What is and what isn’t a sport is an endless, often pointless argument, typically involving figure skating, stock car racing, bowling and even ballroom dancing. But what is and what isn’t a sports video game is rarely debated.
The settled nature of that discussion – if it is even discussed, really – reflects the position of sports gaming and its enthusiasts as nearly outliers to the rest of mainstream gaming.
Last year, my colleague Luke Plunkett made an eloquent case for sports to non-sports gamers, arguing how they reflect traits of role-playing games, real-time strategy and other genres. Let’s run that back to sports fans, because there are a lot of other games that incorporate the traits that make their favourite titles so enjoyable.
One of them could even be considered a sports game outright.
That’s Monday Night Combat, which came out last month. Though it involves guns, robots, assassinations and laser turrets, as the name implies, it was designed to incorporate many of sports games’ distinguishing features. And not as a parody.
“When we were designing this game, internally we called it a team sports shooter,” said Chandana Ekanayake, executive producer of Uber Entertainment, which developed the game. “Because there’s a sports-like strategy involved; players pick a class, the way you have to pick a position. There’s teamwork involved. We call the characters athletes and pros. We definitely take it in the spirit of a sport, even if it doesn’t fall into the category of realistic sports that exist out there.”
Ekanayake thinks Monday Night Combat deserves to be considered a sports game. “There’s a ball involved,” he chuckles -the objective is to blow up or protect the “Moneyball.” He wasn’t arguing it to me; I was convinced of it after a few hours of gameplay. There’s shooting and stabbing but the violence is bloodless, and respawning is part of the story, which makes “death” less consequential than an injury in Madden.
The “pros” all have specialties and differing attributes, similar to what you’d expect in a team lineup. There’s a smarmy announcer, team names, corporate branding, a cheerleader and, of course, a loathsome mascot whom everyone delights in abusing.
Really, how is Monday Night Combat not a sports game?
kept the focus on its gameplay without burdening the small studio of 16 with a movie-like narrative, complete with cutscenes, justifying why all of it was happening. “It fit our game better and kept the scale down,” Ekanayake said. “We can add maps, and characters and stadiums without having to fit all of these things into a continuous narrative story. So making it more like a Street Fighter, or Madden-type game was appealing to us. There’s only so many things you can do.”
Ekanayake doesn’t see any drawback associating a more traditional mode of gameplay – a multiplayer shooter – with sports. Still, this is a culture that prefers to fit everything into an easily defined box. And over the past couple of decades, sports games’ deepening realism and dependence on a fans’ knowledge and interest in the sport have done a good job of distancing them from the founding membership of video game types.
“I was under the impression it was a football game,” admits Sean Baade, a gamer from Austin, Texas whose tastes include shooters, which Monday Night Combat absolutely is, but rarely sports. For that reason, he didn’t bother to
“Sports games in general are a turn-off for me,” Baade says. “Not being a sports fan gives me very little to relate to, or understand, when it comes to games in the same genre.”
But I think there are just as many, per capita, sports gamers who stay rigidly to their preferred genre, and as such are missing out on even more great games. Unlike Baade, they have the advantage of not needing real-life knowledge of the subject when trying out another genre. Everyone begins BioShock or God of War from a position of unfamiliarity with its world and their capabilities within it, a condition the game’s design accommodates in its early stages (if it’s any good, anyway.)
Sure, in the matrix of rivalries among gaming fanatics, it’s easy to sit back and bag on geeks who never played a down and pretend you and your favourite games aren’t getting a fair shake. Sports gamers widening their tent, however, more immediately brings them closer to the mainstream. And games like Monday Night Combat provide a substantial reason to do so.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku’s column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 2 p.m. U.S. Mountain time.