The Face of the Franchise

Sports video games don’t simulate sports so much as the thrill of building a brand

The appeal of sports simulation games like Madden NFL 20 or FIFA or NBA 2K can seem pretty straightforward. Beyond the escapism intrinsic to entertainment generally, they seem like the perfect vehicle to fulfill a wish for a slightly better reality: When your favorite teams lose too often, you can create a world in which they win with your help. You can imagine the athletic career you could never have in the real world, playing the hero in the sorts of stories young sports fans are inculcated with. If you want a brief vacation from the life you’ve chosen, the sports game offers the chance to be feted for a clear, objective victory that replaces the messiness of real life, however briefly. You can, as some typical marketing language goes, “become the Face of the Franchise and control your NFL superstar journey.”

But what does that really mean? How much of the “superstar journey” has to do with playing a sport rather than being marketed? Over the course of my life, I’ve spent dozens of hours re-creating my face in these games, renewing the process every year or two when I upgrade to the latest edition and launch a new game in “career mode” — where you create a player who can look sort of just like you (mine looks like me wearing a partly melted mask) — and lead them through to retirement via hundreds of hours of simulation. For a time, this feels semi-lifelike, with graphics and little details that make for a satisfying replica. But before long, the simulation inevitably becomes as unreal to me as my digital face.

My fantasies, like those of most fans, aren’t really about being an athlete

After my most recent FIFA playthrough — a career that saw a 24-year-old phenom version of myself switch from Real Madrid to hated rival Barcelona with nary a boo — I realized something even more basic about this unreality: Whatever the marketing language may suggest, none of these games are meant to give me a chance to simulate what life on the field would actually feel like. And they have me accurately pegged: My fantasies, like those of most fans, aren’t really about being an athlete. They’re about being an athlete on TV.

Our sports fantasies themselves are tied to the media we use to consume them in the real world. Video games have followed suit: They aren’t simulating the play of sports but building an interactive TV broadcast. Playing these games indulge the fantasy of becoming a celebrity.

The selling point of every major sports-game franchise is its realism. But it turns out that mediating sports as they are seen on TV feels more realistic than simulating the experience actual players have — especially for gamers who spend more time watching sports than playing them. The simulation feels real if it evokes the highlights you watch on Twitter or ESPN, seen from the same omniscient perspective you’re used to having from your couch.

One might think that sports games would skip the older medium of TV and give players a more direct chance to simulate what it’s like to be a sports star on the field. They would be played from that perspective, surrounded by trash talk and teammates shouting encouragement and coaches giving instructions. That is, they would create something like the experience of esports, in which spectators and players can share a similar perspective.

But considered as a simulation of real-world athletic competitions, sports games navigate a very different relationship between viewer and player. Most gamers don’t have much experience on the playing fields they’re simulating, so every major sports-simulation game defaults to TV broadcast angles and boasts of real-life announcers doing color commentary. There are also TV-style replays, highlights, lead-ins, and score chyrons. As Owen S. Good wrote in a review of Madden NFL 20 at Polygon, “This is always the goal of a sports video game, for both developer and player: to perpetrate something that passes for the sport as broadcast on a weekend.”

It’s not that the major video game developers can’t create a on-field fantasy simulation. Some have experimented with nonbroadcast-like options — ESPN NFL 2K5 had a first-person mode, for instance. But these angles made it hard for players to feel like they are the center of the action and instead made it difficult to perform heroic feats. “I don’t play sports games to be reminded of my limitations,” Good told me in an interview. “I play them to do something superhuman.” The TV angle helps this by downplaying the role of awareness and vision on the field, giving players a view that’s both easy to parse and aggrandizing. This is one reason Good has little hope for VR sports games: If they too closely resemble actual sports, only athletes would find them fun.

