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When Sports Games Stop Being Fun

As far as games journalism goes, sports games are mostly shoved aside. The sales numbers get reported, as do new features, but people rarely go out their way to do any sort of in-depth coverage or deep criticism.  There’s usually one closeted Madden fan or NHL nut who can jump on the coverage for their respective games, but the majority of people who write about games–even those who have favorite teams and are casual fans–don’t usually get into the digital side of the sports world.

Sports video games are a weird creature.  They are somewhat akin to the competitive shooter scene, alike in mainstream popularity and the “bro” stigma that accompanies their ownership, but sports games’ single player emphasis fails (ironically) to provide the team atmosphere that you get with a Battlefield or Counter Strike.  You might liken them to fighting games, but they lack the fast action and cult culture that accompanies something like Street Fighter.  In the end, sports video games are very much their own thing.  They represent a few moments each year when ESPN and IGN collide in an awkward car crash, leave their respective insurance information and go their separate ways.

The world of sports video games used to appeal the majority of the games industry.  Ask the average player and you will get regaled with a story of Super Techmo Bowl or Mike Tyson Punch Out. These games had simple mechanics with easy-to-grasp concepts, relying on a skillful twitch-based style of gameplay that really challenged players and ignored the complex simulation system one would find lingering behind today’s sports titles.  Techmo Bowl and NBA Jam were arcade games, taking the core of a sport and translating it into a condensed experience that could be played on a 16-bit Sega Genesis or even an 8-bit NES.  They were fast paced and disposable, more emphasis going into the individual play and competitive spirit.

Why do these game with poor graphics, and shallow immersion strike such a deep chord within us?  One undeniable aspect is sheer nostalgia value, we connect to these games because they take us back to a childhood where we could sit in front of a tube TV and mash three different buttons to simulate what Barry Sanders could do on a football field.  These old sports games also remind us of the simplistic nature of the sports they simulate.  Early sports games didn’t push you through the world of contract negotiations and salary caps, they didn’t worry about attendance or practice, within minutes you were on a field, court, rink, or diamond, playing your favorite game.  It is a naivete that one loses as they grow older and learn about steroids, lock-outs, courtrooms, and NCAA sanctions.

As we have grown up, so have our sports games.  It all started when Madden introduced Franchise mode in Madden 97, where players slipped into the wing-tip shoes of an owner and were forced to make the hard year-to-year decisions.  Then came Road to the Show and other superstar modes, which placed old Joe Shmo in the shoes of an emerging star, faced with self-serving choices to improve one’s legacy.  We have never looked back.  If you play MLB: The Show 13, you will have to deal with the fact that the Yankees can buy more talent than the Royals.  When you play Madden you will have to shove old favorites out to make room for emerging talent.  You can demand to be traded, complain about your role, set beer prices, and (in NCAA Football 06) ignore NCAA sanctions for disruptive players.

I still have moments of magic with the games of today; I still get giddy about 9th inning home runs, last-second Hail Marys, and buzzer-beater three-pointers.  In many ways, the elongated story lines, the blurring of the sport and the business make these moments of victory all  the sweeter.  I learn more about my favorite sports, as games require a deeper understanding of the leagues they simulate.  You need to understand what the Rule 5 Draft is, arbitration, and how to run a scouting organization.  There are different rewards in todays games, a feeling of accomplishment when you have a great draft or make a killer trade that pans out over the upcoming years.  The immersion is deep, and enjoying everything that these games have to offer is a huge commitment.  With each game taking about 30-60 minutes, offseasons taking an hour, your franchise or player-mode could be a 40+ hour commitment, a far cry from the 15 minute games of NBA Jam.

There is an unwritten rule in today’s sports game that to enjoy the game you will have to put in the hours.  The more you micromanage, the more you create and change, the more the game becomes something special to you.  The problem is that this type of time commitment excludes so many people with a passing interest.  I enjoy the deep complexities of any sport, but I lack the time to really get into the ins and outs of each game.  My current schedule allows for me to play a couple seasons, where I simulate half of the games, and then its time to move onto the next year’s iteration.  Creating real depth and satisfaction to your game can take time, which I discovered playing the same copy of MLB: The Show 11 for the past few years. My long lasting franchise–into its sixth season–feels special because it was built by me through trades and drafting. There are memories of world series wins and defeats, and there is a pride as players who were once rookies are approaching career milestones.  It is a rare thing, a special feeling that is something offered by today’s game, though to the commitment to getting this kind depth is unreasonable.  I have owned the game for over two years and have put in countless hours (I embarrassingly would have to guess around 100).

