A Better Way in the Internet Age
The $70 NBA 2K21 price tag for the next-gen version is likely to come as a sticker shock for some gamers. An uptick in price for some PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X games is something we should probably expect more developers to do in the coming months, but NBA 2K21 might not be the best game to lead the way.
If you have no idea what I'm talking about, let's recap: NBA 2K21 is, rather unsurprisingly, the next iteration of the NBA 2K franchise of basketball games. As with most yearly sports game releases, the PS4 and Xbox One versions of the game are going to launch at a $59.99 price point. Some gamers, however, were surprised to see the next-gen PS5 and XSX versions costing $10 more.
As best as I can tell, this was the first major next-gen release to commit to a $69.99 price point, breaking with tradition that has lasted over a decade. There are arguments to be made either way, but that's not the bigger issue: Should sports games get annual releases at all?
Sports Game 20XX
Anyone who has stepped foot into a GameStop has seen the pile of discarded sports games from the previous year. A pretty depressing cycle has repeated itself ad infinitum: a new game comes out, the old one is less palatable, and it gets traded in for $2 and a pack of gum.
Why are there yearly sports game releases? Part of it is simple economics: People keep buying them, so publishers are going to keep releasing them.
This phenomenon isn't solely restricted to sports games, mind; a handful of other kinds of games follow a similar pattern. Just Dance, for example, gets a new game enthusiastically announced at E3 with an upbeat dance number and not much in the way of substance.
A bigger part of the problem, however, may simply be inertia. Publishers are releasing yearly sports games because they've been releasing yearly sports games and haven't lost money doing so; the $70 NBA 2K21 next-gen edition is a gamble that they can keep doing and raise the price. This model, while successful, has a fair few problems for developers, publishers, and the consumer.
Yearly Releases Are Wasteful
Think back to those piles of discarded sports titles you've seen at gaming stores—there's enough discarded plastic deposited in bins every year to choke a pod of whales.
And for what? What really changes in a yearly sports release? An old joke in the gaming community is that sports gamers are paying for a roster update and not much else, and that isn't too far from the truth. When's the last time there has been a serious, substantial change in one of these sports franchises? Is a $70 NBA 2K21 really going to be worth that extra ten bucks?
Lest we forget, these games have to be made by developers. The logistics of producing discs, arranging advertising, and other management issues have to be sorted out by the more business-oriented staff. I can't fathom the sheer amount of time that's wasted on the commitment to put out a new disc every year.
A $70 NBA 2K21 is Better as a Live Service
The $70 NBA 2K21 price tag isn't that great for a standalone game, but there is a better solution. It shouldn't be a live release. Rather, sports games should move to a live services model.
If you're unfamiliar with "live service" or "games as a service," these are games that have constant streams of new content being added throughout the year. Some of these games are free like League of Legends and others require a monthly subscription like World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy XIV, and other MMOs.
Let's be real for a second: Sports fans have no problem spending money on their hobby. They'll regularly spend hundreds of dollars subscribing to a special television package. They'll drop $200 on a jersey that was manufactured in Southeast Asia for $5.87. A monthly NBA 2K subscription wouldn't be the most insane idea.
As we shift to more and more digital games, a subscription for sports games just makes sense. Sure, you can still have boxed copies—it'd certainly help save on hard drive space—but the real meat of the game would be in the day-one patch and future downloads. There can still be "cover stars," but they'd be on an update banner and the game's home menu instead of a physical box.
It's a win-win for everyone. Charge $20 or so for the yearly expansion and $5 a month for access to the service. Less plastic would be wasted, devs can focus on making more substantial content, and gamers won't have to fill up their hard drives with data that is probably copy/pasted from the previous year's game.