Sticks Up, Lacrosse Breaks Into the Xbox 360S

Let's be real. It would take a nuclear war for lacrosse, even though it's literally more American than football or baseball, to displace either game on TV. It would take even more to put it in a retail video game box.

"A lot of people have been demanding this in a video game for a very long time," said Carlo Sunseri, 25, a former midfielder for Robert Morris University. "But the market simply isn't that big yet. It's just not possible to do a full blown multimillion dollar game for lacrosse."

But that didn't mean Sunseri couldn't publish a full-blown lacrosse video game for about a multimillion dollars less. Inside Lacrosse College Lacrosse 2010 - hey, the game has a title sponsor, is that bigtime enough for you? - hit the Xbox Live Indie Games channel two weeks ago, a rarity even among that service's eclectic title selection. The game offers a full-featured sports simulation, with a season mode, roster customization and live human announcer, largely what you'd expect in Madden or NBA 2K10 if, you know, either were about lacrosse.

Through the years, a lacrosse video game has often been a why-don't-they-do-that topic in publications or message boards devoted to the sport, Sunseri said. "If you look on the Internet there's always petitions, forums full of kids screaming for a lacrosse video game," he said. Microsoft's rollout of the Indie Games channel last year seemed to be the best shot for such a thing to happen. Sunseri went to work, writing up a business plan built on game sales as well as in-game advertising. It was enough to get a loan, and enough to get him to step down from his coaching gig at his Pittsburgh-area alma mater, forming Crosse Studios to handle the project=

Sunseri needed a developer, of course. For that, he turned to Fritz Ackerley, a 14-year veteran of the games business whose Triple B Studios had recently published the Indie Channel hit Fitba, a soccer simulation. Sunseri figured Fitba's engine could be the foundation for a lacrosse game and he was right, with just one catch: Ackerly knew absolutely nothing about lacrosse.

But, "I've done Formula 1 games and I don't know what like to drive F1 car," Ackerley said. "I've worked on World War II shooters; I don't know what it's like to shoot someone in World War II. So you just have to get the feel for what the sport is about, and Carlo would fill me in on things I had not seen."

Sunseri sent Ackerley video of old lacrosse matches to demonstrate the game's flow, positioning, and concepts such as "forming the L," the game's fast-break offense formation. Passing was built on Fitba's mechanics, as it was a game touted for allowing player motion in one line with passes going along another, something critically important to lacrosse realism.

Shooting was assigned to the right analog stick to allow for more complex shot placement, a demand Sunseri got from potential gamers thanks to buying up ads on Facebook that pointed lacrosse fans to surveys. The surveys alone point to the sport's strong following; Sunseri boasted of clickthroughs topping 80 percent. A Facebook page for the game presently has more than 50,000 fans.

Sticks Up, Lacrosse Breaks Into the Xbox 360S

As Ackerley worked on the game, Sunseri pursued sponsorships for it, securing the title endorsement of Inside Lacrosse, the leading publication covering the sport, and other deals from sporting goods makers and sellers.

Players were hand-rendered by animator Joseph Daniels and brought into the game. Sunseri couldn't get collegiate or professional licensing, and had to make the game's 40 teams from scratch without emulating any existing club. His girlfriend consulted on much of the style and color choices.

Originally Sunseri figured on offering the game for $10, with college and professional indoor-rules variations, but he and Ackerley decided late in the development cycle to limit this version to a collegiate outdoor format, name it College Lacrosse 2010, and halve the price to $5. When it released in November, Sunseri held his breath. But Inside Lacrosse College Lacrosse 2010 clocked 40,000 trial downloads in its first two weeks, and today is in the top 5 among highest-rated and downloaded indie games.

It might be too early to declare financial success - Sunseri demurred when asked for development costs or sales figures - but when it comes to evangelizing for the game he loves, College Lacrosse 2010 is a hit,.

"I think the game has the potential to push lacrosse more into the mainstream," Sunseri said. "You look at the youth numbers, they're exploding. It's kind of at a tipping point now, and I hope through video games we can push it over the top, and start getting everyone to notice the game of lacrosse."

Sunseri said work's already begun on a successor version - the professional-rules version, which is played indoor and has different scoring options, is due for January he said. After that he hopes to have a college lacrosse 2011 sequel out around the time of the NCAA lacrosse finals, contested in late May.

"It's amazing, the opportunity Microsoft's built for indie developers here," Sunseri said. ‘I remember back when they announced it. I was still in college, and they said, ‘We're going to be doing the YouTube of video games.

"I said back then it would be perfect for doing a lacrosse video game, finally," he said, "and it ended up working out."

Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 10 a.m. U.S. Mountain time.