Sports video games are a kind of coal-mine canary for old video game consoles once their younger and better-looking successors hit the market. When the sports genre stops supporting the old hardware, you know it's time to get your ass to the elevator and press UP.
The last new game published for the Dreamcast was NHL 2K2. For the PSOne, FIFA 2005. The last game published for the GameCube was Madden NFL 08, and Madden NFL 09 was the last game published for the Xbox. The last PlayStation 2 game was Pro Evolution Soccer 2014.
Sports video games are the last to turn off the lights in a console cycle, in other words. When they start clocking out, get out. EA Sports' NHL series started flipping the switch this week when it announced its Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 edition would be something called NHL Legacy.
That sounds like little more than a reconditioning of NHL 15, on the 360 and PS3, which itself was little more than a reconditioning of NHL 14. At least NHL 15 on the previous console generation had more modes of play and features than its next-generation sibling, a disappointment that badly damaged one of sports video gaming's most consistently acclaimed franchises over the preceding decade.
NHL is made at EA Canada, the studio that also makes the FIFA series,, which innovated this kind of slinking old-hardware exit with a FIFA 13 "Legacy Edition" for Wii and 3DS a couple years ago. When it launched on the 3DS in 2012. Nintendo itself told consumers the game featured current schedules and kits but "no updates to gameplay or game modes." FIFA 14 launched on the Wii (but not the Wii U) and got the same treatment from both parties. It was a shocking staredown.
The message is clear: "Legacy Edition" means unapologetically reheated leftovers. EA Sports could get away with this on the Wii, which is not and never was a serious sports console even if it was politely breveted to the rank of the PS3 and Xbox 360. (The Wii U, it must be mentioned, has zero current licensed sports simulations — not even Pro Evolution Soccer.) For something like NHL, with a 20-year history on core gaming consoles, it's a warning.
'Legacy Edition means unapologetically reheated leftovers'
EA Sports' NHL "Legacy Edition" officially starts the third-party publishers' departure from the old hardware generation. Yes, Madden NFL, NBA 2K and FIFA are still publishing on the prior console generation this fall, and will likely sell just fine. Yet it would not surprise me at all to see all three get "Legacy Editions" of their own next year — better yet, sold online — to keep up appearances, milk an installation base and underwrite the huge minimum payments guaranteed to their licensors.
Sports video games, despite their admittedly niche appeal, are enormous sellers and almost exclusively dependent on consoles. The next Assassin's Creed and Call of Duty may be skipping Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, but they will still appear on PC and their publishers don't pay licensing fees. So sports video games are a truer bellwether for a hardware generation's decline. The canary in the coal mine isn't there to tell you you're dead, after all. It's there to tell you there's nothing left to dig, and to get out.
Roster File is Polygon's news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games.