Looking Back On Sports’ Movers, Makers, And Video Gamers In 2011

A walk-on running back; a dad who couldn’t tell his kids what he did; a fat kid who started going to the gym and never stopped. A guy who came to know his sport’s greatest venue in ways some champions never will. The top man at sports video gaming’s dominant publisher, and a college student who considers himself a “virtual athlete,” watching every out from his wheelchair.

Stick Jockey, the sports video game column of Kotaku, brought to you more than two dozen stories in 2011 those who play video games, those who make them, and all who are fans. These are my 10 most favourite.

Tecmo Bowl’s Still Running After Touching Down at 20

Twenty years after its Christmastime release, Tecmo Super Bowl, the progenitor of modern simulation sports gaming, still runs strong. Tecmo Super Bowl retains not only a simplicity of design but simplicity of play. Or at least its illusion. “Everybody who played this game as a kid thought they were the best at it,” said Wisconsin attorney Chet Holzbauer. “Everyone has a group of friends that, if they were the best in that group, they thought there was no way anyone else could be better than them.”

The Rest of the Story: Holzbauer runs the Madison Tecmo Tournament, what is likely the largest Tecmo Super Bowl tournament in the world. Scheduled for March 3, it has already maxed out its 128-player field and is accepting registrants for alternate slots should any of them drop out. Matt Knobbe’s TecmoBowl.org remains current with the modern game, publishing modified rosters and cutting Tecmo-ized highlights of current players and their feats. This sweet Tecmo Tim Tebow shirt can be yours for $US18. More »

The Lockout’s End Brings Peace to NBA 2K‘s Holiday Season

Following the most decorated entry in a widely acclaimed series, NBA 2K12 released under the cloud of a lockout that stretched to five months before the league’s players and owners reached a new labour agreement. The work stoppage pinched the game’s “NBA Today” mode, as well as the inclusion of rookies, whose absence was most glaring from features like the “My Player” career mode. 2K Sports soldiered on, and the cloud lifted on Nov. 27.

The Rest of the Story: The NBA tips off with five games tomorrow, and NBA 2K12 rebooted some of its promotional efforts to capture enthusiasm for basketball’s return. You can see simulations of all five season openers here. Tomorrow, NBA 2K12 producer Erick Boenisch will be in Oakland to see the Golden State Warriors take on Chris Paul and the new-look Los Angeles Clippers; Jason Argent, 2K Sports’ vice president of marketing, will sneak away from his mom’s Palm Springs home to wsee the Lakers play the Bulls/

More »

Chaotic Conference Alignments Scramble College Football’s Video Game, Too

The spasms caused by major conferences’ realignment provided endless water cooler and talk radio fodder for college football fans. EA Sports’ Ben Haumiller has taken every development with the curiosity and intrigue of a diehard college football fan, and the headache and worry of someone whose job is made easier by league stability. Haumiller’s helming NCAA Football 13, which may yet have to account for a 22-team superconference, and could also see 11th-hour changes to the membership of the Big East and Big 12. “Every time Joe Schad at ESPN reports this team is moving to this conference, this really means we’ve got more work to do,” Haumiller said. “It’s not just the part of your brain that goes, as a college football fan, hey, that’s interesting. You’re also thinking, alright, gotta write that down and get started on it as soon as possible.”

The Rest of the Story: There are no profound developments in conference realignment yet, leaving the proposed Mountain West/Conference USA alliance up in the air, as well as West Virginia’s departure for the Big 12, which is the subject of a lawsuit. Haumiller, a Florida State alumnus, was on the sideline at Doak Campbell Stadium for this year’s No. 1 vs. No. 5 matchup of Oklahoma and Florida State, both as a fan and in a professional capacity (gathering audio for use in NCAA 13. At E3, he routed Snoop Dogg head to head in a matchup of Oregon vs. USC. More »

How EA Sports Kept Loose Lips from Sinking Blitz

A veil of secrecy kept the reveal of NFL Blitz an almost perfect October surprise for EA Sports. For 18 months, producer Jeff Ross couldn’t even tell his kids what he was working on, lest one of them say something to a friend at school and word spread to the Internet. The game was originally submitted to the ESRB under the fictitious title “Madden Playbook Creator” to avoid suspicion.

The Rest of the Story: Blitz is on track for a Jan 4 release on Xbox Live and PlayStation Network. Unfortunately, the NFL clamped down on some features that gamers remembered from Blitz‘s earlier incarnations, such as late hits. Still, Ross promises that the game will still deliver “over-the-top, fast arcade action with big hits and guys catching on fire” when it arrives. More »

Madden Veterans Trade Hard-Hitting Action for Facebook Strategy

Earlier this year, a dozen veterans of EA Sports’ Tiburon studio, including its former general manager, reunited elsewhere to form Row Sham Bow, a new studio dedicated to making a Facebook game called Woodland Heroes. It was quite a departure from their previous assignment, which for many had been working on the Madden NFL franchise. “When we started building the game, we didn’t talk about the demographic or the target audience; over the course of the design, we talked about what we wanted to play,” said Ian Cummings, formerly Madden‘s creative director.

