With NBA 2K14's Huge Success, Why Doesn't 2K Make More Sports Games?

NBA 2K14 is the company's best-selling sports game ever, yet it's only one of two games coming from 2K Sports these days.

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Gripes about its in-game currency system aside, there's no denying NBA 2K14 is a massive success. Take-Two announced this week that 2K14 has become its best-selling sports game ever, with more than seven million units sold worldwide--an accomplishment none of the company's past sports games has ever managed.

Despite this, Take-Two's 2K Sports division isn't as prolific as it once was, with just NBA and WWE games left after making NHL, MLB, and NFL games in the past. Given the success of NBA 2K14, why is that 2K Sports has limited itself to the degree it has? That was the question raised during a Take-Two investors call earlier this week, which CEO Strauss Zelnick answered by saying the company is "trying to grow the business." However, he noted it's "doing so selectively."

"What we found is, when we're a leader in a space, we do really, really well," Zelnick explained. "When we're an also-ran in the space, we don't do well. And one of the things we try to do around here is start from the point of delighting audiences and putting out the highest-quality products, and then thinking about making money. But equally, we really, really object to losing money."

"[A] sport is a licensed property, so we have to be exceedingly selective in our licensing" -- Strauss Zelnick

Developing a mainstream sports game involves obtaining the license for its respective professional league--the NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL, and so on. Doing this increases the cost of producing such a game, which raises the level of sales needed in order to be profitable.

"The bulk of what we do around here is our owned intellectual property; by definition, a sport is a licensed property, so we have to be exceedingly selective in our licensing, and the company has a history around that," Zelnick said. "Generally speaking, I think this is a very disciplined--sometimes to a fault--management team, and that applies to the sports business.

"But I don't want that to be confused with a lack of ambition, because we are very, very ambitious to grow the enterprise."

Contacted for clarification regarding what Zelnick meant about "grow[ing] the enterprise," Take-Two would only confirm that he "was specifically referring to our sports business when answering that question."

As noted above, 2K Sports used to have a much larger catalog of games. Before obtaining the WWE license last year, 2K Sports had the MLB 2K (put on hiatus last year) and NHL 2K (put on hiatus in 2011) series, as well as the one-off All-Pro Football 2K8.

ESPN NFL 2K5
ESPN NFL 2K5

Visual Concepts, the Take-Two-owned developer responsible for its sports series, is the same studio that was responsible for the beloved NFL 2K series. The series was originally published by Sega (when it still owned Visual Concepts), before Take-Two became involved with the final game in the series, ESPN NFL 2K5. That game was famously sold for $20 at launch, far below the $50 price of the competing Madden NFL 2005. (2K5, many would argue, was also the far superior game despite the price disparity.)

Following 2K5's release, Take-Two purchased Visual Concepts, while Madden publisher Electronic Arts obtained the exclusive rights to the NFL (and ESPN), which it has held onto ever since, preventing the NFL 2K series from continuing. 2K Sports tried to get back into the football business with the aforementioned All-Pro Football 2K8, which featured retired NFL legends, in 2007, but the game never received a sequel.

It's unclear how, exactly, Take-Two plans on expanding its sports business. With it having so recently exited the baseball and hockey businesses, they don't seem like obvious choices for what it could be exploring, but that's merely speculation. Going after the NFL license after EA's deal expires--something that EA said in January is a "number of years" away--would be far more interesting, if only because Madden would then finally have the competition it's lacked for more than a decade. But as we saw with All-Pro Football and, more recently, NBA Live, offering a quality game after years away is no easy task.

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