Ten years ago, my managing editor in Denver sent me to Minneapolis for a piece of celebrity journalism: Go follow around Carmelo Anthony, then a rookie, and bring back something enlightening about his first NBA playoffs with the Nuggets.
The best thing I brought back featuring Carmelo Anthony was NBA Ballers.
I bought the video game, a blinged-out, over-the-top dunkfest published by since-defunct Midway, between shootarounds at a GameStop a block from Target Center. Minnesota would ultimately subdue Denver in five games that series, still the last year the Timberwolves appeared in the playoffs.
Ten years later, the Wolves aren't playing any meaningful games in April, and league-licensed arcade-style sports video games, spinoffs that sometimes arrived when their league's postseason began, have made few appearances themselves. Last year saw nothing from this category on consoles — no NHL Hitz, no MLB Slugfest or The Bigs, and certainly nothing like NBA Ballers. You'd have to go back to the fragmented, very early days of console gaming to find a full year without some league's logo on an arcade-style game.
Titles like Powerstar Golf notwithstanding (it's not a licensed game — though even unlicensed arcade sports titles are still rare), this year we've been treated only to R.B.I. Baseball 14, a game developed and published by Major League Baseball itself, and admittedly standing in for the lack of any other MLB game on the newly launched Xbox One.
Jamie Leece, the vice president of games for MLB Advanced Media, said his division began work on it a few years ago. Though some critics have called it a mobile idea ported over to consoles, Leece insisted it was developed for consoles first — because "we wanted to make sure we were on Xbox platforms."
It does raise the question, though, if there were a licensed simulation MLB title on the Xbox consoles, if R.B.I. Baseball 14 would exist.
"It certainly played a factor; you could look at the messaging 2K had sent to fans for years," Leece said, referring to numerous statements parent company Take-Two Interactive had made regarding the unprofitability of its semi-exclusive license with MLB, and its desire to get out of the product. "We, more than anybody, knew what their plans were for a while, and the fact there would not be a product on Xbox certainly played into it. It wasn't accelerated [development], because those plans were known for some time."
"one thing that has hurt is the big difference in success with the haves and the have-nots"
Leece, 44, has a 25-year history in video games publishing — if you remember that Halo at one point was signed with Take-Two Interactive (which bought a stake in Bungie prior to Microsoft buying up the entire studio), Leece was involved in that deal.
There are any number of reasons for the disappearance of arcade sports titles: rising development costs; the emergence of mobile as a viable, lower-cost platform; and even downloadable content, especially through ultimate-team modes, that offers a publisher the same or better revenue for no additional marketing or publishing expenses.
As Leece sees it, "one thing that has hurt is the big difference in success with the haves and the have-nots." As gamers' expectations have risen along with consoles' capabilities, there are few with the muscle to put out and market a game that has everything they expect. "It's really about big-budget titles and big brands on them," he said.
MLB Advanced Media got into this business three years ago, Leece said, mindful that his old label, Take-Two, was on the way out, but also cognizant of other gaps an MLB-run gaming division could fill. One was the fact the only way to play an All-Star Game Home Run Derby was to buy a full console title, and if you didn't own that, the console itself. So an official Derby game for mobile was born.
"We believe we have the greatest sports product in the industry in [MLB 14] The Show, from our partners at Sony," Leece said, "but what it's not is, it's not an accessible product for a mass market. You talk about arcade or action-y games, The Show is not necessarily a pick-up-and-play product. It's very rewarding, extremely accurate and technically brilliant, but for casual fans, it may be a little bit intimidating."
MLB Advanced Media, Leece said, made the decision "several years ago" to bring back the R.B.I. Baseball franchise for that reason. MLBAM had picked up the rights to the R.B.I. name, look and feel from Tengen (an Atari console imprint) in 2009. The games division sensed an opportunity in the nostalgia for that game, one of the first licensed sports titles on consoles when it launched in 1987 for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Indeed, the R.B.I. reboot picked up a lot of coverage from regular beat columnists who were kids when it came out.
