Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 23
What it means to be "in the game"

The sports game ghetto


Why don't we talk about sports games? Why do we assume they fall outside the domain of game criticism? Why have we relegated them to the game ghetto inhabited by the latest iterations of DDR, Yu-Gi-Oh! and Barbie? Why, at the most recent Game Developer's Conference, was there not a single session, panel, or roundtable devoted to a sports game? Are they really that dismissable?

It's not hard to find specialty sites like Operation Sports devoted to all things Madden, FIFA, and Tiger; and while such sites occasionally produce thoughtful essays, most of the content skews toward previews, sneak-peak screenshots, and reviews of the latest sports game releases. At Operation Sports, these reviews are generally comprehensive and well written, tailored to readers hungry for feature-list roundups, gameplay evaluation, and comparisons to prevous-year interations. If you want the lowdown on the latest Madden, it's a great place to visit, with a friendly and knowledgeable fanbase supporting it.

But the burgeoning community of game critics has mostly ignored sports games, and I think that's a big oversight. A game like MLB 09 The Show - which is one of the best games of any genre released this year - offers many useful lessons in gameplay and user interface design, as well as brilliant integration of tactile mechanics, responsive player controls, and variable on-screen outcomes. Designers who want to understand how a game can grab a player, invest him in its systems, provide deep customization and near-infinite replayability with faithful but unpredictable results - such a designer would do well to study a game like MLB 09 The Show.

I think we operate on a set of flawed assumptions about sports games:

  • They iterate on the same game year after year, merely updating rosters and tweaking graphics.
  • They require less imaginative design than other genres because they simulate sports that never change. In terms of gameplay, it's 3 strikes and you're out this year, last year, and next year.
  • Sports gamers are less discerning than "hardcore gamers," and they mindlessly consume whatever mediocre Madden EA annually doles out. Consequently, sports games don't need to be good to sell.
  • Sports games are glorified stat-based sims with mo-capped player animations. They aren't really video games like Call of Duty, Super Mario, or Half-Life are video games.

One hour (or better yet, a week or month) spent playing MLB 09 dispels such assumptions, but more on that in my next post.

I suspect we've assigned 2nd-class status to sports games because too often over the years they have deserved that designation. Too many Maddens with too little to offer, too many basketball games with broken controls have poisoned the water for sports games, and paying $60 for a game that's inferior to its $50 precessesor is infuriating.

I'm also guessing we ignore sports games because relatively few of us critic-types play them; and those of us who do, rarely write about them, despite their incredible popularity. It's worth noting that FIFA 09 has sold 9 million copies worldwide. That's more than Fallout 3, Far Cry 2, and Fable II combined.

It's also worth noting that FIFA 09 is an exceptionally fine game. But in my circle of writers, sports games are rarely mentioned, and I can't think of a single critical analysis of a sports game that any of us have written, re-tweeted, cross-linked, or otherwise called to anyone's attention. Aside from a standard review, is there nothing to say about how and why FIFA or MLB 09 function so effectively as games? Or have we simply decided that we don't do sports games?

In my next post I'll take a stab at offering a critical perspective on MLB 09 as a video game that pushes the medium in some interesting and useful ways. As a sports game nut, I look forward to the challenge, aware that I'm working outside my normal element. As always, your comments and feedback are most welcome.