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Thursday, March 12, 2020

What Does the Return of the XFL Mean For Gaming, and What Could Gaming Mean to the XFL?

By HEAVY LOBSTER - This was written before coronavirus got everything canceled. I hope the league can come back next year.

Recently, the new XFL launched as a spring football league, the most recent in a long string of attempts to alternatives to the NFL. The early impressions so far have been positive, and while TV ratings are far lower than the typical NFL game, they’re fairly solid for a niche league trying to establish itself. And perhaps more importantly, the word-of-mouth reviews have generally been positive, with the pace of play being noticeably faster compared to the NFL. In spite of the historical obstacles to smaller leagues gaining traction, there’s a good amount of optimism that this time will be different, thanks to Vince McMahon pledging $500 million of his own money to the cause.

If anyone remembers anything from the first ill-fated run of the XFL, it’s “He Hate Me,” the nickname Rod Smart chose to put on the back of his jersey. Far fewer people actually remember Rod Smart himself, but the sight of a football player putting whatever he wanted on the back of his jersey was a novelty at the time. Taken from the idea of “ring names” in WWE, XFL founder and WWE CEO Vince McMahon sought to infuse his new league with a distinct personality compared to the more traditional NFL. Yet alongside that, online culture developed the idea of screen names, of crafting one’s own identity outside of their given name. In the world of e-sports, it’s the norm to identify players by their gamertag rather than their legal name as a sort of modern twist to the stage name.

The NFL has often been called the “No Fun League” due to its traditional hostility to unapproved acts of self-expression. One prominent example was when Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson wanted to wear “Ochocinco” on the back of his jersey in honor of his jersey number, 85. The NFL refused, so he legally had his name changed to Chad Ochocinco just to be able to wear “Ochocinco” on the back of his jersey. He has since changed his name back to Chad Johnson. 

Speaking of which, Chad Johnson has also recently floated the idea of trying out for the XFL as a kicker, though he has yet to follow through on it. But the point is that “Ochocinco” sounds more interesting than “Johnson”, and there was no good reason for the NFL to deny his request, so in this respect the new XFL should pick up where the old one left off and allow players to choose “gamertags” to put on the back of their jerseys, at least once the league has established itself as an actual football league and not a gimmick. An XFL replay official has already been spotted using an Xbox controller to view replays, so the league is clearly aware of the gamer demographic, and this would help double down on that appeal while branding them as the hip, new, fun league.

XFL football league Xbox controller replay gaming

But the most important potential implication of the XFL with respect to gaming is the potential of a new football video game free of Electronic Arts’s monopolistic clutches, as they have held exclusive NFL licensing rights since 2005, which can hopefully breathe new life into the genre. There’s even rumblings that they’re already in talks regarding video game licensing. Sports games in general have gone down the road of focusing on lootboxes and other forms of exploitative microtransactions at the expense of gameplay innovations, perhaps most blatantly with an infamous trailer for NBA 2K20 focused around lootbox gambling in a virtual casino setting (embedded below). Unfortunately, the most likely contender for such a game would be 2K Sports, the producers of the aforementioned lootbox trailer. 

Even with that caveat, any competition would be a positive for sports games, and might even result in a modern football game on Nintendo Switch, as 2K has ported the NBA and WWE games (Vince McMahon connection!) over, though calling the WWE ports “games” is a bit generous. Granted, Nintendo’s never been known for sports games, but it still feels like a rather large hole for a major gaming platform to have, and if it’s ported competently could at least turn a profit. The good news is even if 2K Sports were to take on the franchise, they can’t afford to weigh down the initial experience with microtransactions too much.

In particular it’s interesting to see how gamers respond to the XFL rule changes, as pro football coaches are notoriously conservative in their decision making, and analytics have largely validated the more aggressive play-calling and decision-making strategies long favored by gamers, most notably with gamers being more willing to attempt to convert 4th downs as opposed to punting for field position.* The XFL’s rule changes favor aggression even more than traditional rules, but XFL coaches so far have largely stuck to their risk-averse ways as opposed to experimenting and looking to optimize their strategies. Anyone who’s ever seen speed-runners knows how much gamers love optimization, so I expect them to once again be ahead of coaches strategically, and would like to see what they come up with.

I certainly hope this version of the XFL has staying power, and even more I want there to be an XFL video game in hopes that it can revitalize the stagnant wasteland of mediocre sports games: because EA sucks, exclusive licensing deals suck, and the genre badly needs all the shaking up it can get.

*For those unfamiliar with American football, you get 4 plays, or downs, to advance the ball 10 yards, and doing so gives you another set of 4 downs. If you haven’t converted by the 4th down, you can either punt the ball down the field to the other team, or try to convert to get a first down. Punting means the other team always gets the ball back, but further back into their territory, while going for a first down means you keep the ball if you succeed, but give the ball back where you are now if you fail, and therefore give the other team a shorter field making it easier for them to score.

Unfortunately, coronavirus has shut down all sports leagues. Also apparently 2K is making a non-simulation NFL game next year, which may or may not threaten an XFL game's potential niche. Still, do you think more competition for sports games is a good thing?

Reminder that Electronic Arts really doesn't like putting their sports games on Nintendo consoles.
Heavy Lobster just joined KoopaTV's staff yesterday. Is he making a good impression with his first article?
More competition for sports games would surely be a good thing, considering how poorly the market is taking the Madden NFL series.

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