Free to play Sports Games 1

Every year, the announcement of the latest FIFA, NBA 2K, MLB The Show, or Madden is met with the same chorus of complaints: copy-and-paste. It’s a reductive comment, of course – the Internet, as a whole, is rarely constructive with its criticism – but these titles are developed on such short cycles that it’s hard for the likes of EA Sports, 2K Sports, and Sony to really rebuild an entire experience in under a year.

As a result, these releases tend to be iterative: they progress under-the-hood year-on-year, but it’s hard to appreciate the changes sometimes. There’s no doubt that if you compare, say, NBA 2K15 to NBA 2K21 there are a lot of changes – although not everyone will agree they’re for the best – but it’s much more challenging to notice the tweaks on an annual basis. Gameplay animations are added and Franchise modes layer on new systems, but the alterations tend to be minor.

For years, then, fans have argued that these series should be free-to-play, or at least service-based – especially seeing as the microtransaction boom has added controversial gacha mechanics in the form of Ultimate Team to almost all of these franchises. PES, newly rebranded eFootball, is the first to make the jump, with Konami recognising that it simply can’t compete with the FIFA juggernaut anymore. For years it’s had the better playing soccer sim, but its full-price sales have been on the decline.

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But is this the future of sports games? Many argue that these titles are so iterative there’s very little value in buying a new one every year, but resets like what EA Sports is doing with HyperMotion Technology this year are important when it comes to pushing the genre forward. Would that be possible in a free-to-play, service-based game? Perhaps, but the monetisation would need to be aggressive to justify the work.

eFootball is effectively starting out as a demo, with a handful of teams and an exhibition mode. There’s no doubt it’ll grow over time – Konami has mentioned the fact that you’ll be able to buy bolt-on modes later, presumably including the popular Master League – but given the business model it’s adopting we have to assume the emphasis will be on the areas of the game that can be monetised, such as MyClub. Story modes, such as NBA 2K’s MyCareer, would be less viable in a free-to-play environment.

Publishers would have to work hard to ensure lucrative modes like Ultimate Team don’t get stale. Typically, these modes follow a power curve, where the best content is gradually rolled out over the course of a season – but this author already has about eight Cristiano Ronaldo cards in eFootball PES 2021: Season Update alone, so how many R7s be dished out in eFootball over the course of its lifespan? With no annual reset, it’ll be interesting to see how Konami retains interest over the course of an entire generation, and perhaps it’ll push it to be more creative.

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Where do you stand on all this? Are you the kind of person who happily laps up a new sports game every year, or are you of the belief that the changes are so minimal that these games don’t justify full-price each season? It’ll be interesting to see whether eFootball triggers a paradigm shift for the genre as a whole, or kills the series for good. We’re in an era of subscriptions and service games now, so it’s not the wildest idea. The question is: is this what you want?

Is the future of sports games free-to-play, and why? Are you the kind of person who’s in the market for new sports games every year, or are you a casual sideline observer? Have a kick about in the comments section below.

Should all sports games go free-to-play?