People forget how unabashedly capitalist the emotional climax was in Field of Dreams. "It's only $20," Terence Mann told Ray Kinsella, vowing that they would save the farm. "They'll pass over the money without even thinking about it."
Like a visit to the magical cornfield in Dyersville, Iowa, games publishers sell a sports fantasy, so on some level, they have always understood that yes, if you build it, they will come. They'll pass over the money, three times the admission to Ray's ballfield, without even thinking about it.
The trick is identifying "it," and over the past year, we may finally have seen the answer: It's now a sentimentality, pride in and nostalgia for sports that stings the bridge of your nose and puts a lump in your throat. Tuesday, we got another dose of it when EA Sports revealed it was bringing Augusta National Golf Club - more rarely seen in a video game than in real life - to Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters.
"I don't know if words can describe it," said Nick Wlodyka, who as executive producer on the game became more familiar with the course than most non-members of the club could ever hope to. "You almost feel like you're in a time warp; there's very much that nostalgic feeling. You know you're going to a place very few get to go to. I was, many times, overcome with emotion."
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12 figures to be as talked-about as the title that, if this is a trend, kicked it off: NBA 2K11. It also delivered something more than holy to its fans: the Michael Jordan era of the NBA, when the game was its most exciting and telegenic. More than just making Jordan available for play on a roster, 2K Sports supplied a 10-game narrative comprising the high points of his career, presenting it in such a way that it felt like he - and a staggering supporting cast of NBA greats, including many hall-of-famers - were again playing live on your television.
"People are eager to look back as much as they are to look forward," Peter Moore, the president of EA Sports, said in a conference call after the news went out about Augusta and Tiger Woods 12. "Sports is as much about nostalgia and legendary moments as it is the anticipation of the playoffs coming up. All of that is something video games have tapped very well."
Even NBA Jam, as Moore pointed out, trades on that kind of yes-at-all-costs nostalgia, never mind the fact that its iconic performances from a nearly two decades ago came in arcades and basements, witnessed by audiences of four or five. These are things different from the wishes sports games have been counted on to fulfill for roughly a decade now. Every team simulation has a franchise mode of near infinite-length, it offers a singleplayer career to bolster the become-a-legend fantasy that began with creating yourself on your favorite team. The thrill of these may not be gone, but they are expected.
The success of NBA 2K11 - counting all platforms, it was the top-selling game in the month of its release - and the mainstream clamor for Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12 has almost certainly will have design teams meeting to consider the uniquely emotional fulcrum of their sport. Can that even be delivered?
Moore, in the conference call, pointed out the difficulty in bringing back a cast of legends, as NBA Jam and NBA 2K11 did in October. Group licenses provide one-stop shopping for every current player in a league. Retired players must be signed on an individual basis, and the work 2K Sports did getting permission from scores of NBA players, great and small, who had played against Jordan is one of the lesser heralded details of that studio's effort.
Historic rosters have had a touchy history at EA Sports. The famous teams of the past that used to ship with Madden NFL were the subject of a lawsuit by retired players against the NFL Players' Union, a suit that surfaced embarrassing details of the union's dealings with EA Sports. The use of even current collegiate players' likenesses is the source of litigation, so playing that sport's greatest contests, as previous editions also did, seems out of the question.
Even then, there wasn't anything transcendent about their inclusion, nor the classic teams in Madden, nor for that matter, the Gold and Silver Era teams of MLB 10 The Show, which also had six classic baseball parks. The AFL presentation mode of Madden NFL 10, also included in Madden 11, was a charming re-skin. But in all these cases, the commentators addressed the teams, fans and venues as if they were just another part of the current game.
Not so with NBA 2K11's "Jordan Challenge," and its spine-tingling introduction, beginning with the 1991 NBA Finals. Or with what we've seen so far of Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12, which prominently carries The Masters branding and will feature a "Road to the Masters," career mode. EA Sports also brought in Jim Nantz to take over the commentary, a nod to his stature as the identifiable voice of that tournament. Nantz himself seemed barely able to contain his enthusiasm for the event in this video. He's beaming like an 8-year-old autograph seeker at 0:24. So he won't be calling just another tournament whenever you play that course.
What could be done? If you follow the Masters' model, as I wrote earlier, there isn't much uncharted territory left in sports gaming. That seems to be lightning in a bottle, and it's why a golf simulation could end up being the biggest game of the year.
But if you followed the Jordan model, a baseball game that recreated highlights of Jackie Robinson's rookie season of 1947, in which the Brooklyn Dodgers won the NL pennant and faced the Yankees in the World Series, would command unbelievable mainstream attention and undoubtedly would be supported by Major League Baseball. In addition to the cultural significance, you're talking about one of the most nostaglic symbols of North American sports, the Brooklyn Dodgers and their revered Ebbets Field, and the most popular franchise of present day.The estates of several greats from that era have, presumably, signed off on their inclusion in games, so signing the principal actors seems feasible.
Doing this in collaboration with the National Baseball Hall of Fame and National Baseball Library and Archive, so that it's educational as well as celebratory, you could be looking at a truly significant work. And, as far as I know, any inclusion of the Negro Leagues - whether as a preamble to the career mode, or astride it with separate players - would break new ground in sports video games.
The point here is that NBA 2K11 and Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12 have now drawn into stark relief the potential of sports history and, I hope, show that the simple inclusion of a roster of great players or a few famous settings is a waste of the opportunity. Video games can be a custodian of sports history just as much as literature or film - films like Field of Dreams, which didn't do too badly at the box office, either.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 2 p.m. U.S. Mountain time.