How Sports Games Keep Failing Upwards
I’ve been playing sports games ever since I was introduced to FIFA 97 by my uncle when I was five. It was a natural love for me, I’ve loved both football (the European kind) and Video Games ever since I could remember. Very quickly, sports games became my virtual sandbox where I could rectify all the perceived sporting wrongs, like Poland missing out on the World Cup, or later, Brazil losing in said World Cup’s finals. For North American sports, they became a portal to an otherwise inaccessible world of Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and John Elway, figures I would usually only hear about from my Canadian dad.
Basically, what I’m trying to say is that sports games resonate with me, and have done so for the past 23 years, and I know a lot of people are perplexed by why this particular genre is so successful — I can almost guarantee that every sports game fan has heard “If you like this sport so much, why don’t you just play it outside?” at least once in their life. Yet, sports games have found incredible success in the industry, with Madden 20 and NBA 2k20 topping the sales charts in the US upon release, and FIFA 20 coming in at a respectable third, all while dominating charts in the UK and mainland Europe.
However, sales are hardly what sports companies are after right now. Despite the massive backlash against microtransactions in AAA Gaming caused by the likes of Star Wars: Battlefront II, both EA Sports and Take-Two Interactive are continuing to cram them down users’ throats. Financially speaking, it seems to be working. EA’s Ultimate Team mode present in FIFA, Madden, NHL and EA Sports UFC games has brought in a whopping $1.38 billion of revenue in Financial Year 2019, while Take-Two made over half of their net revenue on 2k19 microtransactions. The business model is clearly successful, but what’s the catch?
If you look at user reviews for any of the aforementioned franchises, you will know what the catch is. The current instalments of the three major sports franchises (NBA 2k, Madden, FIFA) are all currently sitting at a user rating of below 2 on Metacritic, and unlike most games with this low a score, they haven’t been brigaded due to social conflicts, or a lack of PC release. In all cases, this is the opinion of a big part of the hardcore player base for the game.
In fact, since 2010 when FIFA 11 (confusing, I know) first released Ultimate Team as a full-on feature in the game, user reviews have been in rapid decline for all three of the franchises, a likely combination of frustration with the lack of year-on-year development of the full-priced products, with the increasingly transparent focus on herding players into their monetization funnels.
Both EA and Take-Two have essentially lost their credibility, at least when it comes to their hardcore audiences, yet their yearly profits continue climbing. What’s more, both companies have decided to make their monetized modes key parts of their esports ventures. Since 2017, FIFA & Madden Ultimate Team for EA, and the oft-maligned MyCareer for NBA 2k have made it virtually impossible to compete in esports without spending at least some money. In fact, according to Jamey Cane aka FUT Economist — who was later hired by EA to help produce their live content — the real-world value of teams the pros use at the FUT Champions Cup is a whopping $27,000.¹
At peak times during the recently-released Team of the Year promo in FIFA, during several “lightning rounds” during which more valuable packs are released into the game in limited quantities, players bought over 400,000 “Ultimate” Packs worth around $25 a pack in mere minutes, trying to hit cards with odds disclosed at less than 1%. During bigger promos, lightning rounds like this come a few times a day, making one thing clear — the negative reviews aren’t impacting their bottom line one bit. Why?
Well, the easiest answer to that question is that monetization funnels in sports games are designed with addiction in mind. A trailer for NBA 2k20’s MyTeam mode got a lot of flak for highlighting the over-the-top casino aesthetic the game takes on whenever a loot box is opened. FIFA on the other hand, crafts intricate animations that have led to entire videos being made to explain the visual cues.
The irony here is of course, that these elements of the game, what should be an add on to a full sports experience seem to be more polished and thought out than the actual gameplay. FIFA players often joke that FIFA 20 is actually FIFA 17.4. NBA 2k players also spend a lot of time complaining about the lack of development on the gameplay side, all while the games get positive-enough marks from reviewers who never get to play enough to actually notice the broken mess the seemingly polished sports simulators entail.
While loot boxes in conventional AAA gaming seem to be dying, courtesy of the Battlefront II fiasco along with the rise of Season Passes, sports games have somehow become a safe haven for in-game advantage-giving monetization, usually getting a small media shellacking to start their cycle, only to be given free pass for the rest of their year.
The lack of outrage is largely caused by the fact that sports games are on the fringes of gamer culture, a lot of purists considering them casual, leading to media largely ignoring them in favour of more “gamey” topics. Combined with the fact that collectable cards have been tied to sports for decades, it’s easy to see why loot boxes in a football or basketball simulator go unnoticed, unlike the ones in a Star Wars FPS.
Of course, the problem isn’t just that companies are earning money off of what are, in essence, gambling mechanics. The problem is that somehow, they’re allowed to do it in PEGI 3 games. The problem is that nobody’s keeping them in check, allowing them to pray on both addictive and competitive impulses. After all, what’s $1000 if you can use it to finally get the rank you think you deserve?
Sports games have essentially become $60 mobile games in the public’s eye. Casual products that rake in deceptively large swaths of cash, all while nobody seems to understand how or why exactly are people investing so much money into something so pointless. Yet, millions of people around the world, many of them children, are spending insane amounts of money on microtransactions in sports games. Hell, I only stopped spending last September. Are sports games still sports games, or simply casinos wearing a Scooby-Doo style mask? It’s really hard to tell.
In the end, what fuels this machine and what allows sports games to continue failing upwards is all of us. For some reason, this particular segment of the market is immune from its trends, impossible to change and dismissive of boycotts. It’s my fault for spending a penny, it’s the media’s fault for nodding along, it’s the regulator’s fault for not stopping it, and it’s everyone else's fault for ignoring it.
Perhaps it’s high time we all change some habits.
¹The teams used by players at events are provided by EA, however, in order to qualify for the events themselves through in-game competitions, a comparable team is often required.