A robust list of publishing partners and the coy inclusion of NBA 2K17 in a promotional reel stirred hope in some that mainstream sports might be returning to Nintendo with the Switch console. It's too soon to answer that. A better question to ask is why it matters.
That isn't to disparage either Nintendo, sports video games or fans of either. But it's always interesting to me why the sports genre, whose predictable feature set and launch dates make it an outlier to readers and writers fixated on rumors, innovation and nostalgia, would make even a ripple after the tsunami of enthusiasm for the Nintendo Switch.
First, the news we do have in hand is nice. On its face, the Switch should be as friendly to sports as it should to any other console game. This console's proposition is playing the same game on a table as you expect in a seated, big-screen environment. None of the onerous development accommodations Nintendo wanted for its Wii or Wii U games, like gesture-based controls or second screen functionality, seem to be in play here. It can be a dual-analog experience in the living room and on the go.
More than 50 publishers and developers were listed as partners in Nintendo's event on Thursday, and that's fine, but so far only three (other than Nintendo) have themselves confirmed they're making something for the Switch. It's also worth remembering that FIFA, NBA 2K and Madden all published on the Wii U in its launch year (and only that year).
EA Sports gives every platform one year
EA Sports will roll its flagship games out at least once for any new platform — as Madden and FIFA titles on the PlayStation Vita and Nintendo 3DS (and just as quickly discontinued) attest. It'll do that even though there was, plainly, some kind of rupture after then-CEO John Riccitiello appeared on Nintendo's stage at E3 2011 for the Wii U.
2K Sports doesn't reject new technology out of hand, either, publishing NBA 2K13 for the Wii U and gamely bringing Kobe Bryant to the E3 2011 stage for the last confirmed sighting of PlayStation Move. Also, 2K, with its NHL franchise, continued porting to the original Wii long, long after every other label had given up on it.
So if everything so far follows some pattern of big business behavior going back a decade, why is a sports video game's inclusion in a hype reel worth calling out?
It's because sports, however excluded they are from the day-to-day conversation in video gaming, are an important sign of a console's mainstream appeal, and few constituencies crave affirmation like hardcore video gamers.
Sports are an important sign of a console's mainstream appeal
For about a decade, and somewhat perversely, Nintendo's consoles have been marginalized as boutique products, a walled garden for the company's stable of characters and 1990s-era nostalgia. And sports, more than any genre, shows the alienation of third-party publishers from Nintendo hardware since the GameCube.
Their ports were outsourced; their developers despised the extra homework of making motion controls or second screens relevant; their player models were made cartoony to appeal to parents who saw a Wii at grandpa's nursing home. None of it, with the exception, maybe, of Tiger Woods PGA Tour before 2011, was treated or marketed as a full partner to the Sony and Microsoft experiences.
There was resentment on the other side of the channel, too. To be told you're not worth the attention of a top-10 selling franchise is a slap to the face. Even if you're not buying or playing the game, it means what you own — at many times the cost of a game — wasn't worth it. So big names get obligated to wave the flag for constituencies who give them no money.
I remember well the howling anger over whether or not Call of Duty: Ghosts would launch on Wii U, while Activision and its publicists played dumb through E3 2013. Ghosts ultimately did launch on Wii U (and is the last Call of Duty to do so). But every boilerplate mention of its launch platforms that did not mention the Wii U guaranteed invective in comments and in Twitter from readers almost personally insulted by the exclusion.
So there's sort of a you-first dynamic in play here. Sure, publishers have the money and can pump out one title as a trial balloon. Will gamers who say they value a democratic marketplace — all offerings on all platforms, and if you don't think this is still an ideal, let me show you this online petition — actually pay for that?
Much like a professional franchise that makes a huge free-agent signing, or a college that lands a tenacious coach and a couple all-star recruits, the instant declaration of a former championship club being "back" is usually false, or is at least unsupported. So it is with sports on Nintendo. It will be 2018 before we know for sure whether this bedrock genre has really returned.
Roster File is Polygon's column on the intersection of sports and video games.