With so many people across the country cooped up inside to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, it isn’t surprising that video gaming is on the rise these past few months. According to Nielsen, play time was up by 45 percent during the last week of March, while worldwide sales were up at least 44 percent. Although a lot of that includes the popular new Animal Crossing game, which sold a record 5 million digital copies since its release, it also includes sports games — the likes of which leagues have increasingly embraced in the absence of real contests. ESPN aired the NBA 2K20 Players Tournament in April, while baseball players have an entire MLB The Show league airing on Twitch and YouTube.
In other words, there’s probably never been a better opportunity to play sports video games than right now. The only thing keeping this from being a true golden age is simply that sports gaming itself is in the doldrums. Sports gamers have fewer choices now than ever before, and the games they’re left with — while typically looking great on current-gen consoles — have stalled out in quality, eliciting fan revolts over a lack of innovation and a frequent use of microtransaction services.
Take EA Sports’ storied Madden series of NFL games, for example. Sales numbers were once again through the roof after Madden 20 released last summer, but the game recorded a Metascore of 76 according to the review-aggregation site Metacritic — the worst in the franchise since at least 2000 — and an abysmal user score of 1.6, which Metacritic says corresponds to “overwhelming dislike.” The most recent Madden scores are far below those of the previous versions of the game and of its now-defunct major competitor, the NFL 2K series.
The same goes for 2K Sports’ NBA 2K series. Its latest edition, NBA 2K20, received a Metascore of 78 — also the lowest in the franchise since at least 2000 — and an absurdly low user score of 1.0. That continues a trend of low fan ratings that began with NBA 2K18, one of the most infamously microtransaction-laden offerings in gaming history.
Meanwhile, EA Sports’ FIFA 20 was savaged with a 1.1 user score, and its Metascore dipped below 80 for the first time since at least 2000. Even the venerated EA NHL series, which was once a pop-culture touchstone, saw a subpar Metascore (77) and one of its worst-ever user ratings (3.6) with NHL 20 this year. Among the major triple-A sports game franchises, only the reigning champion of baseball games, Sony’s MLB The Show, has escaped the season with both a relatively sturdy Metascore (83) and a solid-enough average user rating (6.9).
Online review-bombing happens, which means we should always tread lightly with user scores. But in this case, there’s no obvious underlying political motivation for downvoting these games — just frustration with products that have de facto licensing monopolies and haven’t improved much in this generation of consoles but have made expansive monetization schemes the norm.
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, it wasn’t uncommon to see each major league sell its license to multiple publishers at the same time, across multiple consoles. For instance, in 2002 alone, there were four pro football simulation games available on the PS2 or Xbox — Madden, NFL 2K3, NFL GameDay and NFL Fever — plus an arcade option (NFL Blitz 20-03) and a more kid-friendly offering (Backyard Football) as well. The variety meant gamers had options to choose from; if Madden didn’t suit their style of play, they weren’t simply stuck with it. And the competition meant that each game had to improve over time, which led to the addition of countless new features — ones that Madden has been known to recycle even today.
The exact moment when that period ended came in 2005, when EA cut a deal with the NFL to secure exclusive rights to the league’s license. This effectively killed the popular NFL 2K series, denying it the chance to compete with Madden on a level playing field. For its part, 2K Sports followed suit shortly thereafter with an MLB exclusivity agreement that all but killed EA Sports’ beloved MVP Baseball series. Market forces brought further winnowing, as the competition became more cutthroat going into the 2010s: NBA 2K dominated the once-great NBA Live series so thoroughly that EA canceled multiple installments of the series (including NBA Live 20), while The Show was the last full-fledged baseball simulation left standing after 2K’s much-maligned Major League Baseball series was unceremoniously discontinued in 2014. Konami’s long-running Pro Evolution Soccer series is essentially the only major foil an EA, 2K or Sony first-party sports game has in 2020.
You can forget about college sports games nowadays, too. After the O’Bannon v. NCAA ruling found the NCAA had violated antitrust laws when it allowed video games to use former college players’ likenesses without financial compensation, EA Sports pulled the plug on its well-received NCAA Football series. (2K and EA had both discontinued their respective college basketball series a few years earlier.) It’s difficult to argue that justice wasn’t served when District Judge Claudia Wilken issued her verdict in 2014, but the decision effectively eradicated an entire subgenre of sports video gaming in the process.
At the same time, true arcade-style sports games are only now starting to reemerge after years of hibernation. (Though for every indie title like Super Mega Baseball, which has thrived despite the lack of an MLB license, other arcade offerings haven’t quite pulled off that feat.) Tiger Woods PGA Tour and NBA Street are but distant memories. There hasn’t been a Backyard Sports release on the Xbox or PlayStation since 2010. And the extreme-sports genre, which once gave us Jet Grind Radio, SSX, EA Skate and the legendary Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series — along with its many clones — is struggling to regain relevance.
Add it all up, and the present state of sports video gaming is arguably the weakest it’s ever been when we need it most — both as a diversion from the pandemic outside and also as a legitimate replacement for the on-field action we’re all missing.
It isn’t as though things were perfect in the earlier days of sports video gaming. Many of the alternative choices in each sport were unable to find a sizable fan base, eventually dying because they weren’t worth the cost and trouble. Maybe the market was always going to consolidate around just a few monolithic options sooner or later — particularly as major-studio budgets have steadily increased, squeezing out midtier developers. This trend has been playing out across all genres of gaming, not just in sports. The same can be said of aggressive microtransactions and the move toward so-called games as a service. Those new realities would have been difficult to avoid even in an alternate universe in which MVP Baseball and The Show were allowed to go head-to-head, and NFL 2K had an annual release right next to Madden on the PlayStation store’s virtual shelf.
But just the same, today’s sports gamers are clearly unhappy with the set of options in front of them. The lack of competition and choice — in some cases contractually mandated — is leading to stagnant, broken, bug-riddled products, in which the focus seems to be more on money-grabbing “ultimate team” modes than exciting features and realistic gameplay. At a moment when sports video games ought to be taking center stage, it’s hard not to think of how much better suited an earlier era of gaming would have been to take on this limelight.
CORRECTION (May 1, 2020, 2:30 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the number of copies sold of the Animal Crossing game since its release. It has sold 5 million copies, not 5 billion.