Until recently, the latest iteration of PES or FIFA would have formed an integral part of my yearly gaming schedule.

As a life-long fan of the beautiful game, who happens to possess all the real-world footballing ability of a drunk gibbon, these titles enabled me to overcome my physical limitations and gave me a taste of what it would be like to participate in the Champions League final or watch Spurs lift the English Premiership. Like all good sports games, they offered pure, unadulterated wish fulfillment.

Then, around 2014, after another year of minor, incremental improvements to both franchises, I realized I was merely wasting £45 every 12 months on games that, for all intents and purposes, differed only superficially from the ones that came before. I’ve been far more selective with my sports game purchases ever since and moreover, whenever a new FIFA or PES releases, I often find myself asking the same question: are we getting our money’s worth from these annual franchises, or should we expect more of the developers and publishers who create them?

Read any review of any given year’s various sports titles and, chances are, the gameplay experience will be described as barely indistinguishable from the last two or three. Take Goomba Stomp’s review of NBA 2K18, for example.

Awarded an impressive 8.5/10 by our own Randy Dankievitch for its characteristically entertaining and highly satisfying mechanics, Randy was nevertheless quick to point out “this doesn’t mean that NBA 2K18 plays perfectly” or, tellingly, “is even a marked improvement over last year’s game”. In particular, he bemoaned the series’ reluctance to evolve mechanically: “(it) still relies on increasingly-archaic systems of animation construction and prioritization rather than moving to real-time physics, as titles like FIFA have done in recent years”.

Likewise, in its review of Madden NFL 18, Gamespot branded the gameplay changes as minute tweaks, rather than fundamental shifts in design, while, despite praising the refinements made to the passing mechanics and the overall increase in the number of tactical options at the player’s disposal during matches (two things I’ve noticed myself during my brief time with my older brother’s copy of the game), Eurogamer’s review of FIFA 18 emphasizes its lack of significant gameplay alterations and, moreover, its failure to address many of the series’ long-standing mechanical issues.

Now, it’s certainly true that both Madden and NBA boast a more impressive array of content than ever before this year; indeed, Gamespot goes so far as to say the addition of ‘Longshot’, Madden 18’s new single player story mode, is the game’s biggest draw. However, such momentous changes are far from a yearly occurrence – apart from ‘Icons’ appearing in the PS4 version of ‘Ultimate Team’ and a slightly more dramatic, for want of a better term, negotiation system in ‘Career’ mode, the blueprint for FIFA 18 is basically the same as FIFA 17.

In other words, once implemented, exciting new modes like ‘Longshot’, or NHL 18’s ‘Threes’ – modes that are undeniably revolutionary when first introduced – are subjected to the same gradual, iterative upgrading process as the rest of the game thereafter. And anyway, to return to Randy’s review of NBA 2K18 once again, when they are modified, it’s not always for the better (see Randy’s comments on myCareer).

This widespread dearth of yearly innovation makes it seem like EA, 2K, and other publishers are merely doing the bare minimum to convince fans the latest version of X sports franchise isn’t a straightforward carbon copy of its immediate predecessor, and therefore justifies another £45 outlay; perhaps afraid to make too many large-scale changes lest they damage a successful formula in their efforts to improve the user experience or, as seems more likely, reduce their total profits.

Consequently, the biggest, most noticeable change to any annual sports game is usually the team rosters.

I’m not exactly well-versed in American sports, but, as far as football (soccer) is concerned, each close-season brings with it a flurry of transfer activity across all leagues; the number of incoming personnel is even greater if the team in question has promoted some of its academy players during the summer. This, in turn, means both PES and FIFA’s catalog of squads look vastly different from one year to the next which, when you factor in all the necessary updates to player attributes and likenesses, sounds like a hell of a lot of work.

Yet, as both FIFA and Madden, to name but 2, have proved in recent years, squad revisions can be implemented in near real-time to reflect weekly fluctuations in team and player form, suggesting they’re not actually that labor intensive or time consuming to complete, At least not for big, AAA developers like EA who have colossal amounts of cash and an army of developers to carry the load.

Which begs the question: if EA and 2K are able to apply transfers/trades so swiftly and, moreover, yearly gameplay tweaks are relatively minor on average, could these changes not simply be implemented via a free or nominally priced post-launch patch? Shouldn’t players only be charged a full £45 releases when the publisher has an extensive new game mode or groundbreaking new mechanics to offer?

