The coronavirus pandemic has upended the lives of countless people around the world, and we're only just beginning to see the drastic effects this period will have on the gaming industry. Big-name games and major DLC expansions for a host of titles have already been delayed as developers and publishers adapt their workflow to working remotely. But there’s one major genre of game that might be impossible to develop during these times of self-isolation when big studio resources just aren't an option: sports games.
Xbox chief Phil Spencer expressed concerns Wednesday that the future of annual sports game franchises like Madden, FIFA, and NBA 2K might be severely impacted by social distancing. These types of games that are released on an annual schedule rely intensively on motion-capture technology to create the highly detailed models of LeBron James, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Tom Brady that sports fans have come to expect.
"Mocap is just something that's basically stopped. We're not going into mocap studios," Spencer told Business Insider on Wednesday. "If you had all your animation captured and you're doing touch up in more individual art production and in areas like textures and other things, you're in a better position. If you're waiting for a lot of either large audio work — when it's with symphonies and other things — or mocap, you're held up right now...”
While we probably won't see any immediate delays on the next entries in these franchises, the ongoing delays in the overall workflow do mean that installments in 2021 and/or 2022 might be delayed — or 2021 entries could be skipped altogether.
Have any major sports games been delayed?
Currently, this year’s roster of sports titles seem to be on track for release on time, but that could be subject to change. Certain major franchises have yet to provide any updates.
Electronic Arts confirmed on May 5 in a statement that FIFA 21 and Madden NFL 21 are still on schedule to release in the second quarter of 2020 (between April 1 and June 30) and NHL 21 is on track to launch in the third quarter (between July 1 and September 30). The company promised to share more during its EA Play Live digital event that kicks off on June 11.
NBA 2K21 has not been announced by 2K Games yet so its future remains up in the air for now. The yearly basketball title is traditionally released in early-to-mid September, but there’s a chance that might be pushed back if its developer runs into motion-capture issues. Just on Thursday, PGA Tour 2K21 was confirmed for an August 21 release date.
For the most part, there aren't any delays just yet, but the future of these types of franchises seems uncertain more so than other types of games.
The Inverse Analysis — It’s possible that many of these sports games have enough motion capture material to work with for this year’s installment of the game already, but certain scientists have suggested that “intermittent social distancing” might be necessary until 2022 at the very least. That casts a big shadow on the future of these types of games that are extremely reliant on mocap.
Spencer said that he’s “confident in the industry’s ability to continue a steady flow” of titles but that might be easier said than done for sports games that are under constant development crunch to meet annual deadlines.
If social distancing will be required for another year or two, motion capture might need to be done with smaller teams in a more piecemeal fashion. That would require a much higher number of individual mocap shoots, which in turn could prolong the release dates of these annual franchises. And while sports games rely more heavily on mocap than other types of games, the dearth of mocap resources could potentially lead to delays for cinematic narrative games. Games similar to The Last of Us Part II — like the sequel to Marvel's Spider-Man, for example which uses facial capture to animate characters — could run into production issues leading to subsequent delays. Only time will tell.