What Makes A "Real" Sport In An Unreal World?

Twenty years ago I learned how to rename the rosters for Accolade's Hardball! and rig the players' performances. Every player would be a 40-40 man, I boasted to Dad. "Not really interested," he said, "It's not real baseball."

I thought about that old Commodore 64 game a few weeks ago when a friend told me he'd taken back his Tiger Woods PGA Tour 10 — and the Wii MotionPlus he'd bought to play it. Having mastered golf on Wii sports, he saw the new motion controller and decided, on impulse, it would give him an even more enjoyable golf outing. He found it came too close to the frustrating experience of real golf, with which he was already familiar. So for him, going back to "not real golf" was satisfying enough.

No other console genre—except for maybe the racers, which I would argue are a subset of sports—has such a love-hate relationship with reality. Running about a battlefield and firing off headshots, no one sincerely expects to do that in real life under similar conditions. But sports are grounded in skills that, even if one never learned them, are taught to children and shown on television broadcasts that, every day, make them look easy - even if deep down we know just how rare it is to see them performed live and in person.

There's a greater expectation that they're more repeatable than trained combat skills. But there are far more soldiers in the world than elite athletes. And if a game were to truly represent a professional sport's difficulty—and PGA Tour 10 came too close for my friend—then down goes the controller.

All of this gets back, in some way, to the definition of a "sports game", and, underneath that, the definition of a "sport".

Taken at its broadest definition—at least the one that I use—a sport is a competition played to a measurable result and contested under objectively enforced rules. If that's the case, then any multiplayer shooter qualifies as a sport. Absent exploits, one would expect any computer game to always impartially enforce rules and award goals, or at least have its shortcomings applicable to both sides. Few consider competitive video gaming a sport, however.

But there are some who consider figure skating is a sport (it is not, it's a judged competition, like a dance contest), and that bowling isn't (it is; knock down the most pins according to the rules, you win.) For them, some athletic demonstration is an essential feature of a sport. It's why some have a hard time accepting NASCAR—sit in a car and turn left for 500 miles—as a sport.

Yet turning that back to video games — the ones that take advantage of motion controls and therefore exertion, are almost universally regarded as less serious a sports game than their traditionally controlled counterparts. The biggest selling game with the word "sports" in its title is not considered by many to be a sports game. And that's the aforementioned Wii Sports, and its 2009 cousin, Wii Sports Resort. Nor, for that matter, does it include Wii Fit, whose caloric demand in a single game instance is greater than your thumbs simulating every play and personnel move in a full season Madden NFL 10.

Is there a way to include both in a definition of a sports game? I think so.

• A sports game allows you to imitate and reasonably achieve the results you see in a real athletic competition. Wii Sports has a home run derby. So does Major League Baseball 2K9. Wii Boxing's point is the same as Fight Night. Tactically speaking, those who half-ass their approach to Wii Golf will improve their score no more than someone who doesn't consider his shots in real life.

• A sports game keeps records and allows for progression. All league simulations feature this. Wii Sports likewise records one's personal bests. And it's a basic necessity of something like Wii Fit, which is supposed to chart your exercise progress.

• A sports game's rules and framework is not wholly invented for purposes of a video game. A baseball game draws on rules codified more than a century ago. Madden's gameplay structure is based on the NFL rulebook. Similarly, Wii Sports' tennis and golf need no tutorial - they're understood by anyone who have played either game in real life.

Note that I didn't say that a league's licensing is essential to a sports game. It wasn't in Hardball!, 20 years ago. All Pro Football and Blitz: The League have no league licence either, but no one's calling them action/adventure games.

While I understand my father's distinction between "real baseball" and what plays out on a computer screen, I do think there's a finer point to sports gaming than what I thought it to be as a teenager. That after 100 cheaply won, 10-run, 20-hit victories, simply keeping a binder full of boxscores does not a simulated sport make. That's focusing on result, and not process. In other words, it's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.

Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays.


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