But the broadcast approach requires that the games simulate not just the (simplified) mechanics of playing the sport. They also need the intellectual property that makes sports exciting to consume, that make them a vicarious space into which we’d want to insert ourselves. I fantasize about being the one who could have taken Tottenham Hotspur past Liverpool in the Champions League final, performing the famed Cruyff turn on Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk before chipping in a game-winning goal. A game can only let me play out that fantasy if van Dijk’s likeness is included, along with his team, league, and stadium, preferably in lifelike detail. Add in the Champions League anthem, a cut scene that places my avatar in the photos I watch real-life players take before every match, plus some well-known announcers to narrate my success, and we’re in business.

Every major game defaults to TV angles and announcers doing color commentary, giving players a view that’s both easy to parse and aggrandizing

To (legally) include all that IP, though, developers must pay for image rights, and these deals continually prove confounding. They require negotiating not only with the various sports leagues but also the athletes’ unions and possibly individual teams and players, not to mention broadcasters. EA has even faced lawsuits from tattoo artists demanding payment for their art being re-created in game. And then there is competition among developers within the video-game industry itself who often seek market dominance by signing sports teams to exclusive contracts, as Konami did with Italian soccer team Juventus for PES 2020. (In EA’s FIFA 20, the team is renamed Piemonte Calcio.) EA pioneered that approach by locking up NFL teams to undercut its major Madden challenger from the 2000s, the NFL 2K series — which was gaining ground thanks in part to the deal it signed with ESPN to use its personalities and broadcast styles.

These financial realities have created the business model that developers have depended on for decades — the one that has kept the gameplay experience focused on media properties and familiar brands and personalities. Every year, they release a new version of what is more or less the same game, with a few tweaks and mostly tacked-on new features, and updated rosters. The annual publishing cycle lets developers reliably profit on their investment in licensing fees: According to market research firm NPD, two sports games — NBA 2K19 and Madden NFL 2019 —were among the five best-selling games in 2018. With so much money on the line, it’s no wonder developers keep game changes conservative.

But the rights deals are only getting more expensive. According to a Wall Street Journal report, the most recent deal that NBA 2K publisher Take-Two Interactive signed with the NBA and the NBA Players Association was worth $1.1 billion for seven years. Licensing fees for the other major sports are skyrocketing too, especially as YouTube, Amazon, Bleacher Report, and other new media companies enter the market, sending the values of sports teams themselves upward as well.

The growing costs have changed the calculus for developers. They’re now turning to the microtransactions and subscription models used in other video games to provide new revenue streams that can maintain profit margins. In the EA Sports universe, the result is the growth in Ultimate Team modes, which allow players to “build your dream squad,” as the trailer puts it, by purchasing athletes with in-game currency earned by completing various objectives or with real-world currency poured in as a shortcut to the gameplay grind. This cash grab accounted for over a quarter of EA’s revenue in the past fiscal year. But the biggest advance comes from Take-Two, which has one-upped EA with a model that combines a story mode (which deploys scripted characters and narratives that players experience as an interactive movie) with microtransaction options. Its flagship sports game, NBA 2K, centers on MyCareer, a career mode that includes the unparalleled depth I always thought I wanted.

Conventionally, career modes have been a fragile and shallow sort of immersion. The disappointing face creation is about as far as it goes: You can customize equipment and position, maybe work your way onto a better team and win a championship, but the video game itself rarely provides a satisfying acknowledgment of your heroics, nor much reward for your time. No matter how far into the future you play, announcers are stuck in the current year, and “career” milestones receive at most a passing comment. If you wanted a fulfilling narrative, you’d have to provide it on your own.

What NBA 2K has done is create a deepened fantasy experience — if you’re willing to pay for it. Player avatars are highly customizable — including tattoos, pregame rituals, off-court attire, and more — and the gameplay goes beyond the court, including attending workouts, participating in practices, doing drills to impress coaches, and signing endorsements in order to earn in-game cash and points to improve your on-court skills and various accoutrements. There are still the moments of absurdity in the career games — like coaches complaining you don’t rebound enough when you scored 70 points — but it’s not really about success on the court, nor even a coherent narrative experience. The fun is in building your avatar’s stats and contracts. Your brand.

