According to market research cited by The Washington Post last month, year-to-date board game sales were up 28% compared to 2019, while strategic card games, such as Pokémon and Magic: The Gathering, were up a staggering 208%. So why—despite fans’ clear interest in other forms of sports collectibles—aren’t leagues getting in on that action?
Twenty years ago, they did. Following the last sports card boom, Wizards of the Coast (best known for Magic and Dungeon & Dragons) partnered with MLB, the NBA and the NFL to put out a series of sports simulation card games under the Showdown brand.
Showdown was partly inspired by preexisting sports simulation board game Strat-O-Matic, which might have reached its cultural zenith 20 years earlier than that, when media members replaced the strike-canceled 1981 All-Star game with a Strat-O-Matic simulation. (That set is now in Cooperstown.)
Alongside Showdown, Strat-O-Matic is also credited with partially inspiring the creation of fantasy sports and Electronic Arts, two of the biggest sources for recent sports gaming innovation.
But another vicennium has passed since Showdown’s launch, which means it’s about time for the next physical hit. And with Flex NBA, Sequoia Games CEO Daniel Choi thinks he has it.
The game is built around weighty hexagonal tiles rather than cards, with artist-drawn depictions instead of photos for each of the 270-plus players that have been included so far. Gameplay features a 20-sided die and individual moves, not simulated basketball games. Stars such as Steph Curry and LeBron James have unique, game-changing power-ups.
“If I’m going to play a basketball simulator game, I’m going to play NBA 2K,” Choi said in an interview. “[Flex] is designed to change it up. I’m not introducing a new genre here. It’s been around for 30 years, but I am introducing the power of the athlete. I’ve superhero-ized them.”
Sequoia plans to release a UFC game next, and it has been in talks with multiple players associations about additional games. Also, Choi said the company is actively discussing new fundraising following a 2021 seed round. It has recently upped its advertising spend, with the hopes of expanding beyond adult collectors to reach more kid players.
Outside of sports, there are clear signs of physical games’ potential. As it turns 30, Magic is at one of the strongest points in its history, with IP owner Hasbro recently calling it a $1 billion brand. Meanwhile, the ornithology-inspired Wingspan has sold more than a million copies in its first three years after being published in 2019, proving that the modern category can serve more than fantasy fans.
Wingspan has even been mentioned as a possible gateway to actual birding. There’s no reason to think a similarly well-thought-out sports game couldn’t convince people to watch professional leagues.
For those already invested in sports, Strat-O-Matic is going strong. “Our board game business has never been as robust as it is right now,” Strat-O-Matic Media CEO Adam Richman said in an interview. “The fascination with board games and card games that happened in COVID has not dissipated.”
This year, the company is leaning into the parallel collectibles craze, releasing 400 limited edition Strat-O-Matic Black sets for $150 each. Showdown sets have become collectible items themselves after the brand stopped printing in 2006. In recent months, boxes of cards have regularly sold for hundreds of dollars on eBay.
Current demand for physical goods and games has shown that maybe not everybody is ready to live inside of a constructed metaverse. While leagues continue to chase the next video game sensations, with advanced mobile titles expected to launch this year in partnership with the NBA and NFLPA, they shouldn’t leave IRL gamers behind.
Geeks have infiltrated sports’ sidelines and front offices. It’s time to get tabletop players on board, too.
What Else I’m Watching:
- We’ll start to find out if Box to Box Films and Netflix can do for tennis what they’ve done for Formula One when Break Point hits the service Friday. Like F1: Drive to Survive, the show orients itself around individual characters and the psychodrama at the heart of a global sport. Five episodes drop before the Australian Open starts next Monday, with another five coming later this year.
- Apple is reportedly set to announce its mixed reality headset this spring as it begins to share its vision for a possible computing platform of the future. It’s still unclear what the thrust of Apple’s pitch to developers and eventually consumers will look like (other VR companies have argued that the tech is best used for various combinations of productivity, gaming, social connection and content viewership). In 2020, Apple acquired NextVR, which previously had a litany of VR sports broadcasting deals, for roughly $100 million.
- When asked to explain the massive rights fees streaming companies have spent for live sports, many experts point not to the games but to the advertisements that surround them. In addition to subscription fees, programmers are hoping to make more money off ads by offering brands both more targeted spots and additional inventory during live action (or even embedded into the venue). The new majority owners of ad tech company Transmit.Live seem to buy into that vision, valuing it at $350 million in a recent transaction.
May 2023 be the year of the smart ball.