This week’s news that EA has cancelled plans to release any future entries in the FIFA Manager series raises a wider debate about the lack of healthy competition in the sports genre. In an open letter to fans, FIFA Manager founder and designer Gerald Köhler cited a number of reasons for the "very tough" decision to axe the PC series, which has been running annually since 2001. Chief among them was the fact that “one game has practically dominated the market in recent years”. He's not-so-subtly calling out Sega's Football Manager series.
While the large number of people buying (and illegally downloading) FIFA Manager’s chief rival--not to mention the series' relatively high review scores--suggest Sega’s offering may be the better product, the disappearance of a competitor to keep FM developer Sports Interactive on its toes isn’t good for the games industry or for players.
The football management sub-genre may be a relatively small part of the overall sports market, but a lack of healthy competition has become evident in other areas too. I can’t speak for all sports, but for me this has been particularly noticeable on virtual basketball courts and football fields.
EA has dropped the ball on multiple occasions over the past few years while attempting to keep pace with 2K’s consistently excellent NBA 2K basketball series. Following the relative mediocrity of NBA Live 10, EA attempted to retool its basketball offering with NBA Elite 11, but the game was cancelled shortly before release following development problems and bad publicity. EA sat the next year out but vowed to come back stronger in 2012 with a new challenger in the form of NBA Live 13. However, in an eerily similar fashion to NBA Elite 11, the game was canned at the last minute due to quality concerns.
This year EA managed to push NBA Live 14 out the door, but perhaps it shouldn’t have. In stark contrast to NBA 2K14, the game was slammed by most critics. And despite EA’s promise to release a series of updates designed to make "drastic improvements", buyers are right to feel short changed. EA is better equipped than most to usurp a market leader, as the now defunct, former UFC publisher THQ would attest, but after its latest failed basketball comeback, might the publisher opt to reallocate resources instead? If so, 2K Games could begin resting on its laurels, or at the very least, do less to innovate in the face of zero competition.
There’s also currently a lack of real competition in the football market, where EA’s FIFA and Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer have enjoyed one of the biggest gaming rivalries for over a decade. While PES was the undisputed king of footy games during the PS2 era (on the pitch at least), their roles were reversed over the lifetime of PS3 and Xbox 360. Certainly on a sales basis PES now plays second fiddle to EA’s juggernaut, leaving Konami with its work cut out if it’s going to meaningfully close the gap.
Despite being built on an adapted version of Kojima Productions' new Fox Engine, in a number of ways PES feels somewhat trapped in the past, and not just because it has yet to make the jump to PS4 and Xbox One. Recent examples are the exclusion of expected game features in PES 2014 and an online mode that was broken for a month after launch on Xbox 360.
It’s true that there are more significant barriers to entry in the heavily annualised AAA sports game market than in most other genres, not least a finite lack of official licenses for rivals to fight over. But that doesn’t make it any less disheartening to see worthy, veteran competitors forced to throw in the towel, or ageing ones coming back year after year with inferior products in search of one more payday. We need competition to keep the best games on their toes; to keep them innovating and finding exciting new ways to entertain us. Will this generation be the first to see real sports game competition die off? It's getting tougher and tougher to keep up with the front-runners, and while that speaks highly of the quality of FIFA and NBA 2K, I for one am wary of the future cost that a lack of true competition could have.