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve no doubt this is a bit of an oversimplification; I’m not a developer and can thus only imagine what goes in to making video games of this stature. Equally, I know this model couldn’t be applied to every sports franchise universally in any given year; IGN’s review of MLB The Show 17, for instance, is positively effusive with its praise for the raft of widespread, fundamental changes made to this year’s game.

However, given the resources at EA’s disposal, I don’t think this kind of development process is beyond the realm of possibility. Rather, as alluded to above, I suspect it ultimately comes down to money.

We need only look at the increasing prevalence of microtransactions in sports games for proof.

In ‘FIFA Ultimate Team’, for example, players can spend real-world money on card packs to expedite the process of obtaining rare, valuable, and highly rated players to bolster their online squads, while similar systems are at the heart of the competitive modes in MLB The Show, NHL 18, Madden, and NBA 2K18 too.

Not only do these systems take advantage of wealthier players and those players who’re desperate or addicted enough to spend money they don’t have on randomly generated loot crates in the hopes of finding that elusive legendary, which is bad enough, but they’re also damaging from a purely gameplay perspective. By weighing online play so heavily in favor of those individuals who have poured countless hundreds of additional pounds and dollars into their chosen sports game, it creates a pay-to-win situation that blunts the competitive edge and strips the varnish off these otherwise enjoyable online modes.

And though not the first game in the series to do so, WWE 2K18 goes one step further with its supplementary (if optional) $30 season pass, which contains various additional wrestlers (The Hardy Boys, Aleister Black, Drew McIntyre etc.) and moves (The Tye Breaker and Kassius Ohno’s Crash Landing) that should be included in the standard release. Which, it should be noted, is on top of the usual bevy of alternative, more expensive special edition versions of the game; pre-orders bonuses that lock away the likes of Hall of Famer Kurt Angle; and as Forbes pointed out during its review, a microtransaction system that allows players to buy their way into certain events using real-world money, thereby circumventing the standard qualification process entirely.

However, what makes WWE 2K18‘s release model particularly galling is the game’s numerous bugs and generally imperfect design. For instance, according to my younger brother who purchased the game shortly after launch, ‘Universe’ mode still leaves a lot to be desired, loading times are frustratingly long, and there are a number of glitches ranging from minor annoyances to game-ruining crashes: my brother’s entire save file became corrupted after once such error, erasing hours of progress in one fell swoop.

Although much of this article has been condemnatory of the current state of the sports game business model, it would be wrong of me not to acknowledge annual releases like Call of Duty and, with the exception of 2016, Assassin’s Creed; which follow similar development cycles and are certainly guilty of some the practices criticized above.

Moreover, it would be equally harsh to ignore the changes developers do work hard to implement each year. Even if actual gameplay upgrades are relatively minor and the introduction of brand-new modes thin on the ground, our favorite annual sports releases almost always feature graphical enhancements, UI tweaks, and plenty of quality of life improvements that deserve recognition.

However, as I said earlier, the crux of the matter is whether or not these amendments actually require an entirely new game to accommodate them, or if a patch would suffice. No Man’s Sky has changed quite dramatically since it first released, for example, but, crucially, none of the various updates have been locked behind pay walls of any kind.

The situation isn’t that cut and dry in EA and 2K’s case, admittedly; they have far larger player bases to consider and multiple projects to coordinate. However should they one day decide to abandon the yearly release paradigm in favor of the ‘video games as a service’ approach, microtransactions would surely make up for much of the shortfall that would inevitably accompany such a change. Especially as, without an initial £45 charge to worry about, players might be more willing to drop a few quid here and there on loot boxes and DLC. I know the thing that finally convinced me to buy The Witcher 3’s excellent expansions was the care and consideration developer CD Projekt Red had demonstrated towards its players following the game’s life cycle. Goodwill goes a long way.

Counting Final Fantasy VII, The Last of Us, the original Mass Effect trilogy, and The Witcher 3 amongst his favourite games, John enjoys anything that promises to take up an absurdly large amount of his free time. When he’s not gaming, chances are you’ll find him engrossed in a science fiction or fantasy novel; basically, John’s happiest when his attention is as far from the real world as possible.