A Game Harder Than Its Hardcore Fans

A friend visiting me recently is a lifelong NHL fan with season tickets to the San Jose Sharks. He doesn't play video games, but he was intrigued when he saw NHL 11 on my desk, a couple days before release.

"Oh, wow, you got this?" he said. "What's that like? Can I play it?"

"Sure," I said, opening the case and handing him the manual. "There are the controls."

The 17-page manual devotes four pages to the controls. After three minutes Scott uttered two words that communicated he'd given up on the idea.

"Don't feel bad," I said. "I barely know how to play it either."

That's an uncomfortable statement to make when you're expected to review this game. (It also explains why you probably won't be seeing one for another week.) Especially given that EA Sports' NHL title is the most consistently acclaimed sports title over at least the past five years.

But if both of us had picked up the controllers - well, I probably would have won. But it wouldn't have looked a thing like hockey, despite NHL 11 being a game that does one of the best jobs of simulating its sport.

On one end, I represent stick skills, adaptability and familiarity with a controller, things that can be educated by an in-game tutorial. But I have zero knowledge of the game, never played it, didn't watch it with my father or anyone explaining it to me, and growing up in the South well before the NHL pushed into the area, I identified with no team and followed no players.

Scott brings an innate understanding of how the game is played, the position responsibilities and strengths, the coaching and shift-change strategy. But having last played video game hockey with Blades of Steel there's no way he's going to go from a D-pad and two buttons to an Xbox 360 controller, without taking every tutorial and suffering a dozen losses. On rookie.

A Game Harder Than Its Hardcore Fans

Together, we represent both halves of why sports games are the most difficult genre to play in all of video gaming.

Not "one of the most." The most.

It's amusing to consider, because for what we're simulating in real life, I'm certain there are a lot more soldiers who can play football than there are linebackers who are trained to stay alive in combat.

The deepening complexity of sports video games is more than tolerable, its marketable, because millions of sports fans have a deep, first-hand association with the sport in question, if not as players then at least as lifelong fans. Unfortunately, it's also a prerequisite.

There is no such prerequisite in a shooter. Mafia II's instruction manual is two pages: Here's how to kill someone before he kills you, basically. Part of that has to do with the lawless context of the game. But it's also because, unlike the subtleties of defending someone in basketball, there are few gamers out there familiar with the subtleties of being a mafioso, and certainly not enough demanding simulation-quality organized crime gaming.

Analysts have asserted that sports gamers are not buying more sports games, but they are spending more money on a single game. The economy may be a big part of that, but it's only a part of it, I think. As features and different contextual control sets are are added and - especially - as multiplayer communities mature and become more competitive, fans may find themselves without the time or the wherewithal to keep up in the sports they follow more casually than their favorite.

Sports games that try to simplify themselves typically get brushed off as babying the product for people who don't have sports fan bonafides. Let's not be so quick to judge things that way. These games may be simplifying themselves to be more accessible to hardcore sports fans who, lacking exposure, can't yet make that mental connection between what they want their player or team to do and how to execute it on the controller.

"Doesn't this thing have training wheels?" Scott asked. When your game is so complex you need training wheels for the hardcore, that's a tough damn video game.

"Not really," I said.

"Well what the hell is this thing?" he held up the stick from NHL Slapshot - EA Sports' Wii title that still features simulation hockey, just with fewer controls on a hockey stick peripheral. Through a shipping mixup I got two sticks. I showed Scott the commands - pass like this, shoot like this, hit like this. He kicked my ass 7-1.

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