Tomorrow I'm hitting the road for a cross-country move, the sixth time I've driven the width of the nation since 2001. As I was boxing up my video games it occurred to me that some of them will have made five of those journeys by the time I reach North Carolina on Friday. All of them are sports titles.
This is a little curious because sports video games are dominated by annual releases. If we assume that a game even a year out of date is obsolete, then someone who still hangs onto it is usually doing so for reasons other than the roster or the gameplay.
Looking at the out-of-date titles I packed up this week, some were kept because they're the last title in a series: NHL 2K10, NCAA Basketball 10, College Hoops 2K8. Others I've kept because they're reference material that may come in handy in future stories: All-Pro Football 2K8, Backbreaker, EA Sports MMA. Some, like NBA 2K11 or Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11, have modes that existed for a single year only.
But there are a few I've hung onto because, even if they're completely obsolete or previous-generation work, even if I haven't played them seriously in years, they represented something special, either to the genre, to the history of a sport, or simply to times that I fondly recall. Here are five.
MVP NCAA Baseball 06
To this day it blows me away that an NCAA "non-revenue" sport—that which is not football or basketball—got the full retail disc treatment in a video game. Women's basketball definitely has higher television visibility in its postseason. Men's and women's soccer likely have bigger followings. But NCAA baseball got a video game.
It took a perfect ferment of circumstances to bring this about. 2K Sports had taken exclusive rights to make Major League Baseball games, ending MVP as an MLB simulation. EA Sports still had technology in place and agreements with the NCAA and its licensing partners. It was a better economy with lower development costs, and EA was experimenting with things like rugby and Arena Football, so it made sense to try to salvage baseball with this title.
The game's "Load-and-Fire" batting commands were later joined by the "Rock and Fire" pitching system in MVP NCAA 07, both precursors to analog controls everyone now expects in simulation baseball titles. Recruiting provided a unique twist on baseball simulations' player management appeal. It doesn't make anyone's list of the greatest of all time, but MVP NCAA has to be preserved just for the quirks of history it represents.
ESPN NFL 2K5
You hand in your sports gamer badge if you don't list this one, right? Interestingly, I bought this when I last lived in North Carolina. "Dude, you need to get this NFL game," my friend Robert emailed me. "Why do I need another NFL game?" I replied. I just got Madden a day early at the Morganton Walmart."
"Because it's $20," Robert replied. Sold. I don't think any sports video game has delivered more value, dollar-for-dollar.
Bought this in a shopping mall near the Target Center in, April 2004, when I was sent to Minneapolis to write a news feature about Carmelo Anthony (without actually talking to Carmelo Anthony, I might add.) MC Supernatural's terrible lip-synch notwithstanding, this game had a superb soundtrack. I brought it home and created a baller that was an homage to the night cops/car wreck work Brian Crecente and I were doing for the Rocky Mountain News at the time. Tucar Faital was his name (pronounced "two-car fatal"). Never got past the Silver Tournament, myself, but the game's final boss, in which you battle The Man running this reality series, was a stroke of creative genius.
Fight Night Round 3
This was a converted GameFly rental, which I later replaced with the Xbox 360 version. I sunk hours into this game's career, hooked the first time I stepped into a gym in Chicago, stunned when my guy started fighting during a weigh-in press conference and got floored (you have to parry the punches—you can't throw any.) I was locked into a rivalry with Winky Wright and he haunted me for my entire career. One of the first games where you could really feel your character's age and limitations at the end. When I finally hung up the gloves, I knew it was the right time.
NCAA Football 2004
This is the title that brought me back to console video gaming. The year before, I had visited Las Vegas and hung out with a friend, a graduate of Notre Dame Law. We set up N.C. State versus Notre Dame, CPU vs. CPU on his Playstation 2, set a point spread and bet on it. I lost $20 because the game randomly chose snowy weather in South Bend.
The next year I finally caved in and bought an Xbox. This was the first game I bought for it and the only one I played for a solid three months. I hear fight songs on ESPN broadcasts these days and realize that I know them because of how much time I spent in menus in this game, recruiting players, modifying rosters or creating schools like the University of Denver, which I've played with the same running back, quarterback, tight end, kicker and two-way linebacker/fullback every year since. When it releases in two weeks, I'm sure I'll be back on the field with Lonnie James and LaDarryl Moser again.
I've written about the concept of sports video games as a model railroad, a basement fantasyland into which gamers may disappear for hours on end, completely molding an ideal reality. The first game to show me the engrossing appeal of the modern sports video game was NCAA Football 2004