After two years of playing console ports with virtual control pads on my iPhone, I think I'm starting to grasp the future of team sports video games on mobile devices. And it is nothing like what I play in my living room.
It's more like what I expect to play on Facebook, and Big Win Hockey, though it is a little more fully featured than that, is still a free-to-play, pay-to-really-play management simulation focused more on outside-the-lines choice than gameday action.
In it, you'll manage a team of players performing under a limited contract, similar to the forced turnover in the Ultimate Team modes of Madden, NHL or FIFA. Winning games allows you to purchase packs of cards which contain either more players, power-ups to help you win, or other boosts to keep your team strong. Gameplay is entirely background simulated, though you may watch it in a real-time representation if you wish. There's nothing to control, you're just gazing down at your team from the skybox.
The path is simple: Winning games acquires more currency which makes you a better team to win more games. The incentive to do so is limited only by your ego and your competitiveness. And your team's energy. You can only play so many games in a certain span of time -- I think I played about a dozen after picking up the game, then had to wait 10 minutes in between games as my team's "energy" bar refilled. This, probably more than anything else, is why Big Win Hockey feels like a Facebook game.
It's where we are headed, however. Look at Gridiron Heroes, the so-called Tecmo Bowl MMO that recently got backing to build a Facebook game. Its basic construction sounds a lot like Big Win Hockey's -- assemble a team, implement broad strategic choices before a game, lay those cards against another opponent's ratings, and hope for the best. You can watch a full match of Big Win Hockey (three periods takes about five minutes) or just skip to the end and see if you won and how much loot you got, plowing those proceeds back into your team. And those choices are the real gameplay here.
The sales of and reaction to mobile ports of console staples like Madden and NBA 2K show that this platform prizes simplicity and choice over action and depth when it comes to sports. The tradeoff is that, while you can get the base application for free, in the end you must pay to really play.
Big Win Hockey [Free, iTunes]