in the other direction.

With rare exceptions like NHL 12s old-school Sega controls, managing the action on the court or the field can be a challenge for casual fans and an impossibility for newbies. Honestly, I dont think Ive used more than 20% of the abilities of my coaching and individual player moves in NBA 2K12 despite an obscene amount of playing time. FIFA seems simple at first, until you see how you can adjust you teams strategies, make multiple types of passes or shots, and move your player in multiple ways. Madden is even nuttier, from playcalling to pre-snap options and in-play jukes, trucks, and receiver adjustments.

Sales are still good for many of these games, but old-fashioned tutorials are needed to expand the market. While NBA 2K12 has a terrific one even if I cant remember what Ive been taught at practice when Im in an actual game FIFA and Madden in particular would do well to explain how, exactly, their game really works.

Looking ahead

As we put 2011-12 behind us, E3 looms with promises bigger, better, faster sports experiences. What are the themes that will develop next year? Who knows but I have a feeling itll be dramatically different. I know Ill enjoy the ride.

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