This weekend EA announced a new competitive program for the Madden series. This addition should come as no surprise as EA has long sponsored competitions in their football series, as well as in FIFA through the FIFA Interactive World Cup. Esports are also in vogue with developers, perhaps more than they've ever been, as every developer has revealed their own esports plans - they all want a piece of the $463 million market this year.
While the plans for Madden this year are more ambitious than they've ever been ($1 million on the line overall) it does not mean that the title is necessarily an esport.
Sports fans and analysts constantly debate whether or not esports should be considered real sports - on the opposite side of that very same coin, esports fans and analysts can pose the opposite question: Are simulations of real, athletic sports considered esports?
Even if a developer of a sports title goes down a checklist of 'what makes an esport' and hits every mark, they can't be successful because of the nature of simulating real sports - it's still just a simulation, and not as authentic as the real thing.
Traditional sports titles like Madden, FIFA and NBA2K should not be considered esports - and here's why.
Sports Titles Are Simulations, Esports Titles are Not
The biggest problem that sports titles face is that, at its core, no matter how good the technology behind the game is, it's still just a simulation of something that exists in real life.
What makes esports so unique is that, as a viewing experience, it's not something that does not exist in real life. You can't go to Summoner's Rift and watch Ahri cast Charm on Syndra, bursting her down. But you can tune into Twitch and watch Faker do that to his opponents.
Sports titles, for all the effort that goes into making them realistic experiences of putting you in the shoes of Steph Curry or a coach on the sidelines, are still just facsimiles of the real life version. Even the makers of NBA2K had to come out and address the fact that Steph Curry is not as good as his real life counterpart, all because, for the sake of a game, you can't have one unit who is so unbalanced. It just shows that an athlete's x-factor can't be simulated, leaving the experience as hollow.
Why would someone want to watch that, when they can actually go to Packer's Stadium, or turn on the numerous sports broadcasts on television?
And before you point out CS:GO or Call of Duty being military simulations, I'd like you to tell me the last time you watched a military operation on television. I'll wait.
All of the other problems sports games face stem from this one issue.
The Field Lights Are Blazing, But No One is Watching
Check out this list of the top games on Twitch in 2015.
Notice anything missing? Most of the traditional sports titles in EA's roster are nowhere to be found, and especially not Madden. Fifa is at the very bottom of the list, underneath World of Tanks and World of Warcraft.
Other sports titles do not fair as well, according to TwitchStats, which shows average viewership of streams in a given title. Fifa ranks 17th, pulling in around 6500 average viewers, while NBA2K trails at 3792. Madden averages a measly 1132 viewers per stream.
Racing titles do even less than that, with none of the main titles (EA's F1 series, World Rally Car, etc) surpassing 600 average viewers, which is the cutoff for the top 100.
Pseudo-sports titles like Rocket League pull in slightly better numbers at around 2600 average viewers per stream.
These numbers pale in comparison to traditional esports titles, with League of Legends leading the pack at 123,067 average viewers per stream. Sports titles just can't compete.
Team Support is Nonexistent
While $1 million for the competitive Madden circuit sounds like a lot, it has yet to attract the attention of top esports teams. Even the best players in the world, Serious Moe and Eric 'Problem' Wright, are not on top esports organizations. They are sponsored by Gamer Saloon, a head to head site that's been built on the back of competitive sports players.
You don't see even North American teams scouting these players, a market where Madden dominates.
While FIFA's situation is slightly better, with some major esports teams fielding players, it's by and large in the minority.
NBA2K also is light on team support, with no notable teams having signed a player.
Prize Support is Low
Before you theorize what you would do with $1 million dollars, its time for a reality check.
That $1 million dollars, stretched over the course of an entire year, means that the individual competitions may not necessarily have large prize pools.
EA's plans for that $1 million dollars is to support 3 different tiers of competition, including community run Challenger events, Premier events in partnership with other companies, and EA Majors, where the majority of the money is presumably going.
2K Games has also gotten in on the fun this year with a $250k prize pool. And if $1 million isn't enough to support an ecosystem, surely $250k is even less.
And that's great - but it's not enough for players to make a career off of the game.
Just because a game has multiplayer and is sometimes played competitively, that doesn't make it an esport. Madden (and other sports titles) have got a long way to go, and it'll take years of support and more effort on EA and other developers' part to force it on the marketplace.