In Defence Of Sports Games

It's alarming how many of you people hate sports games. To the point where a harmless post on a sports game on this site usually elicits unnecessary levels of fury and trollishness.

We get it. A lot of you hate sports games. Hate Madden, hate FIFA, hate NBA2K, hate Pro Evo (Wii Sports doesn't count; it's a party game). Hate them so much you even go and upset the people responsible for making them.

"For many on the Madden NFL team it can be a source of frustration" says Phil Frazier, senior producer at EA Tiburon (ie the Madden guys). "Just about everyone on our team are hardcore. We have many that continue to play World of Warcraft, many that attend midnight sales for games like Call of Duty, and many that play the card game versions of Magic the Gathering or Bloodbowl. The fact that the ‘hardcore' group doesn't give sports games a fair shake can be frustrating."

But have you ever taken a step back and wondered why you hate them? We do, especially since some of us are die-hard sports game fans. And for the most part, it baffles me. So I went and spoke with a couple of the guys at EA Sports, and decided to play devil's advocate for a day in defence of sports games.

In Defence Of Sports Games

We've gone back through old posts and read many of your complaints. Heck, they're the same complaints we often have with sports games. That an annual update promotes lazy development, that people are being charged $50 for what amounts to a roster update, etc etc.

Some of those points are valid, particularly the roster updates. But others? "In my opinion, an uninformed, non first-person shooter fan could make a similar argument about games in that genre" says Frazier. "I've heard sports game fans say, "It's just new guns and maps, but the gameplay itself is the same."

Ask yourself this: How different were Call of Duty, Call of Duty 2 and Call of Duty 3 at the end of the day? They were released on (roughly) an annual cycle, all featured the same factions, the same war, the same control scheme, and the same display.

Sure, even the most generic shooter sequels often at least feature new maps, giving them a fresher appearance than another football game on another football field. But his basic point is a valid one.

Then you've got to consider why an annual update for a sports game is so wrong. After all, it's a sports game, and sports run in seasons. Clear, truncated episodes, with a beginning and end, each of which tells a story and creates villains and heroes.

"Yearly cycles make a lot of sense for sports games" says Dave Littman, the producer of EA's NHL series. "After all, professional sports do the same thing. You pay a lot of money for season tickets before the season starts. You go to all of the home games and cheer for your team until the season ends. Then...you do it all again the next year".

Another, seemingly more reasonable complaint from people who despise sports games is that, well, they just don't like sports. And on the one hand, that's cool. Not everybody is going to like everything.

But on the other...what about the emotional rewards on offer in a sports game? "Sports games provide personal access to the emotion of sports and many of these emotions are the exact feelings you get when playing other genres of games", says Frazier, digging a little past the context of the Madden series and into the gameplay itself.

"The satisfaction of a head shot in an FPS is very similar to a big play in football. Being the point leader after a battle in an FPS feels very much like winning a game of football. Making the tough decision about going with a frost or fire spec in WoW feels very much like the choice of signing the hot new rookie quarterback or the speedy running back, as it greatly impacts the way you'll play the game."

In Defence Of Sports Games

Moving beyond the innate "experience" you feel playing a sports game – and I think Frazier is right on the money with that – there's also the mechanics of a sports game to consider.

For example: Let's look past the fact you're playing a sports game for a second. Like any other video game, the "sports" setting of a sports game is just context. Window dressing, giving a purpose to a game that under the hood – where the 1s and 0s live - is there to test your strategy and reflexes via a series of challenges.

Like Mario. He's a plumber, but in Mario, you're not plumbing. You don't care he's a plumber. You care about the timing of your jump, the brilliance of the level design, the challenges inherent in progressing from beginning to end without dying or running out of time.

Now take that line of thought and apply it to sports games.

A centrepiece of both Pro Evolution Soccer and FIFA in recent years has been a game mode where you create a single player, then assume the role of that player (and that player alone) during games, guiding them through their career, from benchwarmer to superstar.

You pick his name. His height. His facial features. Which position he favours. Then you assign him attributes from a pool of points, which will determine how well he performs at various tasks. Once created, your skills as the person controlling the action will cause those attributes to improve to over time, in turn making him a better player.

Sound like an RPG?

Most major sports games these days, from Madden to NBA games, feature "manager" modes, where you assume the role of the head of a team. So not only are you controlling the action on game day, you're responsible for training regimes, sponsorship deals, the buying and selling (or drafting) of new players, that kind of thing.

Taking place off the field, these modes normally involve the distribution of allocated or earned resources across a variety of fields. The attention you pay to those fields can determine whether, in the larger scale of things, your team is successful. The process is often number-based (i.e. you're spending money). It's also usually abstract, in that the moves are represented not by literal handshakes and glasses of champagne, but by little more than text bubbles and positive or negative outcomes.

Sound like a strategy game?

One final example is online play. Those who take their Madden or FIFA online gaming seriously will, as I've described above, soon look past the "context" of the fact they're playing a sports game. They're not actually playing sport. They're playing a video game, and a video game has its own sets of rules and exploits which can be learned, mastered and then applied. Strategies, timing, specific characters or teams that are better than others…

Sound like a fighting game?

In Defence Of Sports Games

So if, like Frazier says, the emotions in a spots game match those found in other games so closely and if, like I've shown above, the mechanics in a sports game can match those found in other games so closely…why the hate?

Is it because you can't relate to an NFL or a Premier League or an NHL team as well as you can ancient Romans, aliens or vampires? That you prefer learning the move-set of a large-breasted Chinese girl to that of a pro sporting team?

If so, that's fine!

I'm not saying you have to like sports, or sports games for that matter. Some people hate sports. Others just won't find the kind of action on offer to their liking. That's cool. I'm not trying to force anybody to play or enjoy something they don't want to.

All I'm trying to do is show you that many of the criticisms of the sports game genre are unfounded, and that if you're willing to give them a chance (as opposed to spitting hatred upon them at every mention), you may actually find something you can relate to. Maybe even enjoy.