The Rise and Fall of 2K Sports

Let be me clear: Neither 2K Sports, nor their parent company 2K Games (Take-Two Interactive), is in jeopardy.  There is no fall of the Roman Empire on the horizon; if anything, 2K is in a Pax Romana of sorts. If you’re in need of a refresher, 2K Games publishes Civilization, BioShock, Borderlands, and tons more.  Their Steam catalog isn’t anything to scoff at. And, in the realm of sports, the NBA 2K games have essentially cornered the basketball video game market for two reasons: one, they’re good and two, EA Sports’s basketball games are horrendous.

But 2K Sports has fallen a long way.

2K Sports began as Visual Concepts and, in some ways, still exists as Visual Concepts. VC specialized in sports simulation video games and, in the 90s, actually developed a couple of Madden titles, as well as some other titles for EA Sports. This was before EA centralized development in-house, and, as it turns out, VC was partially responsible for that. When VC failed to deliver on a new Madden game for the holiday season in 1996, EA dropped them. Hold that thought for a while.

VC as we know it today hit its stride at the turn of the millennium, which was the reasoning for the “2K” moniker. Their sports games were simply titled, and it all started with NFL 2K exclusively on the Sega Dreamcast. They would expand to make MLB games, NHL games, as well as college football and basketball games. Most early titles were Dreamcast-exclusive, and they were so successful that Sega bought VC outright. They did some work outside of sports for a bit, including a little game called Sonic Adventure 2. Look in the credits and you’ll see Visual Concepts.

After the untimely demise of the Dreamcast, VC continued to make games in the 2K series for the PS2, Xbox, and Gamecube. Perhaps no title was bigger than the cult-hero ESPN NFL 2K5, which is, to this day, the last official NFL-licensed video game not published by EA Sports. At the time, Madden games dominated the sports video game market. Buoyed by a strong name to go along with it (John Madden) and a reputation for strong presentation, Madden killed every rival football video game out there.

NFL Fever, NFL Blitz, NFL GameDay, and I’ll even count Tecmo Super Bowl. No football game series has lasted as long as the Madden Goliath. But to stretch the analogy a bit further, ESPN NFL 2K5 was David, and a low price point and innovative presentation was the slingshot and the ammo.

ESPN NFL 2K5
There’s a reason the ESPN part is largest.

For one, ESPN NFL 2K5 did a lot of things no other football games had ever done before. The franchise mode included weekly SportsCenter broadcasts, with commentary by Chris Berman and Mel Kiper. Though today it looks stunted and awkward, at the time it felt real. It introduced a “crib” that you could decorate with points earned by playing the game and accomplishing various goals. You could even play an entire game from the first-person perspective of one of the players.

What was more remarkable was the price point. Most new video games retailed for $49.99 at the time. Indeed, Madden 2005 that year retailed for precisely that much. 2K5 retailed for $19.99 brand new.

“It scared the hell out of us,” one of the Madden developers said about 2K5 in a Grantland special on Madden. For the first time in its long history, EA Sports flinched—this was the same company they had dropped nearly a decade earlier. EA Sports didn’t hesitate in their retaliation.

That year, EA Sports signed an infamous exclusivity deal with both the NFL and ESPN. No other game company had the right to produce video games using real NFL players or ESPN-styled presentation. NFL 2K was done for good. A brief and fleeting revival existed in the form of All-Pro Football 2K8, a game that used retired NFL legends and all-time fantasy teams in order to dent the Madden Armor. Though well-intentioned, it ultimately fell flat.

In 2005, Take-Two Interactive acquired Visual Concepts from SEGA and rebranded them as 2K Sports. Though they had lost the NFL (and NCAA football) license, they were still free to make basketball games, both professional and collegiate, as well as pro baseball and pro hockey. In fact, Take-Two gave EA a taste of its own medicine by signing an exclusivity deal with MLB. EA Sports switched to collegiate baseball for two years before focusing elsewhere in 2008.

One might be inclined to scream “anti-trust” or “monopoly” about all of this. What gives EA the right to negotiate a deal that prevents other companies from making football games or Take-Two to negotiate a deal that prevents other companies from making baseball games? However, neither of these statements are exactly true and, therefore, it’s not a monopoly. Other companies are simply unable to officially license their games. They can still make games, but they will be unable to use real teams or players. Games like that rarely sell, so they don’t make them.

