With respect and admiration for, if not apologies to, the late Ernie Harwell, here's something adapted from his famous Induction Day speech at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Aug. 2, 1981, which itself was adapted from this 1955 essay.
Stick Jockey has published this annually on the weekend after Thanksgiving weekend. I've updated it for this year, and I'd like for it to remain a tradition.
Sports video games are the very first video games: a glowing ball bouncing back across an oscilloscope in a atomic research laboratory. Tennis for Two. They're there with the first coin-operated video games, at a bar in Sunnyvale, Calif., in a crude machine stuffed with so many quarters that it broke down. Pong. That's a sports video game.
They are the original fighters and the original racers. Turbo and Punch-Out!!, Pole Position and Ring King, Ready 2 Rumble, UFC Undisputed and Fight Night. Sports video games were there at the beginning of console multiplayer gaming, on a dialup and a Dreamcast.
The Greek rhetorician Athenaeus once wrote, "No one has yet calculated how many imaginary triumphs are celebrated by people each year to keep up their courage." I do not know either, but I suspect the answer is in the millions of sports video games sold every year the world over. Maybe sports games don't make the cover of Game Informer. Maybe their rumors aren't spread throughout the industry with breathless speculation. But sports video games don't take seven years to develop, either. Without fail, on opening day, your favorite team, its players and the entire league will be on a disc in your tray.
From Green Bay to Manchester City, every failing can be reversed, every triumph can be reimagined in a sports video game. Every year, a Heisman Trophy winner sits down, controller in hand, and enrolls at a completely different school to recreate his career there. That's a sports video game. So is the Phillies fan who took Roy Halladay on a journey through 13 perfect innings, gave up a hit, and had the character to accept the outcome. Sports games extend the passion of rivalries and nourish the expression of a competitive spirit that, for millions, began a long starvation on their last day in shoulderpads or stirruped hose.
Grown men skipping a Tuesday of work to stay home playing football all day, that's a sports video game. So are the legions of sore-thumbed editors, the clutter of spent Mountain Dew bottles and Athlon magazines at their feet, working feverishly into a hot July night to rename football rosters. Every year, 128 fathers, husbands, lawyers, accountants and otherwise will go to a bar in Wisconsin to settle a claim made in rec rooms, dorms and frat houses for more than 20 years: No one can beat me at Tecmo Super Bowl.
Sports video games are speed, jumping, performance in the clutch, righthanded power and stamina. Every skill is measured, up to the coveted 99 and the rarefied 100. And you can give yourself all of them in every attribute, if you wish, in a sports game. Sports video games are the greatest performers returned to life. A child born after 1992 today may behold the brilliance and dominance of The Dream Team—the greatest assembly of talent in any sport in the world—thanks to a sports video game. And above even that, sports video games provide their own class of heroes: Jon Dowd, QB Eagles, Ken Griffey Jr., Jeremy Roenick of NHL ‘94, and the incomparable Tecmo Bo Jackson.
Where our fathers and grandfathers had the Sports Illustrated jinx and the Wheaties box, today we have the Madden Curse and the cover star. Making the packshot of a sports video game is the new certification of superstar status; the first generation of athletes to grow up dreaming of such an honor takes the field now.
In these games, 'next year' is this year. And every year.
Sports games are a wide receiver for the Denver Broncos hauling in a miracle catch and then running parallel to the goal line to bleed out the clock—because he saw that in a sports video game. They're a rookie, his experience no bigger than the lump in his throat, making two debuts—one in real life, and another in the mid-season roster update. And they're a veteran too, a tired old man of thirty-five calling up Sandy Sandoval to fix his speed rating, saying he's still got his wheels.
Sports video games supply their own play-by-play calls. They're "Boomshakalaka!" TOUCH DOWN! THURMAN THOMAS, and going inside the mind of a Greg Jennings, putting da team on your back, doe. Pat Summerall exclaiming "Oh no, there's a man down!" while an ambulance snowplows the healthy bodies out of the way—that's a sports video game. They're Andrew Anthony, for the better part of two decades, declaring "It's in the game," a slogan that has outlived "fly the friendly skies," "be all you can be," Mr. Goodwrench and the Energizer Bunny.
You may never shake hands at the net at Wimbledon's Centre Court, or rub Howard's Rock at Death Valley. You may never play a single hole of Augusta National Golf Course. The Polo Grounds and Eddie Grant's memorial are long gone. But you can go to all of these sacred places in a sports video game.
And there, your favorite athlete will never leave your favorite team. There, "next year" is this year and every year. In there is the time for the Maple Leafs, the Detroit Lions, the Chicago Cubs, the city of Cleveland and the nation of England—to win it all. And then win it all over again.
These are games for all of us, still games for all of us, these sports video games. Thank you.
Happy holidays, everyone. Tape this to your locker door, get out there and play like a champion today.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears weekends.