The most popular titles in esports aren't sports games. This seems like an odd contradiction at first glance, but when the industry is taken into consideration it makes sense. Esports promote strategy and fine-tuned metagames. With the annual nature of games like Madden, NBA 2K, or FIFA; the competition does not have the same chance to evolve. In addition, because the games are based on real players they feature the same imbalances that will put the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals again this year. Finally, these games are restricted to consoles. That alienates the core esports market as PC's are the preferred platform for the majority of titles.
With that being said, Madden was one of the original esports in the North American market. The Madden Challenge Series ran for quite a few years in the mid-2000s and prompted a reality show on ESPN; "Madden Nation." It died off, mostly because EA got complacent - shocking, I know - and players did not want to invest $60 annually for updated rosters. Now both NBA 2K and Madden are reinvesting in their esports scenes. They have the support of many franchises within their leagues, but the difference that will make has yet to be seen.
How To Balance The Game?
The main appeal of traditional sports games is their ability to model physical leagues and players. Unfortunately for the developers, this is also a major limiting factor in the their ability to balance. In fantasy titles such as League of Legends, Overwatch and Dota 2, five players control a unique character with their own set of abilities. Games rooted with the fantasy element provide the developer with more flexibility in their design. There are limitless possibilities in what can be created for future patches. While the developer's retain the freedom to implement balance changes without taking away from the core identity of the game.For sports titles, you can not replicate this level of game balance without selling out the core concept of the game. The teams and players performance is rooted in reality because the game is designed to reflect the real league. Some fans have suggested equalizing player stats across the board to keep the game even. This goes against the core concept of the game. Once LeBron James has the same ability as Allen Crabbe, something has gone wrong.
Issues With Artificial IntelligenceOne of the main defining characteristics of a successful esport is teamwork. Besides Hearthstone and fighting games, esports require a player to be one piece of a larger framework. In Overwatch, you could be a Mercy-main who focuses entirely on support. To do this you must work in conjunction with the rest of your teammates to coordinate who to Damage/Heal Boost while also keeping a finger on the Ressurection key. In Fifa and Madden, there is a lack of this teamwork element that has helped made most of the reigning esports titles popular. You control one player and have to rely on the computer-controlled teammates to get open for passes. This lack of team play takes away from the competitive experience, narrative building, and the potential for a fanbase to develop around certain players. These titles are more about the head-to-head competition but don't feature the same nuances of a fighting game.
NBA 2K has tried a feature which allows for a team to be controlled by five individual players. It almost works in basketball but good luck convincing your teammate to play Steven Adams while you take Russell Westbrook. With AI controlling a major aspect of the game, the randomness prevents these games from becoming high-level esports.
Annual PurchaseA fundamental difference between sports titles and popular esports, is that there's a new version every year. The gameplay rarely changes from the previous iteration with athlete and team ratings being the key difference. A new game released each year for around $60 to $80 USD - in addition to DLC sales - ensures a steady flow of revenue from a loyal fanbase. The people in charge of these games have come to expect a quick ROI (Return on Investment).
The desire from their investors to have traditional sports games replicate the success of esports has placed pressure on developers such as EA to create a place for their titles in the burgeoning esports ecosystem. Blizzard Entertainment can create a hit title and invest millions into building a geolocalized franchise such as Overwatch. Blizzard is well-versed in the esports scene. Typically, skipping the organic growth period in favor of diving directly into a professional esports league will not work well.
It is important for sports games to model their respective leagues. The model for sports games is to release a game at the start of the season, update it until the championship and then let it fall by the wayside as development begins on next year's title. As balance is not one of the key concerns, the game studios don't change any factors in the actual gameplay, they update individual player's stats and change minor things in the next game.
The thing that makes sports games so popular, their connection with sports fans, is also what make them poor candidates for esports in general. The frequent changes from one title to the next fractionates the playerbase and prevents the organic long-term growth of a community.
Everyone in the nation is trying to get a piece of the esports market. 2K and EA must be wary before they alienate their core audience in the process of forcing the artificial growth of a community that may detract from what makes the games so popular in the first place.
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