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Sports video games double-dip with annual releases and cosmetic battle passes

Do I really want to re-buy F1 2020 cosmetics? No. Would I? Yeah.

A customized Formula 1 race car, in a school bus yellow and very dark purple livery, rounding a corner.
My racing team’s livery and nose cone badge in F1 2021. Note the conspicuous absence of a centaur on that badge.
Image: Codemasters/Electronic Arts via Polygon

Let me preface this petty complaint by saying that I have about 12 hours of on-track time in F1 2021’s career mode alone, about two weeks after the game launched. I adore this game, and it will devour hundreds of my waking hours over the next year. But it’s for that reason I’m raising this stink: The customization unlocks and options, so far, are weak. Unacceptably weak.

The first eight-week season of the game’s Podium Pass offers just five vehicle liveries — and the colors cannot be altered for two of them, including an “epic” all-black livery called Shadow. A third livery in this collection, like many others offered in the daily store (six in my collection so far), has major features that are locked to a black color only.

Why is this a problem? F1 2021’s deepest mode of play is My Team, where you create your own two-car Formula One team, race one of them yourself, and manage the vehicle’s development and other off-the-track crises and intrigues over a multiseason pursuit of the championship. It’s a mode that screams “emergent narrative,” and after sinking 120 hours into it in F1 2020, I can give you a backstory for my team colors, the badge, and the stripes on its livery. If that’s not half my fun of the mode, it’s at least one-third. And in F1 2021, I have to start it all over, with some very rinky-dink beginner outfits.

Screen showing eight cosmetics available in F1 2021’s Daily Item Store
In the Daily Item Store today are three vehicle liveries, two of which are animal print, in case you want your racing team to look like your eccentric aunt living on the Upper East Side.
Image: Codemasters/Electronic Arts via Polygon

The larger issue — bigger than my aesthetic disappointment — is the uncomfortable question it raises about sports video games as they start to resemble Fortnite and other games that offer tiered loot and season passes of unlockable content.

And that question is: Absolutely, I want the Centaur logo from F1 2020 for my team badge in F1 2021 (think gun charm in Rainbow Six Siege). But do I really want to buy it again? God, it’s agonizing. You see, the Centaur represents the fact that my fictitious automaker uses Ferrari engines underneath an original chassis, and ...

Anyway, Codemasters seems to recognize the bad optics of reacquiring old cosmetics, since most of the car, firesuit, and helmet designs so far are all new. (The Galaxy livery, whose colors can’t be changed, is a straight lift of a design from last year; so are some of the base designs everyone gets at the start.) The studio has also added three more types of unlockables — radio calls for your created driver’s victory; new (fictional) sponsor decals; and a personal decal ringing the interior of the cockpit’s protective halo. But that also means fewer spaces in the Podium Pass’s 30 levels to reward players with a vehicle skin or badge icon.

In any case, Fortnite’s and Apex Legends’ communities would revolt if Epic Games or Electronic Arts, respectively, vaulted everything and made everyone reacquire their wardrobe after a year rolled over. But for a sports video game ... it’s ... assumed to be kosher? Thanks to a decade of Ultimate Teams, sports video gamers have become conditioned to a full reset of a mode that could easily be as persistent as For Honor, a game Ubisoft launched in 2017.

screen showing items that are unlocked at levels 19, 20, and 21 of F1 2021’s podium pass
At level 21 of F1 2021’s inaugural Podium Pass, one unlocks the so-called “epic” Shadow livery. It’s just an all-black design. That’s it. Not even a matte finish.
Image: Codemasters/Electronic Arts via Polygon

As for why the annual release model persists, that’s because a $60 or $70 purchase every year is the backbone of the guaranteed minimum payments that publishers make to sports leagues and their players associations. Per-copy sales are the basis for royalties above that. I have no idea what, if any, cut the NFL or the NFL Players Association gets from Madden Ultimate Team revenue, but I’d point out that what people are actually spending money on there isn’t an item with a player’s or team’s likeness on it; it’s the alternate, in-game currency that acquires such things.

But there is a difference between building up teams of new players, who may perform differently in an iterated, improved video game, and straight cosmetic items that have no functional purpose. All of the content offered in F1 2021’s Podium Pass, or the Daily Item Store, is cosmetic. None of it improves a car, doubles XP gain, or gives your driver an attribute perk in multiplayer or any other mode. I’m not sure if that’s better or worse, actually. Saying bye to great designs that I purchased for a buck or two is irritating as hell, but I also rebuild my Diamond Dynasty team and my Road to the Show player every year in MLB The Show.

F1 2021’s community is no more restive than Madden’s or NBA 2K’s — but it’s no less vocal, either. And Codemasters appears to have painted itself into a corner. The options seem to be offering last year’s designs in the Daily Store (microtransaction only) or in the next eight-week Podium Pass, and hearing people howl about buying something they already paid money for. Or, continue to pump out new designs, run out of ideas (the Shadow livery really is just a shameful give-up), and hear fans clamor for the great stuff they got last year.

Yes, a better livery editor — akin to what you get in a Gran Turismo or Forza game — would solve everything. It’d also kill a product line for Codemasters and new owner EA, so I doubt that’s coming to console players anytime soon. (F1 PC modders have been playing with custom designs for years.) While most everyone who races in F1 has a RaceNet account with Codemasters — and therefore, one assumes, some record of the content they owned last year — I doubt that a studio still crunching to deliver three new race courses as free downloadable content is also working to give us back some of last year’s greatest hits.

The most reasonable make-good I can fathom would come next year, if Codemasters let folks carry over one or two designs to start their careers in F1 2022. (Sony San Diego Studio did something like this when it told users to upload custom logos and other designs to MLB The Show’s vault by the end of February if they wanted to use them in this year’s new game. But those custom cosmetics are all free user-generated content.) Whatever the case, we still need better designs than the stuff I’ve seen so far. I’ve bought half a dozen suits and liveries, and yet I’ve been racing my career with stuff included on the disc.

That doesn’t include the Centaur, which, goddammit, yes, I will re-buy. Grudgingly. But I will. I bet a lot of other folks would, too. That’s the problem.

Roster File is Polygon’s news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games.

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