With a Video Game, a Small League Gate-Crashes the Big TimeS

It's been around 24 years, but the National Lacrosse League's still "emerging," with a "dedicated following," patronized by empty labels the same way a blind date has a "great personality." Like those dates, its advances are often spurned.

The NLL had a broadcast deal with Sirius XM Radio; it expired last year. On TV, Versus once carried a game of the week; the cable network terminated the arrangement in 2008. As for a video game, a three-year development deal with Activision ended a while ago without going anywhere.

"At the end of the term of the deal, they advised us, because of the costs of development and the size of the lacrosse market and the fan base, they didn't feel like it would end up being worth it to do the game the way they'd do an NBA or an NFL game," said George Daniel, the NLL's commissioner. "They said it'd be a tough investment for them."

Really, NLL, it's not you, it's us.

Whether it's expressed politely in a boardroom by men in suits, or coarsely on talk radio by fans calling in, the mainstream gatekeepers and consumers of professional sports are notoriously dogmatic about what is and isn't worth trying. I'll admit to being one of them. And at bottom, these decisions are often based on a circular logic. If something like the NLL was big time, well, it'd have a video game; but it can't get a video game because it isn't big time.

This week may have seen the final seal broken in the eventual undoing of that establishment. On Wednesday, the NLL licensed a full sports simulation video game, NLL Lacrosse 2010 using its logos, teams and players' images, to be published by the end of the month over the Xbox Live Indie Games channel.

One way to look at it, if you want to, is that it's a minor-league deal for a minor league sport. Production costs are lower, distribution costs are nil, and publication review isn't as rigorous as that of a full retail disc release, or even something like Xbox Live Arcade or the PlayStation Network. That's all true.

But the point here is that the league at least gets the opportunity to prove itself, which it never did on a disc on this console generation. And if video game lacrosse is just a niche game that only appeals to a hard core of fans who already enjoy the sport, fine. They will still have the game for which they've clamored.

With a Video Game, a Small League Gate-Crashes the Big TimeS

"We'd always get questions from fans, ‘When are you coming out with a video game?'" Daniel said. "We have some very passionate fans, just as passionate about the sport they root for as NBA or NFL or baseball fans are for theirs. There's a part of all of us that wants to share the league with others. And [the fans] do feel where somewhat underexposed ... Since we've announced it, the feedback has been tremendous. It's a wonderful thing for our fans. They're truly excited about it."

Fans of other sports and striving leagues outside the North American big four should be excited too, for what NLL Lacrosse 2010, if successful, could potentially signal down the line. This game is absolutely a first, not just in sports games publishing, but in sports marketing as a whole. For a league without a TV deal is now streaming all its broadcasts over the Internet; teams without beat writers are printing their own stories online, and a sport without a video game has gone it alone, through an independent channel that democratizes publishing for video games the same way YouTube has for video and iTunes has for audio broadcasts.

"We're embracing all of that," Daniel said, "It allows us the opportunity to circumvent the big media and go into alternative spaces, and we need to do that. A lot of this is by necessity, but a lot of it is a good fit, because we already have our fans all online."

Daniel's right. Though more and more media gatekeepers are bypassed by self-publishing options, console video games' establishment reputation is still largely governed by three large outlets, sort of the same way 1960s television did, and they deliver the badge of mainstream acceptance for their medium. Yes, independent games developers have a long history on the PC; and more recently the Indie Games channel and digital distribution have opened up new opportunities for them. But still, to the general public, if your brand shows up in a game on someone's Xbox 360, the basic assumption is you were big-time enough to be worth the trouble.

With a Video Game, a Small League Gate-Crashes the Big TimeS

"A video game is one of those milestones that a league needs to have, for the fans to have some pride in what they support, and also from a credibility standpoint," Daniel said. "It's one of those things you want to have, especially for our audience. They can now take their experience with their favorite team and players - something that's usually reserved for the NFL and for baseball - and have that same experience that they're used to having with Madden.

That's for existing fans. NLL Lacrosse 2010 could very well be the first exposure to the sport - real-life or virtual - for many others. Absent a broadcast package, the NLL is hamstrung in its efforts to publicize the sport outside of cities that already have franchises. Its appeal is still mostly regional, in Canada and the northeastern United States. But a $5 impulse download could wind up converting some casual players into more interested followers.

"Maybe people will download the game and try it because they heard good things about it, and then they come to find out, hey, we've got 11 franchises, and they're introduced to who the good players are, like Brodie Merrill and Dan Dawson," Daniel said. "They might come to learn who these guys are, and become fans of the league and the sport."

NLL Lacrosse 2010 isn't yet out; it should be by April 30. It'll be a different game from what's already out, College Lacrosse 2010, also developed by Crosse Studio and Triple B Games, which are handling the NLL game. Collegiate lacrosse is played on an outdoor field with more players. The NLL is five-a-side "box lacrosse" played in indoor arenas.

But I went back into College Lacrosse 2010 last night to see if it could create any interest in a sport I've never really watched before. I had no idea what I was doing, whether my made-up strategy of spacing and passing was orthodox to the real game, whether the defensive switch I kept calling was appropriate for the situation, whether my constantly aggressive checking was advisable, whether I or my opponent was scoring a realistic amount of goals.

Eventually, none of that even mattered. I do know that I won with eight seconds left in overtime, and it was awesome, and I had a good time. And so I'll probably play lacrosse again.

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

Images via NLL.com