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What Happened to All of the Tennis Games?

Posted on Friday, July 18 @ 16:00:00 PST by

Wimbledon 2014 finished last week, with Novak Djokovic claiming the Men's Singles and Petra Kvitová​ taking Women's Singles, and a part of me wanted to feel the thrill of playing a tennis game... until I heard a blast of wind sweep toward my direction. The entire tennis game genre has strangely disappeared in the last few years, with every sports developer seemingly halting the continuation of its tennis franchise in the face of next-gen consoles. Is making a game that's essentially Pong with rackets that difficult to develop? What's happening here?

There are three franchises responsible for the tennis genre: Virtua Tennis by Sega, Grand Slam Tennis from Electronic Arts, and Top Spin from 2K Sports. The last main title in those respective franchises are Virtua Tennis 4 which I reviewed back in May 2011 with a B- (yes, so far back we still had letter grades), Grand Slam Tennis 2 reviewed by Kevin Schaller with a solid 4/5, and Top Spin 4 in March 2011 from 2K Sports which received a positive 84 average on Metacritic. (Though this article is mainly about simulation tennis, you can consider Mario Tennis Open released in December 2012 too.)

So while the issue doesn't seem to be critical success for two of the franchises, perhaps the reason the genre is struggling is mainly due to the fan base being split between the three in the first place. Most titles from other sports franchises don't have any competition at all (EA Sports pretty much has a lock on all of its franchises except for soccer) and some have only one competitor at best, so having tennis be split between three publishers likely led to lower-than-expected numbers for every one of those franchises.

On top of that, the trio of tennis titles capitalized on different aspects of the genre. Top Spin had the best overall simulation of the sport, Virtua Tennis captured the casual audience who couldn't care less about fancy slice volley shots, and Grand Slam Tennis had Wimbledon on its roster where the other two had to settle with renaming the prestigious tournament to something else entirely. Combine all three together and you would have the complete package. Alas, the perfect tennis game is split into three pieces and no one wants to share or should share; hence, the stalemate and stagnation.

At E3 2014, I noticed a lack of sports titles in general unless you counted EA Sports multiple times. In fact, the Best Sports Game for the Game Critics Awards was essentially a competition between EA Sports (FIFA 15) vs. EA Sports (NHL 15) vs. EA Sports (Madden NFL 15). Sega is busy producing Sonic Boom and 2K Sports has its hands full with NBA 2K15 and WWE 2K15, both of which did not have anything available to the press for demos. So either none of these developers are ready to commit any budget to a tennis title or the tennis titles just aren't on the table at all.  

For tennis titles to reappear on center court, we'll likely need one and only one of these publishers to be the beacon for the genre. We need a solid community of players for online competition, an annualized franchise that can officially include the four tennis majors, a series that can bank on the existing rivalries between Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer, and well-integrated motion controls (perhaps even with Project Morpheus). "Virtua Reality Tennis," anyone? We might even need a new men's star from the U.S. to put on the cover since the U.S. men haven't placed at the top of any Grand Slams in about a decade.

From my standpoint, either Grand Slam Tennis or Top Spin could take the reins on the franchise, the former for its licensing potential and the other for its technical gameplay. With next-gen technology, the graphics could be stellar, in a franchise that doesn't need to draw lots of environmental objects or too much animation for anyone apart from the two-to-four players sprinting about the court. The potential for a revival and domination of the tennis genre is ready for the taking.

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