NBA 2K19, the biggest game in one of the world’s biggest sports, now has unskippable in-game ads. For many, it’s a step too far for a premium game that already had its share of microtransactions, and the backlash may be enough for 2K to retreat from this idea, but it’s certainly not alone in finding more and more ways to monetize its players. Sports games in particular have moved this direction for years. How did we get here? It could be the fault of a game a lot of sports fans consider one of the best ever: ESPN NFL 2K5.
In what turned out to be the final gambit in the battle between the Madden and NFL 2K franchises, ESPN NFL 2K5 was a nuclear option. It launched at a $19.99 price point, and it did so without scaling back any features or marketing, dooming both it and its competitor to mutually assured profit destruction in an attempt to gain market share.
And it worked! Perhaps too well for its own good.
The release of NFL 2K5 led to two huge, connected moves with lasting consequences. The first: its success backed EA into a corner enough to sign an expensive exclusivity deal with the NFL. If you look at the state of things now, you can see that each sport is dominated by one game, and while some of those were attained through attrition rather than exclusivity, we’re now dominated by too-big-to-fail games that have the entire market but also need that to cover all the advertising and contractual costs they need to maintain their position. So they find ways to squeeze every last cent out of players, maybe because they have to find money somewhere and maybe because no one’s really in a position to stop them.
2K5 was also the last year of sports games for Sega. With the exclusivity deal knocking the company out of football and its position in the mid-2000s market being somewhat tenuous already, there was neither the will nor the funding to keep up the fight and the division was sold to Take-Two. Sega, like other companies that have built consoles and rely upon brand equity more than simply how the balance sheets look every quarter, managed its sports games differently. Making a dollar now instead of two dollars later is the sort of thing you see more often at companies like EA and Take-Two, where executives are always on the hot seat, and while Sony’s still around and making MLB The Show with an eye toward quality, the death of its own competitors has let it throw in microtransactions in recent years with reckless abandon.
These days, players expect fully-featured, robust sports games regardless of price, and as development costs have risen, that puts them more and more in the position of NFL 2K5: delivering more content for less money. So it makes sense that they would continue what that game started by putting the ESPN branding front and center: incorporating more real-life properties and earning some cash on the side to do it. The next year, you could already see brands like Toyota seeing in-game placement under the guise of mimicking the ads in real-world broadcasts. So perhaps commercials are just the next logical step.
Even with all this, you can still appreciate NFL 2K5 for its well-tuned gameplay and innovative ideas. It just may not have been worth the fallout.