Sports video games like NBA 2K or Madden are annual releases that many fans look forward to. Yearly, the developers promise a new game worth the hefty $70 plus price tag, but is this the case? As a frequent player of NBA 2K, Madden, and even MLB The Show, I have fallen victim to the supposedly shiny new installment of each series. Often each release, we find much of the same game from the prior year, with a slightly upgraded graphic package and a couple of new features to justify calling this a “new game”.
However, in the case of games like the new UFC 5, we sometimes will find a near-carbon copy of its predecessor. Despite this, sports games offer fans of the respective sport enjoyment from year to year. In this article, we will break down the current state of sports video games in 2023.
The State of Sports Video Games in 2023
The Pay-to-Win Model
In the defense of sports games, they are not the only genre to fall into the pay-to-win microtransaction model of gaming. It has become an all-to-regular norm of many games today.
For sports games, the NBA 2K series may be the largest abuser of the pay-to-win model. For example, in the very popular “My Career” mode you need virtual coins (or VC) to do nearly anything. This includes upgrading your character attributes to purchasing cosmetics. You do earn VC from playing games, but at a very slow rate often taking hundreds of games to make any meaningful progression. Even more, you will be left with the choice to upgrade your character attributes or purchase fun cosmetics to fit into the city.
The only way to truly compete in this game mode is to open your wallet and buy large quantities of VC. Even a 90+ overall player will have difficulty keeping up in the city. You can stick to the PvE NBA games and dominate, but you will not be taking full advantage of what the game mode has to offer. It’s a shame that the full potential of such a promising game mode is locked behind a large pay-to-win wall.
Now with every sports game comes the popular card-collecting team-building mode. Madden, NBA 2K, MLB The Show, and FIFA (now FC) all have a variation of this. As a fan of card collecting games, I find a lot to be desired with this game mode, but the full potential of this too is locked behind a pay-to-win wall. In each game, there are several single-player modes to play which unlock in-game currency, new cards, or tokens that go towards unlocking new cards/packs.
However, this process is often a large grind to get anywhere meaningful. If you wish to enter the online scene in any of these game modes, you will need the best lineups to compete truly. Again, to do this you will have to open your wallet to buy packs or the best players outright in the in-game markets.
In my opinion, I get plenty of enjoyment from the single-player game modes, but the full potential of these game modes lies in online play. Furthermore, you can make that argument for nearly any card game both digital and physical. Everything from games like Magic the Gathering to even Hearthstone has a pay-to-win element. I think the question then becomes, does this pay-to-win card-collecting experience belong in sports games?
Career/GM Game Modes
Each one of the mentioned sports games has a single-player career/GM experience and in my opinion, this is the true essence of what sports games should be. Free game modes that allow you to play as the team of your choice, develop the rosters, or even begin a fantasy draft to build your team. This is where I sink most of my sports gaming hours into.
The problem with this is that’s not what sells these games and often developers will do little to change or upgrade these game modes. This can be disappointing for players like me who are essentially paying for a roster update each time a new game mode comes out. It’s understandable why the developers put most of their efforts into the pay-to-win game modes, but if you are a player like me who mainly sticks to the single-player experience it is important to keep this in mind.
Year to Year “Improvements”
One of the main selling points for the developers is the year-to-year gameplay improvements and new game modes. However, we often find there to be minimal changes with negligible improvements. NBA 2k does a good job refreshing the city’s appearance from year to year, but this is largely the game experience just with a different skin. The same goes for my team game mode. There are a few gimmick game modes added each year, but the core of what makes my team popular remains unchanged. Ultimate Team in Madden remains largely the same from year to year as with Diamond Dynasty in MLB The Show.
Often the developers will change the user interface to make it seem there were changes, but even that will remain the same in many cases. It’s a shame to see so many copied and pasted elements for games with a $60+ price tag each year. It is almost like charging Fortnite players $60 every time a new map comes out while retaining the microtransaction features on top of it.
Should you buy Sports Games in 2023?
With all the negatives laid out in this article, why buy these games year to year? The answer is, if you are a casual player, you probably shouldn’t. If you buy these games just to play 1v1 with your buddy now and then, stick to the previous year’s game for a fraction of the price. If you are a dedicated player who puts countless hours into them, it may be worth it for the roster updates alone, even if other features are lacking changes/upgrades.
I would also recommend sticking to the sport and then the game mode you are most passionate about if you wish to make progress without paying extra. If you split time between games and even modes within the game, you will not progress enough without opening your wallet. If you are a dedicated single-player experience gamer like me, then you can more easily switch from game to game without having to dedicate hours to a particular game mode to progress.
Don’t get me wrong, sports games are fun and competitive experiences, especially if you are a big fan of the sport. It’s just a shame that many casual players are locked behind such a competitive paywall.
Hopefully, in the future, we see more features for the casual and single-player fans of these games, but until then expect a frustrating pay-to-win experience for any multiplayer game modes.