The in-game earn rates, however, are set so low that only the most committed of players could ever fully simulate a Hall-of-Fame-worthy career without paying extra. Take-Two is raking in the cash as a result: 58 percent of its first quarter revenue this year came from “recurrent customer spending,” a category that includes microtransactions, led by NBA 2K19 and Take-Two’s non-sports marquee titles, Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption (both of which also combine deep story modes with blended, microtransaction-filled online experiences). “There is a move toward individual players and individual experiences,” said Andrew Baerg, a professor at the University of Houston–Victoria whose research focuses on sports video games. Gameplay mechanics — signing endorsements to earn more, buying nicer in-game clothes, and even achieving a kind of fame in NBA 2K’s online communities with your player rating displayed prominently above your head — all demonstrate the acceptance of neoliberal individualism, Baerg argues. “Sports video games are one part of the individuation of the culture, and of sports culture more specifically.”

Teams are cashing in on their stars’ brands using behind-the-scenes views offered by social media. Simulations go hand in hand with these changes

Across sports, the most visible workers have demanded trades, forced better contracts, and shifted power dynamics. But often their leverage has been tied to the strength of their personal brand: See LeBron James forcing his way to the Los Angeles Lakers just in time for his role in Space Jam 2 (not to mention his backing off his former activism to deflect criticism of China and protect his ability to profit in its lucrative market). Teams are cashing in on their stars’ brands as well, of course, using the continuous behind-the-scenes views offered by social media, as well as PR-projects-cum-documentaries like Amazon’s All or Nothing to create more engagement with fans and potential consumers.

Recent developments in video games go hand in hand with these changes in the broader sports world. “If MyCareer is someone’s [preferred] mode, I don’t see how they couldn’t internalize that understanding of who athletes are and how they function,” Baerg said. “It’s not enough to be an athlete. You have to have this off-court persona and these endorsements.” Story modes and expanded career modes may go beyond the standard TV broadcast but only because they’re simulating the new sports media ecosystem. It’s impossible to extricate what defines realism in video games from how the sports world is mediated elsewhere, as a series of brands that are continually seeking ways to capture consumer loyalty, attention, and profit.

The growing prevalence of online play only deepens the link, generating realism by intertwining fantasy worlds with the real one, all filtered through our digital connections. Not only can gamers build a social world around their fantasy selves, creating online teams with friends and strangers, but they can connect with actual stars at the same time, as in the regular Reddit threads of gamers finding actual NBA players in NBA 2K’s online spaces. But these new aspects also start forcing once private fantasies into the public, which shifts their nature and melds them with other social-media-driven aspirations. I win almost every FIFA game I play against the computer, even at the highest difficulties, but I’m terrible when I play other humans online. But what it means to win takes on a broader meaning when the competition is for attention.

The pleasure of fantasy is turned into something akin to work — and the incentives are set to entice me to suffer for the possibility of future pleasure further down the line. When it goes well, the games have a deepened realism, and when it doesn’t they become yet another ever-expanding activity for the burnout generation. Hence Kotaku editor Luke Plunkett’s accurate summation of NBA 2K20 as “one of the best sports games I’ve played in a long time” at the same time that it’s “a giant scam that is perpetually gross, and sometimes even terrifying, to be around.”

Sports video games can offer the illusion of control — of a world in which you’re the star. But that world operates according to certain rules, all governed by the financial realities of the game’s production. From a particular perspective, the stories included in sports games will always be bland, league-approved cookie cutter narratives because developers can’t risk losing the image rights they depend on. New mechanics and game modes will be whatever adds additional revenue streams to keep up with the market. The resulting simulation is, in many ways, the worst of our world: a place where everything is a product, where even our own fantasies are monetized and sold back to us. What is “realistic” is what profits developers and franchise owners, because sports video games can’t help but simulate the economic conditions of the broader industry. Playing them ceases to function as an escape from the real world but serves instead as indoctrination, teaching us to take pleasure in it, finding joy in the process of monetizing and being monetized.

Matt Hartman is a freelance writer and journalist from Durham, North Carolina.