In Defence Of Sports Games

It's alarming how many of you people hate sports games. To the point where a harmless post on a sports game on this site usually elicits unnecessary levels of fury and trollishness.

We get it. A lot of you hate sports games. Hate Madden, hate FIFA, hate NBA2K, hate Pro Evo (Wii Sports doesn't count; it's a party game). Hate them so much you even go and upset the people responsible for making them.

"For many on the Madden NFL team it can be a source of frustration" says Phil Frazier, senior producer at EA Tiburon (i.e. the Madden guys). "Just about everyone on our team are hardcore. We have many that continue to play World of Warcraft, many that attend midnight sales for games like Call of Duty, and many that play the card game versions of Magic the Gathering or Bloodbowl. The fact that the ‘hardcore' group doesn't give sports games a fair shake can be frustrating."

But have you ever taken a step back and wondered why you hate them? We do, especially since some of us are die-hard sports game fans. And for the most part, it baffles me. So I went and spoke with a couple of the guys at EA Sports, and decided to play devil's advocate for a day in defence of sports games.

We've gone back through old posts and read many of your complaints. Heck, they're the same complaints we often have with sports games. That an annual update promotes lazy development, that people are being charged $US50 for what amounts to a roster update, etc. etc.

Some of those points are valid, particularly the roster updates. But others? "In my opinion, an uninformed, non first-person shooter fan could make a similar argument about games in that genre" says Frazier. "I've heard sports game fans say, 'It's just new guns and maps', but the gameplay itself is the same."

Ask yourself this: How different were Call of Duty, Call of Duty 2 and Call of Duty 3 at the end of the day? They were released on (roughly) an annual cycle, all featured the same factions, the same war, the same control scheme, the same display, the same engine.

Sure, even the most generic shooter sequels often at least feature new maps, giving them a fresher appearance than another football game on another football field. But his basic point is a valid one.

Then you've got to consider why an annual update for a sports game is so wrong. After all, it's a sports game, and sports run in seasons. Clear, truncated episodes, with a beginning and end, each of which tells a story and creates villains and heroes.

"Yearly cycles make a lot of sense for sports games" says Dave Littman, the producer of EA's NHL series. "After all, professional sports do the same thing. You pay a lot of money for season tickets before the season starts. You go to all of the home games and cheer for your team until the season ends. Then...you do it all again the next year".

Another, seemingly more reasonable complaint from people who despise sports games is that, well, they just don't like sports. And on the one hand, that's cool. Not everybody is going to like everything.

But on the other...what about the emotional rewards on offer in a sports game? "Sports games provide personal access to the emotion of sports and many of these emotions are the exact feelings you get when playing other genres of games", says Frazier, digging a little past the context of the Madden series and into the gameplay itself.

"The satisfaction of a head shot in an FPS is very similar to a big play in football. Being the point leader after a battle in an FPS feels very much like winning a game of football. Making the tough decision about going with a frost or fire spec in WoW feels very much like the choice of signing the hot new rookie quarterback or the speedy running back, as it greatly impacts the way you'll play the game."

Moving beyond the innate "experience" you feel playing a sports game—and I think Frazier is right on the money with that—there's also the mechanics of a sports game to consider.

For example: Let's look past the fact you're playing a sports game for a second. Like any other video game, the "sports" setting of a sports game is just context. Window dressing, giving a purpose to a game that under the hood—where the 1s and 0s live—is there to test your strategy and reflexes via a series of challenges.

Like Mario. He's a plumber, but in Mario, you're not plumbing. You don't care he's a plumber. You care about the timing of your jump, the brilliance of the level design, the challenges inherent in progressing from beginning to end without dying or running out of time.

Now take that line of thought and apply it to sports games.

A centrepiece of both Pro Evolution Soccer and FIFA in recent years has been a game mode where you create a single player, then assume the role of that player (and that player alone) during games, guiding them through their career, from benchwarmer to superstar.

You pick his name. His height. His facial features. Which position he favours. Then you assign him attributes from a pool of points, which will determine how well he performs at various tasks. Once created, your skills as the person controlling the action will cause those attributes to improve to over time, in turn making him a better player.

Sound like an RPG?

Most major sports games these days, from Madden to NBA games, feature "manager" modes, where you assume the role of the head of a team. So not only are you controlling the action on game day, you're responsible for training regimes, sponsorship deals, the buying and selling (or drafting) of new players, that kind of thing.

Taking place off the field, these modes normally involve the distribution of allocated or earned resources across a variety of fields. The attention you pay to those fields can determine whether, in the larger scale of things, your team is successful. The process is often number-based (i.e. you're spending money). It's also usually abstract, in that the moves are represented not by literal handshakes and glasses of champagne, but by little more than text bubbles and positive or negative outcomes.

Sound like a strategy game?

One final example is online play. Those who take their Madden or FIFA online gaming seriously will, as I've described above, soon look past the "context" of the fact they're playing a sports game. They're not actually playing sport. They're playing a video game, and a video game has its own sets of rules and exploits which can be learned, mastered and then applied. Strategies, timing, specific characters or teams that are better than others…

Sound like a fighting game?

