We can always count on E3 to bring us all sorts of surprises and reveals, even if some of them end up getting leaked weeks or months in advance. All of the big hardware manufacturers and publishers want to wow the media and fans with a balance of new and exciting offerings as well as some properties that play on nostalgia.
The sports game space has had quite a few positive and negative developments emanating from E3 in the past, and I thought it would be fun to look back at some of the crazier moments from the past 15 years as well as look forward to the 2015 version of the annual hype machine.
Way back at E3 2004, Microsoft was looking to make a splash on Xbox Live and in the console space itself. EA had been wary of integrating its servers with MS, fearing a loss of control over the user experience, but both companies came to an understanding (and money likely changed hands) so that the whole suite of EA titles could arrive on the Xbox Live service.
The prize of this deal was the EA Sports catalogue, providing the likes of FIFA, Madden, NCAA and NHL for Xbox fans. It pretty much signalled the death-knell for the XSN sports brand, and games like Top Spin, Links and NFL Fever were thrown to the sidelines. With a massive publisher like EA hitching its wagon to MS, especially with titles like Madden for North America and FIFA for Europe and Asia, it was a massive deal that legitimized Microsoft as the de facto player in the online services space.
For a company that’s made a killing off of Mario, Zelda and Pokémon, it was sort of shocking to see Wii Sports take center stage for the new Wii console at 2006’s E3. It might not have seemed like it at the time, but Wii Sports was soon to become the mother of all pack-in games, allowing the Wii console to break down barriers and find its way into those “holy grail” demographics in the game space: non-gaming families and the elderly.
The simplicity of its input allowed a wide range of participants, and the selection of events was just enough that everyone felt like they could have a decent time with the game in a 30-minute session. I can’t count the number of older couples and families I know who ended up owning a Wii just to play bowling or tennis, and it was one of those times where even Nintendo didn’t really know what to do with all of the success that sort of fell into their lap.
I still remember seeing the lines of 300+ people waiting to play the game at E3 2006, and that sort of hype was a strange thing to witness.
All Pro Football 2K8 Tries to Make a Splash at Strange E3 — 2007
The quirkiness of All Pro Football 2K8 was accentuated by the bizarre E3 in which it was first playable. The E3 2007 show took place in various hotels around LA as well as one big airport hangar (compared to the standard LA Convention Center), and that weird vibe kind of describes All Pro Football 2K8 to a tee. Without a license to really hang its hat on, the gameplay-focused offering of All Pro just didn’t resonate with enough fans to generate meaningful sales.
A bigger E3 wouldn’t have likely done much for All Pro, as its reliance on legends and gimmicks just didn’t seem to have much lasting appeal, but it was kind of fitting that such an anomaly of a game would show up on one of the “down years” for E3.
At E3 2012, the UFC and EA Sports dropped a bit of a bombshell on the gaming world by announcing that they would partner up for games in the future. It was shocking because THQ wasn’t quite dead yet, and UFC boss Dana White had long been a critic of EA, saying this back in 2009:
|“'We put our asses on the line, THQ and the UFC, to make a video-game deal in the worst economy in the world,' White said. 'We go out there and do this thing, and it’s successful, and now [expletive] EA Sports wants to do a video game. Really? That’s not what you told us a year-and-a-half ago.'”|
White didn’t much care for the casual way EA had tossed aside the concept of MMA as a legitimate sport alongside soccer, football and basketball, and the arrangement with THQ was sort of the pairing of two scrappy underdogs. What a difference a few years can make. With THQ on the skids, the UFC knew that greener pastures awaited in the form of EA Sports, even though Dana White had to eat some crow and bury his dislike for the monolithic publisher.
It was funny watching Dana White looking stunned on the E3 stage, not really sure how to make sense of what was happening — even though it was a necessity for the survival of UFC’s videogame brand.
NBA Live 13 is Shown at E3 and Cancelled Months Later — 2012
Talk about oil and vinegar. EA has just flailed endlessly when it comes to basketball in the modern era, and all of this kind of came to a head at E3 2012, where NBA Live showed so poorly that pundits and press were seriously questioning the state the game was in and what it would look like for launch. EA must have realized that there was a lot of truth to this, as they ended up cancelling the game completely several months later.
It’s always fascinating to see a game get such a substantial marketing push, through signage and demos and presence at a press conference, and then see that very same product fade off into uncertainty. Many notable games have shared this fate, including Star Wars 1313, Prey 2, True Fantasy Live Online, This is Vegas, Rockstar’s Agent and, more recently, The Last Guardian. In fact, EA had previously had a stumble in the basketball space, cancelling 2010’s NBA Elite 11 for Xbox 360 and PS3. You know it’s a problem when you’re cancelling your main basketball franchise and the game that was supposed to succeed that franchise.
What will we see this year? Nothing is certain, of course, but it seems likely that we’ll hear something about Joe Montana Football 2016 — or whatever it ends up being called. Joe Montana himself even teased the game on a visit he was having up to Microsoft’s campus, but it’s hard to really read into that too much. Maybe it comes out on Xbox platforms; maybe it doesn’t. Phil Spencer, Microsoft’s gaming bigwig, has always said that they would likely use contracted studios to make exclusive sports games going forward, and this could be an example with the Montana game, similar to the arrangement with things like Sunset Overdrive and Quantum Break.
MS also has the High Heat Baseball license, but it’s hard to see them really going deep into baseball anytime soon. That said, they could outsource a studio to make the game and then slap the MS brand on it. It’s not out of the realm of possibility, but the NFL partnership they have makes a football property a more likely scenario.
What about Sony? After the disaster that was DriveClub, you have to wonder if the announced Gran Turismo (without Prologue) will be shown for PS4. One has to believe that they want to get a car game out there that can actually compete with Forza, but the notoriously slow Polyphony Digital might make fans wait another year. We shall see.
I’d say that the more outlandish possibilities — MVP Baseball, a 2K football title, Fight Night — aren’t likely to be seen at this year’s E3, but it would be nice if some major sports title emerged so that we could have something new in the conversation. My hope is that a couple of indie titles, known or unknown to us now, will have an impact on the showfloor. It would be really cool to see something along the lines of The Golf Club, Super Mega Baseball or SportsFriends show up and steal the show, at least in the digital download space.
Like all of you, I’m looking forward to being surprised at E3 — hopefully in a good way.