What this results in is a lack of competition and the largest criticism levied at the Madden series over the past decade. Both Madden 2005 and ESPN NFL 2K5 were incredible video games. But from 2006 on, Madden had little to no competition. Without competition, there was no real reason to improve the product. People were—and are—going to buy the games anyway; people prefer playing games featuring real athletes and teams. It’s why I personally stopped buying Madden games after the 2012 edition. The game had stagnated. If 2K Sports were able to compete with EA Sports year after year, they would push each other to make incredible games. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Even with the loss of the NFL license, 2K Sports stayed strong. The MLB license allowed them to make strong baseball games and the NBA refused to sign any exclusivity deals. They also still made NHL games, though the ESPN/EA Sports deal hurt.

Everything began to fall apart in 2008. College Hoops 2K8 is, to date, the last college basketball game ever made.

 

Sorry Blake, but this game makes me sick.
Sorry Blake, but this game makes me sick.

I repeat: College Hoops 2K8 was the last college basketball game ever made. It was incredible, with superior controls and a wildly in-depth career mode. Because of this, the online community is remarkably strong, even to this day. Although it’s been two years since 2K shut down the online servers and the ability to upload and download custom rosters, people still create and share them.

Visiting the deepest reaches of the Operation Sports forums reveals a community of a select few who make the rosters and a select many who help them. Making updated rosters for a college basketball video game is a ridiculous undertaking; with over 200 teams and anywhere from eight to fifteen players on each team, that’s a lot of busy work, especially if you value accuracy. But people like raiderfan247365, whose Xbox 360 rosters I used this past year, sacrifice their time to help their peers enjoy this game we all still love.

What spelled the end of 2K8 was a redux of what happened with the NFL. EA Sports signed an exclusivity deal with the NCAA but, strangely, made no college basketball games.

 

COUGH, HACK, COUGH
COUGH, HACK, COUGH

It’s so weird that EA Sports didn’t make any college basketball games after signing that exclusivity deal.

The next chip to fall was the NHL 2K series. Though no exclusivity deals existed here (save for ESPN), the company took a curious step in publishing NHL 2K11 as a Wii exclusive. This was something no company did, and though the game received positive reviews it never returned to the PS3 or Xbox 360. EA Sports continues to make NHL video games, but 2K Sports has long since bowed out.

Then MLB 2K came tumbling down. A loophole in the exclusivity deal signed with MLB that prevented EA Sports from making games was that first-party developers could still use MLB licenses. Enter MLB 06: The Show, a PS2-exclusive developed by SCE San Diego Studio (formerly 989 Sports) and published by Sony. These games provided strong competition to MLB 2K, and both games had stellar iterations for several years.

MLB 2K11 was just good, though. MLB 2K12 didn’t improve on much, and rumor had it that it would be the last MLB game 2K Sports would make. But they struck a deadline deal with MLB and the MLBPA to make MLB 2K13, but with a seriously protracted development cycle. With less than half a year to make the game, MLB 2K13 added nothing new and took away online leagues. It was humiliating and disappointing, especially because it was the only option for players on the Xbox 360. It was the last.

That leaves NBA 2K, a series 2K Sports has mastered throughout the years, perhaps to a fault. They were no doubt helped out by EA Sports, who have been unable to make a passing basketball game in the last several years. Between NBA Live 10 and NBA Live 14, EA Sports cancelled two basketball games. One was NBA Elite 11, a rebranding of the series in the wake of 2K’s domination. An infamously buggy demo was as far as it got. NBA Live 13 was also canceled relatively late in its development cycle. NBA Live 14 should have done the same, as it has been panned with good reason.

2K Sports, on the other hand, were able to team up with Michael Jordan for 2K11 and 2K12, both critically acclaimed games. Jay-Z helped produce 2K13, also critically acclaimed despite being full of bugs. LeBron James worked with 2K for this year’s edition. With a full year to develop for next-gen consoles, 2K15 will likely be just as strong as previous entries.

But it’s one of just two series 2K Sports has to offer right now.  The other is a reboot of the video game series based on WWE, and its latest entry is WWE 2K14, which capitalized on WrestleMania’s 30-year anniversary to deliver a solid game. But other than that, there’s nothing else.

2K Sports has not indicated in any way that they are considering returning to any game series they have dropped. The company that scared the hell out of EA Sports is content to humiliate EA Sports in the basketball market year after year and fulfill the wrestling game niche. There’s a lot of money there and the focus allows them to make great games.

But since that David and Goliath moment in 2004, they have fallen a long ways. The world would be a better place with ESPN NFL 2K14 making sure the Madden series doesn’t get complacent. We would be better off with College Hoops 2K14 running on the engine used in the NBA 2K games, though the legal issues that come with college sports games now would likely make things not worth it in the end. And, hell, maybe we’d be better off if 2K Sports gave a shit and made a passable MLB 2K14 playable on non-Sony consoles.

Regardless, thank God 2K Sports has given us the ability to do this:

 

Come on and slam, y’all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*