The Rest of the Story: Woodland Heroes has been a critical success, winning Gamasutra’s best social game of 2011. “It is a great feeling to have our peers and fans alike recognise the work that we’ve done so far and the direction we are trying to go, even when we feel like we are just starting to figure out how the hell this crazy social game industry works,” Cummings said. While his time with Madden still is fondly recalled, Cummings says he has “really enjoyed an extra sense of relaxation on Sundays, being able to watch every NFL game at home at my own leisure without having to take any notes.” More »

The President Ends a Four-Year Term

After four years as the president of sports video gaming’s heavyweight label, Peter Moore moved on to higher office within Electronic Arts, leaving EA Sports’ big chairto Andrew Wilson, the label’s chief of development before ascending to the top job. “He becomes a voice of the gamer, when he speaks to the development team,” Moore said. “And the unique advantage Andrew Wilson has coming into this job, is his development background. He can sit down with producers, with developers, with network engineers and know exactly what they do and what they face on a daily basis.”

The Rest of the Story: Moore left Wilson more than the keys to a nice sports bar. Three of the label’s top franchises, Madden, FIFA and NHL all set sales records soon after their release. Wilson’s first full year will see a highly anticipated reboot of SSX in February and, as 2K Sports’ exclusive licence with Major League Baseball expires that year, potentially news on that front as well. More »

My Workout Partner is a Role-Playing Game

Two college pals who were formerly scrawny and chubby gamers before buckling down and hitting the gym had no idea of the response they would get when they developed a web site that made working out into a type of role-playing game. Their brainchild, Fitocracy, scores users’ workouts in a manner similar to levelling up in an MMO. “I actually don’t treat life any differently than an RPG,” said Fitocracy co-founder Brian Wang, who grew up as a skinny kid playing Chrono Trigger. “I’m always thinking of levelling up myself, which in this case, is actually myself, not my World of Warcraft character.”

The Rest of the Story: Fitocracy‘s user base has continued to climb, thanks to recognition from webcomics like XKCD and Penny Arcade and mainstream outlets like The New York Times and CNN. Membership still is on an invitation-only basis as the site remains in beta. But it has added a premium “Hero” membership level offering additional workout routines, easily copying friends’ workouts, early access to new features, and other perks. More »

A Walk-On Who Made the Team Wants You to Know What It Really Means

Seven years after walking on to the Auburn team as a freshman, Alex Howell now is in charge of NCAA Football‘s “Road to Glory,” a career mode that emulates some of what he experienced as a college football player. Self-described as “the biggest JRPG nerd,” Howell overhauled RTG with RPG elements, including a “Coach Trust” system that sought to cement the relationship of a star player to the man who recruited him, and whose livelihood depends on his success.

The Rest of the Story: Road to Glory made strides under Howell’s design but still has some ground to cover before becoming a truly compelling experience. “RTG is coming along better than last year thanks to the huge consumer feedback we have received,” Howell said. “I’m listening to our fans and putting inmany requests they’ve asked for.” His first year of work at EA Sports also saw him credited with ESPN’s College GameDay in work on their “Virtual Playbook,” which in years past has been nominated for an Emmy. “Looking forward to another amazing year at Tiburon,” Alex says.

More »

Ten Days of Grace Brings Golf’s Church to the Masses

A four-day pass to The Masters Tournament is truly a bucket-list item, one any golfer would consider himself fortunate to have, if only once. Shannon Yates, an environmental artist for EA Sports, got to spend 10 days, sunup to sundown, on Augusta National’s fabled golf course, coming to know its beauty and its challenge in ways even that tournament’s champions may not know. Brought to high-definition video gaming for the first time, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters delivered a painstakingly authentic rendering of the course, thanks to the scanning Yates and his team performed over a week and half in August 2010. “We spent two full days on Amen Corner,” Yates said. “When we crested the hill on No. 11, I remember talking to the assistants gathered at the scanner, and saying ‘We have to get all of this exactly right. We will scan this as many times as we have to, to get this right.”

The Rest of the Story: Yates’ game easily came home as Stick Jockey’s Sports Video Game of the Year, thanks as much to its technical achievement as to new gameplay features incorporated within it. The project has moved to a March release window now, to hit shelves before The Masters tees off in April. Yates himself is back on the job, but did take some time off after the game’s release for an annual trip down the Florida coast aboard his Harley-Davidson. More »

How A Video Game Made Him Into A Major Leaguer

A decade before most boys grapple with the reality they aren’t ever going to make the majors, Hans Smith had to come to terms with the fact he’d never even step foot on the diamond. A video game changed all of that. MLB The Show and its “Road to the Show” career mode provided more than a diversion to the 25-year-old college student with cerebral palsy. It made him into, in his words, a “virtual athlete.” Sony San Diego, the makers of the game, were so touched by his dedication that they included, at his request, a new control set to include gamers of all levels of ability.

The Rest of the Story: MLB 11 The Show shipped with “ADVA Settings,” named for the Association of Disabled Virtual Athletes that Smith created for a course project at Boise State University. The control set allowed gamers with limited motor function the ability to play not just the single player modes, but also in multiplayer modes against competitors using other control sets. Though the ADVA is inactive as of now, Smith and his story went to numerous mainstream outlets, including The New York Times, as a heartwarming example of cooperation among those who love The National Pastime. “We do get plenty of emails, fan mail, requests, to add feature XYZ to The Show,” said Kolbe Launchbaugh, a senior designer on the game. “Nothing really compares to the passion and honesty behind the words that Hans sent us. He thanked us for making the game, and he thanked us for giving him an experience he could not have had in real life More »

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

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