In naming the best video games of the year, the sports genre is often left to fight over a single award. And as I've discussed before, one probably isn't winning an overall game-of-the-year anytime soon.
Realizing that sports games don't usually contend outside of their classification, Stick Jockey's named an honor roll of nine awards within the sports game genre for 2009. Seven of them conform to awards offered elsewhere in video gaming. Two of them, Rookie of the Year and Comeback Player of the Year, might sound more familiar to real awards offered by some leagues, but they also recognize the annual nature of games produced by this sector.
While a game's technical aspects and ability to execute were considered, more subjective qualities such as a title's innovation, impact, and the size of the gaming population it served also came into play in judging a game's worthiness. By no means were these the only good games made in the year 2009; but they are Stick Jockey's choices representing the best the year had to offer.
Best Presentation and Best Singleplayer: MLB 09 The Show (Sony Computer Entertainment America)
The 30 ballparks of Major League Baseball provide a wonderful canvas to showcase a sports game's visuals, and yet it was only the starting point for MLB 09 The Show. Abetted by such unique venues, and the pace of a sport that allows long looks at your surroundings, MLB 09 delivered a visual polish unmatched by any other sports game. Baseball's pre-eminent simulation demonstrated how high-powered visuals aren't just pretty to look at, but that they necessarily contribute to a game's true-to-life realism and its ability to perfect a sports simulation. For a pure singleplayer experience, MLB 09's Road to the Show again exceeded career modes in other sports, both in terms of the deep participation it offers in your player's progression, and in a game experience better suited to playing as a individual than presently offered by soccer, football or basketball.
Best Multiplayer: Madden NFL 10 (EA Sports)
Madden, a mainstay of online sports gaming, delivered its first online franchise mode this year. While it lacked some customizable features of its other game modes, it was a tremendous improvement over Madden 09's online leagues. 2009 was not a particularly noteworthy year for multiplayer sports gaming - other titles trended toward innovation or execution, but not both. Given Madden's stature as an online staple, all year long, this was the most value-added upgrade to a title's multiplayer package and it lays a strong foundation for improvement in the next year.
Best Indie Game: Avatar Golf (BarkersCrest)
Inside Lacrosse College Lacrosse 2010 was an unusual and very laudable effort, delivering simulation quality to a niche sport with a very passionate following. But for gameplay and overall appeal, nothing comes close to Avatar Golf by BarkersCrest Studios on the Xbox Live Indie Games channel. Just $5 delivers seven courses, three different tee lengths, playable with a full bag of clubs, and environmental effects - as your Xbox Live avatar, both singleplayer and online. If that's not enough, it packaged an entire course editor and the ability to share those creations. For such a trivial price, Avatar Golf is hands down the biggest value in all of sports gaming for 2009.
Comeback Player of the Year: NBA Live 10 (EA Sports)
In many ways, Madden NFL 10 finally felt like the first game in that series worthy of the current generation of console. Madden also roams alone, with no other licensed competitor, so its improvement is welcome but shouldn't get extra credit. That instead goes to NBA Live 10, which while it has its shortcomings, made professional basketball the only seriously contested licensed sports title this year. NBA Live 10 was distinguished by better passing, and the little things, like stronger atmospherics, commentary that adapts to season progression, and player-specific crowd reactions. This award does not mean NBA Live 10 is the best basketball game. It means it made that argument worth having again.
Rookie of the Year and Best Individual Sports Game of the Year: UFC 2009 Undisputed (THQ)
This mixed martial arts title wasn't perfect, but it delivered immediate impact for a fast-growing sport underserved by video gaming's mainstream. As a rookie, yes, there are few new IPs in this genre, and 2K Sports offered two - MLB Front Office Manager, and NBA 2K10 on the Wii. Neither had anywhere close to the impact of Undisputed, nor will they see 2010, whereas THQ has already booked a sequel for May. And UFC Undisputed's upcoming rivalry with EA Sports MMA will be a key story of 2010. Tiger Woods PGA Tour and Fight Night Round 4 from EA Sports also were strong contenders in more traditional roles. But for fun, and for living up to the challenges posed by a new sport, Undisputed gets the nod.
Best Team Sports Game and Sports Game of the Year: FIFA 10 (EA Sports)
A striking 360-degree player motion upgrade helped make FIFA 10 the most lifelike simulation of game action in any team offering this year, no small order for a constantly flowing, moving and contested sport such as soccer. Its new Virtual Pro capability broke the accepted boundaries of created-player modes in other sims, essentially embedding yourself, the gamer, in the roster for use in all modes, with attendant player progression. Rather than completely reboot some major aspect of gameplay or control, EA Canada moved more to improve what was already a critical success from the year before. Subtle, but such confidence distinguishes a best-in-class sports simulation, and that's what FIFA 10 is.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 10 a.m. U.S. Mountain time.