Box Score: A shifting landscape clouds the 2012 horizon

Box Score is a weekly column that offers a look at sports games and the athletic side of the industry from the perspective of veteran reviewer and sports fan Richard Grisham.

Uncertainty is a rarity in the world of mainstream sports gamers. Quite unlike the rest of our gaming brethren who anxiously await new announcements and release dates, we tend to know what we’re getting and when it’s coming. Springtime means baseball and golf, late summer brings college and pro football, and fall is about hoops, pucks, and goals. While there are always wildcards – auto racing, boxing, MMA, tennis, and “extreme” sports can seemingly appear at any time – the rhythm of the release calendar is a steady one for big-time sports sims, and with that comes a sense of comfort.

At least, it used to be that way. These days, whether I’m talking to players, developers, or publishers, there’s a palpable level of uncertainty about the industry in general and sports games in particular. The business of making sports games is tougher than ever, while the landscape is changing underneath our feet. There’s no getting past the stark fact that yes, this is a business after all; if the people that produce our games don’t make money from their efforts, that’s the end of the line. Just ask the guys that used to make NHL 2K. Or College Hoops 2K. Or March Madness. Or MVP.

So what’s got everyone so concerned? Many things, to be frank – here’s just a few of them.

The coming next generation – The not-so-dirty little secret of the industry is the launch of new consoles in the next 24 months. While only Nintendo has officially announced its next gaming platform, Sony and Microsoft have already gotten beta development kits in the hands of some key partners. No one will publicly admit this, of course, but you can bet that all of the big players are knee-deep in plans to support the next generation. They have to, simply because the ramp-up time is significant to learn the nuances of new hardware. People and money aren’t exactly in infinite supply, so this means that vital resources are being diverted from current projects. No one wants to be caught flat-footed, and everyone would love to have better launches than last time. What will the impact be on 2012’s games?

Disease of More – Pat Riley’s famous term for an affliction that infects championship teams – when everyone on a winning squad wants more money, more playing time, more attention – may be rearing its ugly head on major sports games. Check the features list of your typical big-time release; there’s bound to be an individual career mode, multi-year franchise, online league, Ultimate Team, “Legendary” mode, co-op online and off, and playoffs. How much is too much? More importantly, are we reaching (or already past) the point where more features actually detract from the overall experience? If developers were able to concentrate on creating virtual perfection on the field, ice, or court, would that be better than attempting to incorporate yet another menu item? Or, failing that, would they still be accused of producing another “roster update”?

Barriers to Entry – Back when the Wii was blazing hot, game makers were falling all over themselves to create “family friendly” (read: dumbed-down) versions of sports titles. This proved to be a fad, and today you’d be hard-pressed to find any big-time sports game that caters to anyone except the hardcore player. If you haven’t played Madden, NBA 2K, NHL, The Show, or FIFA in the past few years, your chances of being able to pick up and play are virtually nil. While no one will come out and say it, sports games rival JRPGs and online shooters as “walled gardens” where outsiders need not apply. Will this ultimately turn off potential new customers?

The Mobile Revolution – While Nintendo’s 3DS has rebounded wonderfully, it’s hardly a platform for serious sports games. Meanwhile, there’s much hand-wringing as we await the North American launch of the PlayStation Vita. Clearly, Sony’s powerful handheld offers amazing promise, and launch titles like FIFA, MLB The Show, and Virtua Tennis could be system-sellers. On the other hand, no one has a feel for the Vita’s longer-term prospects, and initial Japanese sales numbers are concerning. Apple’s iOS devices have plenty of fun sports-ish diversions, but with a few notable exceptions, major sports sims on the iPad and iPhone are laughably bad. Where is this market headed?

Physical Media – I’ve migrated almost totally to digital media, whether it’s music, TV, movies, or books. Will this be the year we can finally get our major games via download from the PlayStation Network or Xbox Live? EA Sports proved that it can deliver a complete game as a digital download with its Season Ticket program, but chose to have each one self-destruct and force consumers to purchase physical copies of the game at the store. They’ve also set a precedent by allowing Fight Night to be purchased in part or in total digitally many months after release, as well as smaller-sized games like Jam and Blitz at launch. Will major sports releases make the big jump this year, or are the publishers’ relationships with retail partners too lucrative to potentially poison?

These are just a few of the questions hovering as we enter 2012. Over the course of the year, I’ll dive deeper into a lot of the issues surrounding the people that make sports games for a living as well as those of us that play them. I’ll talk to developers, marketers, gamers, and executives to get their perspectives on the titles we play and why we do it. I’ll visit studios to provide glimpses into how the games are really made and the people behind them. I’ll head to competitions to watch and talk to some of the best players in the world, how they got there, and why they do it. Few people realize the breadth and depth of the sports game universe. Hopefully I’ll help change that just a little bit.

Richard Grisham has been obesessed with sports and video games since childhood, when he'd routinely create and track MicroLeague Baseball seasons on paper. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and four-year old son, who he'll soon be training to be an NFL placekicker. As a freelance journalist and writer, his work has appeared in GamesRadar, NGamer, and 1UP.