Phil Fish had an interesting rant about the quest for photo realism in games on Twitter saying, “the amount of time, work and money it will take to get things to just ‘meh, still creepy’ seems irresponsible to me.”

The quote sums up the state of sports games quite well.  As we play out the role of billionaires or millionaires in sports games it often feels like we have stepped into a world that is semi-real, that we semi-understand.  It has the real schedules, the talent is mostly accurate, but in this world some guy named Piper McGee joined the Denver Nuggets, scored 32 points-a-game and lead them over LeBron James and the Miami Heat to a 2016 NBA Championship.  While you might enjoy watching LeBron cry tears of sadness, there is a moment where you will put down the controller and go, “well, that’s not real”.  It’s true, the hours of practice, salary negotiations, tattoo placement, and playing the god-forsaken game adds up to 40-hours that is not shared with buddies, makes a crappy story at a party, and really indicates you might need to get out more (I know, I’ve been there).

The biggest problem with today’s sports games is that sports is supposed to be a shared, casual experience.  Whether you and your buddies are playing wiffle ball in a back alley, or you’re at a Buffalo Wild Wings on Super Bowl Sunday, sports are something that you do with other people.  It is why they are so great.  Today’s sports games lack a little bit of that community feel, or the social interaction offered (connected careers, online tournaments) require levels of commitment most people don’t have.  However, sharing the experience is what its all about.  Again, I turn to my epic MLB 11 franchise which I run with about four other friends, each playing when they visit me or have the time to sit down and play, forgetting about it pretty instantaneously.  Occasionally we’ll talk about a player they traded for, or let go, or they’ll talk about specific moments of joy such as when my friend ripped off his shirt and screamed, “What you know ‘bout baseball?” after hitting a homerun.  This is a shared experience not inherently built into the game, but shows exactly what these games lack.

Today’s sports games have strayed into new territory.  They have become complex math equations, that while stimulating a sliver of the population, have left many feeling alienated.  Games like Madden, FIFA, and NCAA survive because of their names.  The sales will continue to be high, the market will continue to be ripe, but that doesn’t mean we are currently in the golden age of these titles.  Instead we continue to get empty promises about an authentic experience and a empty shell of a product.  Sports games are made under such demanding schedules that only slight changes can be made year to year, thus the product has become inferior, the experience repetitive, and eventually the consumer will catch on.

Instead of adding complexities to both strategy and gameplay, it would be nice to see a developer really devote some focus to presentation, which has long been stifled, rehearsed and unimpressive.  Sports have become a theatrical event, in which spectacle is everything.  Developers need to condense these bloated playtimes, pick up the pace, and inject a fresh visual style.  Sports are about the unexpected, about the upset, the comeback, the inspirational journey. Such stores are at the heart of sports and developers should capitalize on it, making players, coaches, and franchise storylines dynamic with interesting twists and turns, as opposed to a series of math equations based on statistics.  Today’s games can’t capture the grocery-store clerk turned MVP story of Kurt Warner or the tumultuous life of Ricky Williams, they can’t capture the pandemonium when Alabama takes the field, and they can’t recreate the hatred so many people have for LeBron James. There is a human aspect to sports that doesn’t come from a physics engine or numbered stat fields.

Sports video games will never hurt for an audience and will continue to be a staple of EA, 2K, and Sony.  In turn, there are plenty of people who make their favorite sports game a yearly purchase. Because of this, developers won’t risk any change, there won’t be anything inventive done.  However, I am tired of trying to find the fun in these games, of toying around with options or spending hours in the creation centre to get something that doesn’t feel like a watered down version of the sports I love so much.  I am tired of trying to make these games fun, I want them to be fun when I turn them on.

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