Still, it was MLBAM's first console game. "We had no lines of code," Leece said. "For anybody out there who makes games, that means a lot more than having a lot of fans or bloggers. We had no lines." To deliver R.B.I. Baseball 14, MLBAM's development team peaked between 35 and 40 members.
"Certainly it was a lot easier, 15 years ago, to leverage existing technology and put out a different product using the same engine, maybe with a different coat of paint," Leece said. "For us, we had to create it from scratch, from the AI system, to the art style, to how the baseball flies through the air."
That represents as much of a barrier to participation as the licensing costs, which are always perceived to be high — so much that the NFL Players Association is staging a mobile games development contest, with a full NFLPA group license as its grand prize. On consoles, though, even a cartoony style is going to be rendered in high definition, requiring a lot more attention to detail than was necessary in the halcyon days of things like NFL Street on the PlayStation 2.
R.B.I. Baseball 14 did have to reach a licensing deal with the league's players' union, but since the league itself was making the game, the cost to use its logos, teams and uniforms was effectively nothing. Still, Leece reasons, the fact Major League Baseball was known to be entering the console market itself carries a cost, in the form of other potential licensors deciding to stay out rather than pay someone who would, in effect, be a competitor.
Another reason for a lack of licensed titles may be that leagues today are more sophisticated in their understanding of video games and more discriminating in their partnerships. In the run-up to EA Sports' notorious exclusive license with the NFL, multiple league-licensed versions of games could be seen every year, varying in quality, simulation or arcade. Today, especially with mobile development, Kickstarter and all sorts of other channels giving smaller shops more chances at being published, licensors are more discriminating simply because they don't want a dozen titles with their brand all fighting for attention in the same marketplace. It can even put an unrelated series on ice. Electronic Arts owns Mutant League Football, something fans have longed to see return, and something that EA Sports' own developers have agitated for internally. It's a good bet the reason EA hasn't rebooted Mutant League is because the NFL doesn't want to compete against it.
What really happened to the arcade sports game might be that its experiences were just absorbed by the main simulation title.
Finally, publishers with the muscle and relationships to develop an arcade-style title still are going through a change in console generations — a disruptive event that, if the last transition was any indication, made the need to get the core product right on new hardware supreme over creating anything new. "If you go back a year ago, most of the publishers were afraid that this next generation would be like going off a cliff, and no one would be buying hardware in the fall," Leece said. "Sports titles take multiple years to iterate and get right. Now there feels like there's a resurgence in consoles, as far as this last launch, and I think we'll see a healthier approach to how this is handled."
In the end, what really happened to the arcade sports title might be that its experiences were just absorbed into the overall simulation title. NBA Ballers' lifestyle component, however outlandish it is, has strong echoes in NBA 2K14's My Player career mode, which features scripted off-court encounters and one-on-one rivalries supporting the action within the season. Unlockable all-time greats, alternate uniforms, stadiums and other features, a staple of the arcade genre 10 years ago, have been replaced by cards acquired in ultimate team modes.
That still leaves the accessibility gap Leece mentioned earlier — whether it is in increasingly complex game controls or in increasing realism that demands expert knowledge of a sport's fundamentals. Arcade titles have value in that they can introduce players to the basic idea behind a fuller game — playcalling and passing in NFL Blitz's 2012 reboot, for example, looks a lot like it does in Madden. They can also offer experiences that, if you screw up and lose an important game even in a career mode, the do-over doesn't feel like a player is cheating against reality.
If they do return, though, it probably won't be anything close to what NBA Ballers was. That thing had a fully original soundtrack, for God's sake. Even if MC Supernatural opened the game with one of the most blatantly lip-synched performances ever, hey, at least those rhymes were all Ballers'.
Roster File is Polygon's news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games. It appears on weekends.