Overcoming a New Fear of Old Failures ... and Vice Versa

This is heresy to the cults of both sports and video gaming, but I'd really rather gnaw off my fingers at the first knuckle than play a human in either.

This goes back a long ways, longer in real sports than in the computer, of course. On an organized level, my sole team sport has been baseball. My father saw a lot of strikeouts, and I wasn't a pitcher. Oh, I dreamed of whaling an 0-2 fastball, still rising as it cleared the left field fence. (I still do dream of this.) But I was never much more than the guy going 0-3 in practice and still running outfield windsprints as the old man pulled up to take me home.

And so my refuge was the computer sports game. No matter how terrible or afraid I was at the plate in real life, there was always a screen and a joystick and a predictable opponent, the computer, off whom I could easily belt four home runs. That only made things worse. As a 14-year-old in 1988, I had played so much Hardball! before my JV tryouts that I swung at everything, like it was as simple as pressing on a joystick button to swing and make contact. "Jeezy peezy, son, this isn't a video game," said our coach, as if even then he knew I was trying to connect my virtual expectations with the real world.

Twenty-two years later and a continent away in my living room last week, playing MLB 10 The Show, I heard Coach Dillon's voice as I stupidly hammered my thumb on the square button with two strikes against some unknown opponent, trying to rip a miracle home run and whiffing completely. It synthesized two sets of humiliation: the old school strikeout against a human pitcher, and the new era failure of video game play. Trailing 4-0 in the second inning I did the only thing I know how to do in such circumstances: I ragequit, and cursed at how much I loathe online multiplayer. It's like beer pong or bowling; it's something I'm expected to play socially, never any good at, and don't have the time or inclination to practice.

Overcoming a New Fear of Old Failures ... and Vice Versa

At 36, I scarcely believe I'm the only one, especially at this age, who feels this way about sports games. And the excuses we make, well let's see: The younger kids are more mercenary, more inclined to exploit every weakness than play fairly or realistically. Maybe guys like me want a more persistent experience, rather than a bunch of one-off contests. Or maybe our excuse is we want opponents who behave in a manner more normative to the sports we simulate. Or we want to participate in the realistic re-creation of a professional or high level college game, rather than a matching of skills. And a CPU opponent will provide all of this every day of the week.

And, to the comfort of my tender feelings, will usually be beaten. Trouble is, designers know about these neuroses, and the excuses propping them up are becoming less valid in multiplayer, if they ever were in the first place.

"Back in 2007," said Ben Haumiller, a designer who came to EA Sports' NCAA Football in the following year, "my opinions of online sports gaming was that it was a barren wasteland of gameplay that consisted of the same two or three teams used by every opponent, playbooks stripped down to three plays: All Streaks, All Streaks with a quarterback scramble, and then All Streaks from a different formation."

I went to Ben for a few reasons. One, because he works on the sports sim I enjoy the most, and the one that, on the Xbox, brought me back to console gaming after a decade away from it. And two, he admitted to being an online-o-phobe, like me, but overcame it. And also because American football is one of the biggest drivers of the alpha-dog online multiplayer attitude.

In light of that, this past year NCAA Football did something that, really more than any other multiplayer sports game out there, shot for delivering a more sportsmanlike and realistic performance in the single-game online experience. I know in my review I panned the Season Showdown, in which your efforts reflected not only your performance but that of your preferred school. At first blush it almost reduced football to an after-school special: Show mercy, play fair, don't run up the score, and both you and your defeated opponent will benefit and sing a happy Fat Albert song at the end. But that's seen through the eyes of someone who expects to win.

Through the eyes of someone who usually gets his ass kicked, though, I must now acknowledge that NCAA Football's Season Showdown at least tries to condition - and enforce - that unreasonable expectation of multiplayer-phobic gamers: that the online game delivers play more consistent with what you see in real life.

