Box Score: Two DLC packages provide stark contrast and perhaps a glimpse into the future

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.

One moment, I’m clinging to life in the boxing ring. Thanks to a nefarious promoter, the only chance I have to win this fight is to overcome tremendous odds and knock out a better, stronger opponent. My family, my trainer, and my lady are all rooting desperately for me to find a way to succeed despite the fact my foe has knocked me flat. A few minutes later, I’m in Times Square as Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, playing two-on-two against Larry Bird and Kevin McHale. The crowd is on top of us, beats are pumping in the background, and I’m trying to launch Kareem’s patented skyhook over McHale with little success.

You may not have noticed it – chances are you’re buried under the avalanche of fall blockbusters – but a subtle change to the way sports games are being delivered took place this fall. It could be a harbinger of things to come, or just a pebble on the highway of full-priced licensed sports content. Either way, it’s allowed me to experience something great that I would have otherwise completely missed, while making me question the whole notion of what downloadable content is and should be.

EA’s stellar boxing title Fight Night Champion was released in March of this year, sporting a new “story” mode along with the expected online and single-player features. To be frank, as a veteran of the series I was suffering a bit of franchise fatigue and skipped it altogether. Eight months later, some enterprising minds at EA Sports decided to make parts of the game available on PSN as stand-alone DLC (sadly, it’s only available as a full $30 download on XBLA). I bought the game’s Champion mode, a nifty story-with-tons-of-boxing-matches that I’ve enjoyed immensely. Between the narrative (admittedly cheesy, but show me a boxing movie not named Raging Bull that isn’t) and excellent variety of the individual fights, it’s re-invigorated my love of the series and been well worth the $5 price tag.

A few weeks later, 2K Sports released a $10 downloadable add-on to NBA 2K12 called Legends Showcase. Sporting an entirely new art style, roster of players, and game modes from the retail disc, the Showcase puts you in a comic book-inspired midtown Manhattan setting. Whether you’re climbing the ladder in head-to-head matchups, playing H-O-R-S-E against a Hall of Famer, or kicking around with the handful of other available options, there’s no direct connection to the standard modes found in NBA 2K12. Other than the complex controls, the Showcase feels wholly separate. Yet it’s unplayable without owning the full game.

I’m sure there are plenty of valid reasons for 2K’s decision to tie the Legends Showcase to NBA 2K12 proper, but as a consumer it feels forced and unnecessary. To be fair, the Showcase launched a scant two months after the parent game, which itself was suffering in an environment poisoned by a crippling league lockout. Fight Night’s decision to allow standalone downloads of small parts of the game happened more than eight months after its release, well into a timeframe where awareness of the game in any form would be at its nadir.

Even so, when I wrapped Fight Night’s story mode, I wanted more. Not more Fight Night (sorry, EA), but more stand-alone small parts of full games. How great would it be to be able to drop $5 to buy all five BCS Bowl matchups right now, playable on the NCAA Football 11 engine? What about getting all 68 teams in the 2012 NCAA Basketball tournament for $8 next spring on the old (and amazing) NCAA College Hoops platform? I wouldn’t mind spending a five spot to check out the latest version of MLB 12’s Road To The Show, that’s for sure, and if 2K offered me the chance to play the final round of the men’s and women’s Wimbledon, U.S., French, and Australian Open on Top Spin’s engine for the price of lunch, I’d do that in a minute.

The digital download future opens up limitless opportunities for sports game content delivery. As consumers grapple with choosing between $60 games, they inevitably are forced to miss out on too many great experiences. At the same time, developers and publishers invest millions of dollars paying for official licenses and developing games. The Fight Night model may be the best way to expand audiences, build awareness, and generate additional revenue without tying players to a full-price decision they may ultimately regret. Here’s hoping it happens more often.

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.