2K Sports hasn't said specifically when its infamous exclusive pact with Major League Baseball ends, but it's a good bet that day comes on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013.
If someone picks up that license, it'll be the first big story of the year for sports video gaming. If no one picks up that license, it'll be even bigger.
Forecasting 2013, the skies are dominated by baseball. Sports video gamers have long accepted that the Xbox 360 will have no new video game next year. Baseball's absence will be most conspicuous in all the new Wii U households, which will find they have no viable baseball option, unless you count MLB 2K12 for the Wii, which has no online multiplayer and no singleplayer career mode and is the standard-definition port of a game that was already, well, ugly in high def.
The death of MLB 2K has been known—or at least gone without a denial—since May, if not longer. But I still have days when I'm standing in the shower, washing what little hair I have left, and I'm panicked by the thought of a surprise announcement of a Major League Baseball video game other than MLB 13 The Show.
Maybe someone struck a deal a long time ago that had to be kept secret until 2K's license ran out, I think. No, that's profoundly unlikely. 2K's deal was for third-party publishing; if someone was building something in secret, it would be a console maker—Nintendo or Microsoft. Both publishers exited licensed sports video games a decade ago, with the GameCube's NBA Courtside as Nintendo's last such title, and NHL Rivals and NBA Inside Drive as Microsoft's last gasp on the Xbox.
The smart money is on baseball—still alive and well on the PlayStation 3 and PS Vita thank you very much—coming back to Microsoft and maybe Nintendo after the next console generation emerges. Even if a new licensing deal is done, the announcement of it could be held up; any publisher who plans to make a baseball video game for a new console won't do so until it is announced by its manufacturer.
E3 2013 will be a watershed for sports video gaming. If we get to June with no announcement from anyone about a simulation baseball title—and we might—we can start worrying about that's sport's true appeal as interactive entertainment. It may very well be a sport that only supports boutique titles like Sega's MLB Manager Online and the unlicensed Out of the Park Baseball for PC. Or MLB the Show on PS3.
Here are some other stories to look for in 2013:
THQ is in Chapter 11 and its own filings show it has no plans for a WWE-licensed game beyond WWE '14, which would release next November. Its arrangement with the pro wrestling circuit lasts until 2018 and is said to still have $45 million left on it, which is something like 20 times THQ's current market capitalization.
THQ could sell its exclusive UFC license to EA Sports at the last minute because EA Sports already had both an interest in mixed martial arts, and an engine supporting it, as evidenced by EA Sports MMA of 2010. The WWE is entirely different. EA Sports' fighting division up in Canada is now consumed with pushing out a UFC title, and when the next generation of console hardware arrives, folks will be expecting Fight Night on it, too. The unique demands of a pro wrestling simulation—which require matchmaking, stagecraft and storylines in addition to "realistic" combat—make this an incredibly complex product to develop from the ground up, especially after the expectations set by the WWE/Smackdown vs. Raw series.
Yuke's Future Media Creators is an independent company, and some armchair speculation has it that the WWE should just take over the relationship with Yuke's and publish the game itself. That's a great idea. Who's going to pay the marketing costs? Who's going to pay the vig to Microsoft or Sony for the downloadable content? For the title updates? I think the WWE is too busy managing its own television and pay-per-view partnerships, a nationwide tour of events, and licensed merchandising to want to take this on.
It's more likely this gets snapped up by another publisher. Ubisoft is said to be interested; Activision has shown interest in licensed sports development through the two NASCAR games it has published by Eutechnyx. It's a rich company with zero debt that knows how to sell a million copies to a lowbrow market.
I see almost no way for NBA Live to come back on this console generation. When it was canceled in September, EA Sports' boss, Andrew Wilson, said the label would "sit out the full year and stay focused on making next year's game great."
That wording doesn't mean exclude wiping out plans NBA Live on the 360 and PS3, and shifting all development to the next console generation. The brand carries heavy baggage, and the hardcore sports gaming crowd shaping much of the discussion pre-release can't be convinced that it takes four years to create a worthwhile basketball simulation, downloadable or otherwise.
If EA Sports is intent on delivering NBA Live to the PS3 or Xbox 360 next year, it'll be to reestablish the name only. Their better bet is to wait for a new console and hope to catch 2K Sports napping. As NBA 2K is the only sports video game 2K publishes, much less the only licensed game that label publishes, and is annually one of the best sports video games available. that hope is probably unreasonable.
While still an enjoyable, eminently playable video game, no franchise appeared more stale in 2012 than NCAA Football, especially after its Madden sibling introduced a new career suite and real-time physics. NCAA Football is in serious trouble if it intends to play out the string of this console generation with a physics engine upgrade and minimal improvements come July. "Road to Glory" and a spinoff Heisman Challenge are the only true overhauls this series has seen in the past two years, and it doesn't sound like either will get much of a remake come 3013. If this game's managers are doubling down on the Dynasty mode, something 90 percent of users already play, then NCAA 13 needs to look, sound, play, and feel a hell of a lot different in 2013. Something better than the birdbrained offensive line blocking seen every year would be a big step in this direction.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Sundays.