So if, like Frazier says, the emotions in a spots game match those found in other games so closely and if, like I've shown above, the mechanics in a sports game can match those found in other games so closely…why the hate?

Is it because you can't relate to an NFL or a Premier League or an NHL team as well as you can ancient Romans, aliens or vampires? That you prefer learning the move-set of a large-breasted Chinese girl to that of a pro sporting team?

If so, that's fine!

I'm not saying you have to like sports, or sports games for that matter. Some people hate sports. Others just won't find the kind of action on offer to their liking. That's cool. I'm not trying to force anybody to play or enjoy something they don't want to.

All I'm trying to do is show you that many of the criticisms of the sports game genre are unfounded, and that if you're willing to give them a chance (as opposed to spitting hatred upon them at every mention), you may actually find something you can relate to. Maybe even enjoy.


Comments

    I wouldn't say I hate sports games, but I find them terminally boring. Your comparison with online FPS' is spot on, those are just as boring (same map, doing the same thing). I must admit that it does reflect the sport correctly, which, not suprisingly, I also find boring (matches do look the same to me every time). I had that discussion with my wife once, she likes sports. I liken it to going to the same concert of a band you like over and over, just for the little variations.

    I'm in for good stories and interesting new game mechanics. New levels and art with intriguing places to explore. I would not pay yearly to play the same game again with a rooster update whether is Madden or COD.

    Because they have a well deserved reputation of every year pumping out a game with marginal enhancements to graphics and gameplay.

    Played one, you've played them all.

    I love sports games. Some of the most fun I have ever had has been playing Madden online. At the moment in fact my online play is shared equally between Madden 10, COD4 and Warhammer Online. It's a lovely blend.

    Tiger woods wii is the only good sports game I've played. Most of them are like movie games in their lack of quality, or just terminally boring.

    Unless it includes mario kicking shells into people's faces, count me out.

    Its easy to call the people who play sports games sheepish non-gamers, but if they like sports games why shouldn't they play them? If EA was willing to release a new skate game every year I'd be over the moon (provided they didn't screw it up like the THPS series).

    I'd actually prefer it if they kept them all really similar (ie, marginal enhancements to graphics and gameplay, plus a new city to skate in). The only reason I stopped playing skate 2 is that I exhausted all the content.

    Sure forking over $90 a year for what amounts to the same game with a different map sounds weak, but as long as they keep the quality up I know I'll get a lot more than $90s worth of game-play out of it.

      "Sure forking over $90 a year for what amounts to the same game with a different map sounds weak, but as long as they keep the quality up I know I’ll get a lot more than $90s worth of game-play out of it."

      Hey, know anyone who plays WoW? Oh... would you look at that?

      One needs to realize that nobody is forcing anyone to purchase the new games. I still play the odd game of NHL96.

        People also forget that the developers after releasing a game only have about 8 months to develop the next in the series after the first few months spent patching and adding new content.

    I have two problems with sports games:

    1) The lack of discovery and progression. For the most part, the game you play in the first 10 minutes is exactly the same to what you are playing 10 hours later. Compare this with a well told story (Half Life) or a game of exploration and progression (Fallout 3). I don't think increasing a sports characters stats is the same.

    2) In a good sports game the learning curve is way to steep to be competitive. Unless I want to put HOURS of practice in, I either play the computer and get no real satisfaction or I play my mate who is a Fifa nut and get beat by 10 goals.

      1) You progress through the season. In most sports game you manage the teams and players as well so later on in the season you are managing contracts, depth charts and finally drafting new talent. You can build your own team who play the way you like. That's progression and adds a greater goal to your season other than 'Win playoffs'.

      2) Most sports games have many different degrees of difficulty. Especially the sim ones like most of EA's sports games you can actually tailor the many difficulty sliders till you hit the perfect balance. Madden 10 itself has a roaming difficulty system that actually moves back and forth depending on you getting better/worse. Also with Madden online you can actually join rooms for beginners so you only play people at your same skill level.

    "Hardcore" should be replaced with "Nerdcore". There's a simple answer to this. It also explains why there are so many complaints about the number of WW2 games that get released, but no one complains that every other game that comes out is Sci-Fi of some sort.

    Sports and WW2 don't appeal to nerds. Simple as that. The nerdcore won't play something that isn't appealing to them.

    Sports games fail for three reasons:

    1. As has been stated, they are notorious for releasing yearly re-visions at full price.

    3. They are boring as hell to watch.

    2. There is a real-world equivalent. You may not know this know this, but you can actually play basketball/soccer/cricket in real life, and get this, it's actually fun! The draw behind an FPS/RTS/RPG is it places me in a situation I will never be in my life, in a setting that either doesn't exist or is hyperrealistic.

    This is also the main reason that professional gaming needs to desperately move away from sports games and racing games. No-one is going to watch professional gamers play sports/racing games when they can watch actual professional sportsmen/racers.

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