Overcoming a New Fear of Old Failures ... and Vice Versa

"One of the reasons online gameplay has been classified by some as a 'cesspool' is that there is no real long term risk for refusing to punt and going for it on 4th and 20." Haumiller said. "If you don't convert the first down, oh well, what do you care what the other guy thinks, since once the game ends you you'll probably never see them again. Back when multiplayer mean two guys playing on the same console, you could punch your opponent in the arm when they did stuff like that. Now there's the level of anonymity when online that makes people do things they wouldn't normally do otherwise."

So the Season Showdown strove for a couple things. One motivator married your gameplay to your sense of school pride; simply to win for dear old alma mater. The second factor tied players' decisions within that game to a point value that, aggregated with the larger community of players picking the same school, ostensibly showed that their team knew how to do it and do it right. And the measurement for that wasn't points, stats or coldly analytical football savvy, but sportsmanship.

"Pride is a huge factor in games," Haumiller said. "And playing in online games puts you in a situation where that pride is on the line."

The key is how to manage that pride to a positive multiplayer end. Between online players who don't know each other, the Season Showdown incentives, drawing on school pride, attempt to manage that. Where NCAA Football has seen its greatest multiplayer uptake, Haumiller said, has been in its online dynasty mode, which debuted last year and has become strong trend across all team sports simulations.

"I was always a big dynasty guy, so I wasn't really interested in these one-off games," Haumiller said. "I want each game to matter in a larger context than just my lifetime overall record, and I wanted to know that if I was going to play an online game, even if it was against someone I didn't know, that we were both playing that game for the same reason.

Overcoming a New Fear of Old Failures ... and Vice Versa

"Online Dynasty has almost been a rebirth of the interest in [multiplayer] for a lot of gamers," Haumiller continued. "When I was playing offline dynasty by myself I might make it a couple of seasons before I wanted to start over again and try someone else. With Online Dynasty there is such a greater investment in the 'world' of that dynasty that your desire to keep playing, and further that experience is much stronger."

Agreed, and while it doesn't require that you know everyone in your league - administrators can open them up to anyone - the robust experience Haumiller's talking about is more likely when you've got a relationship with your league's members. Typically a player knows at least one other person in the dynasty, the guy who invited him. But - and here's where online leagues succeed - even if he doesn't know the other 10 players, the awards, bowl berths and stats reinforce the feeling that you're all building a realistic progression of a season, and so you're responsible for your contribution beyond whatever it means to you in a single game. And it'll probably also encourage you to be a little more familiar with your playbook, and maybe - gasp - set your audibles. I just need to get invited to a dynasty. Well, and then find the time to keep my game commitments.

That's all well and good, but in the end, you're still playing against humans, and multiplayer single games offer the most opportunities for playing and developing your online skills. While the experience is nowhere near that of a foul-mouthed FPS deathwatch, when you're getting pounded 35-3 the humiliation lasts a lot longer than a headshot and teabagging. Here's a tip: Don't just quickmatch. Search out a game in a lobby suited to your skill set.

"If you give people the ability to compare themselves to others, there will be a segment of fans whose only goal is to be recognized as the best at that stat," said Haumiller, who called leaderboards "a necessary evil. … The problem is the guys you don't want to play are the most active, since they are chasing that leaderboard spot, and therefore are more often the guys you are going to run into when looking for a random game."

I asked if Haumiller knew his game's demographics, multiplayer versus singleplayer, betting that older guys like me who grew up with no online multiplayer are rather solidly into offline modes because it's been a comfort zone for so long. Haumiller couldn't break out that kind of data when I reached him, but he could see my point.

"For those of us that for years just played games versus the CPU, it was a very unnerving experience to step into an online game and not dominate the way you should be," Haumiller said, "If that lack of domination is accompanied by some kid snickering on the headset as he converts a fourth-and-20 on some miracle play, now you've decided that online gaming isn't for you and you don't go back."

But you should. And I should.

"Just like you have figured out how to routinely beat the CPU, you can do the same thing with anyone online, it just takes practice," Haumiller said. "The more you play online, the more you start to pick up tendencies, and the faster you will be able to adapt when you come across someone doing something new to you. While it's frustrating at first, online gaming will make you better at the game overall."

Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 2 p.m. U.S. Mountain time.