The Video Game Awards celebrated 10 years of giving out hardware on Friday. Bet you didn't know, or at least you forgot, who was the first winner of its Game of the Year award.
Specifically, Madden NFL 2004—yes, the one with Michael Vick on the cover. It was a different time, for sure, but it remains the only instance of a sports simulation game taking overall game-of-the-year honors in any of the major award series, recognizing that "major award" in the early years of video gaming is a bit like determining a college football national champion before the Associated Press Top 25.
If you don't count Wii Sports as a sports video game, the 2003 VGAs were the only time the entire genre has been represented as an overall Game of the Year. Now, it's true that other genres are similarly underrepresented in these types of awards galas. I didn't see Crusader Kings II on any list of nominees at the VGAs. I didn't see any "Best Strategy Game," in its list of awards, either. I've not heard much handwringing about that.
But sports video games, being largely a console-based genre, have a much greater presence than the strategy genre in the mainstream conversation, toward which the VGAs are geared. Ten new video games, released for the PC or the high definition consoles in the VGAs eligibility period of Nov. 23, 2011 and Nov. 20, hit the all-important Metacritic score of 90 or better. Two were sports titles. Every other genre was tied for second with one.
That's not to argue that sports gaming's best this year beats either The Walking Dead or four other nominees for the VGAs top prize. It does demonstrate the genre's outlier status to the rest of the mainstream, or core gaming these awards address.
A couple of years ago I asked why sports video games weren't contenders for overall game of the year. The answer is that reviewing sports video games traditionally has been delegated to freelancers or junior staff at a publication. I'd like to think I'm an exception. Still, like fighting games—another major genre absent from top overall honors—sports games require a built-up skill, or at least knowledge outside what this edition of the game teaches you to do, to be successful or to understand the depth of their feature set. It's a major barrier to understanding.
It's not a secret Kotaku has a vote on the VGAs advisory council, and it's probably no surprise that the guy who cast ours, Stephen Totilo, asked for my thoughts on who deserved his nominations in the Individual and Team Sports Game categories.
My first thought was that finding five nominees in a category like Best Individual Sports Game might be stretching it. (The ballot asks for five nominees; the field is then pared down to four official finalists.) With Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13 and WWE '13 among the finalists, it's easily the weakest category of any awarded at the show. I advised Stephen to give a nomination to F1 2012 in this category. (The series was BAFTA's overall sports video game of the year in 2010.) The VGAs ended up giving it a Driving Game nomination alongside Forza Horizon and Need For Speed: Most Wanted, which won. It hardly seems fair to judge a motorsports simulation next to two arcade racers.
The iterative nature of sports video games makes it harder to articulate their excellence—which we'll see when folks start offering their Sports Video Games of the Year awards after this, Kotaku included. These are, after all, the least distinct releases year-to-year, even with Call of Duty or Assassin's Creed on annual publishing calendars. It's far easier to say who shouldn't be considered for overall honors than it is to say who should.
As much as I have loved the NCAA Football series, this year's edition came nowhere close to raising or meeting expectations. MLB 12 The Show has an almost spotless reputation but didn't do anything eye-popping to shine over the sustained excellence of FIFA or NBA 2K.
Yet in those latter two, NBA 2K13's major feature addition was a subtle remaking of its controls—which remain confoundingly deep and highly specific—and the introduction of an ultimate-team mode that doesn't stand far enough apart from what EA Sports does already. It hurts, also, that NBA 2K13 doesn't have a showcase mode like "The Jordan Challenge" in 2010 or last year's "NBA's Greatest." FIFA is an excellent sports simulation but even less distinct than NBA 2K13 from its equally excellent predecessor.
All this leads to an overall sports video game of the year by process of elimination, and if that's your group's champion, no wonder it doesn't do well on a bigger stage. NBA 2K and FIFA have gone 1-2, winner and runner-up, for the past three years at the VGAs, but they also benefit from incumbency where others don't.
The other key difference is narrative. There's no unified story that NHL 13 tells, not when any of 30 teams or a zillion created stars can win it all. It's not to say a sports video game doesn't create its own conflicts, resolutions and visceral experiences, but as I've written before, it's an extremely personal thing. We once ran a feature here called "Box Scores" that invited folks to submit the greatest games they'd played in a sports title that week. Not surprisingly, it wasn't a well read feature, because a come-from-behind championship in a video game always has a "you-had-to-be-there" quality to it, even to other sports video gamers working on their own long seasons.
With The Walking Dead, however, there's a shared experience in guarding and uncovering Lee's backstory, protecting Clementine and honoring promises. In sports, the only real shared experience is that the Cleveland Browns or the Kansas City Royals are terrible.
Sports video games are brilliant in the infinite personal fantasies they can deliver, more than any role-playing game, when you think about it. But they're utterly bereft of a unified story. That wasn't a core expectation of this medium's best representatives, when you really think about it, 10 years ago. It is now. That's why we haven't seen a sports video game win game of the year in 10 years. It's why we probably won't again.