It’s a dark day for a professional athlete when the analysts and professionals of sports media say that he or she has hit their ceiling. Now, most professional athletes who are paid great sums of money to do what they love for a living in front of adoring fans rarely have dark days, unless their name is Mark Sanchez and they find themselves moving towards a giant ass at too great a speed. But when a self-titled expert goes out on SportsCenter or First Take and says that a certain player has hit their ceiling, a great deal of doubt and negative expectations begin to set in. He’s past his prime, they’ll say. It’s all downhill from here, they’ll say. His relevance and popularity are going to decline, they’ll imply. For some, the decline is gradual, and for others, it’s sharp. It’s a difference between lingering around the league, and dropping off of the face of the sports world. And for some, the decline is non-existent. Up until a torn Achilles, people began to wonder if Kobe Bryant would ever show signs of deterioration. For professional sports athletes, the question is rarely if, but when they will hit their ceiling. But for sports video games, the question becomes if and when.
The sports genre of video games has really advanced and branched over the past couple decades. From the traditional simulators (Madden, NBA Live, FIFA) to the obscene (EA Sports BIG’s Street series, Midway’s NFL Blitz and MLB Slugfest) to the fictional (Blood Bowl, Sonic and Mario At The Olympics), sports games have been revived, revamped, and remastered. We’ve seen juggernauts dominate specific sports; Madden has dominated American football for years, and aren’t afraid to rub it in with their recently released Madden 25. NBA 2K took the title of best basketball series a couple of years ago from EA Sports’ NBA Live. EA is looking to resurrect the Live series with the next-gen of consoles, but they’re going into the fight as the underdogs. The emergence of online play has molded sports multiplayer into a league almost as competitive as the real ones themselves. Only in fantasy football have I seen fans so passionate about teams that don’t really exist. And sports games have transitioned into other genres as well. What originated as a casual reference to a fictional game known as Grifball in the popular Red vs. Blue series culminated in a legitimate game type in the Halo series, similar to American football and played by thousands of people on Xbox Live. Star Wars: The Old Republic features a similar PvP game type called Huttball.
But what happens when sports games run out of new variables to add to the formula? What if a point is reached when new features and game types can’t be thought of, and companies like 2K and EA Sports have to rely solely on graphical updates and mechanical improvements? To contemplate this possible end, we’ll use two sports game series I have the most experience with: the NBA 2K series, and the Madden series. I’ve actually played NCAA Football more than Madden, but with NCAA recently deciding not to renew its license with EA, the future of the NCAA Football series is questionable enough as it is. For 2K, we’ll begin with the release that rejuvenated the franchise: NBA 2K11. 2K11’s new features are what drew consumers and critics into it. Namely, this was done with three different features that paid homage to Michael Jordan. There was the ability to collect all of Jordan’s shoes, as well as the Jordan Challenge mode, in which you attempted to recreate his greatest moments, including The Shrug, The Flu Game, and the emotional Fathers’ Day championship win after coming back from retirement. After completing these challenges, you unlock “MJ: Creating a Legend Mode”, where you can take a rookie MJ and put him on any current NBA team. You could bring him back to Chicago to play with D-Rose, send him to LA to team up with Kobe, or put him on the Bobcats since he’d do better on the court than in the front office. One of the best aspects about these new features was that you had to play through some to unlock others. And they were so new and captivating that you actually wanted to. 2K12 continued to step in the right direction, with an improved MyPlayer mode that streamlined the road to the NBA, the addition of Steve Kerr to the commentary team, and the new “NBA’s Greatest” mode, where you can take the greatest teams and players from NBA history and match them up against each other or against modern teams. LeBron and the Heat versus the Showtime Lakers? Sounds good to me.
But then we started to slow down the hype when we got to NBA 2K13. MyTeam was great in the sense that you built your team like a Magic deck, but the mode was unavailable to PC players. The Slam Dunk competition got a complete gameplay overhaul, and was finally brought back to the All-Star game instead of being on the black top, but you had to pay extra for that as well as the 3pt Shootout and the Skills competition. And MyPlayer and Association mode didn’t bring much to the table, and they essentially just took the “Creating a Legend” from 2K11 and let you do it with any player. It was fun giving Allen Iverson the NBA title he deserved, and it was great to put Brian Scalabrine on the Lakers to form Team Mamba with Kobe, but 2K13 didn’t get me excited like 2K11 did.
Now, up until I began to write this article, my initial thoughts on the “LeBron: Path to Greatness” mode that is the centerpiece of the upcoming NBA 2K14 release were that of low expectations. The way I saw it, it was going to be either a rehashing of Jordan’s greatest moments similar to NBA 2K11, or a Create-A-Legend mode that for some reason focused solely on LeBron. I thought this was what we were getting, until I saw this from IGN.