David Halberstam was killed in a car wreck the day I bought my Xbox 360. I don't mean to trivialize the death of a great writer—October 1964 is one of my favorite books, in any subject—but it's God's honest truth that his death is the only reason I remember anything about the day. The rest of my experience with the machine was forgettable and disappointing.
On April 23, 2007, I'd accepted a job with a Silicon Valley startup, after being laid off from my old one about a month before. With a ton of severance pay left, I was in a mood to celebrate. So I went to a Best Buy or a Circuit City, I forget which, and came home with the white box and one game, my favorite series, NCAA Football 07. I can't even recall what it all cost.
I already had NCAA Football 07 on the original Xbox, bought day-of-release the year before. So, after connecting the 360 to my enormous HD tube TV at the time, I punched the power button to see what this faster, sleeker hardware delivered in my favorite video game.
A better description would be what it didn't offer. No Division I-AA schools (they've never been on the current console generation.) No Create-a-Team. No career mode (it was then known as "Campus Legend"). In the Xbox and PS2 version, Lee Corso would end a pregame studio montage by wearing a costumed mascot's head. In the Xbox 360 version, there were barely any cutscenes in the broadcast. Studio personalities have never been rendered in the game since.
Figuring I'd just trade it for another one, I pulled out my original Xbox copy of NCAA 07, put it in this allegedly backwards-compatible machine and started it up. It loaded, but the game skipped and jagged so much as to be unplayable. My other favorite game, The Warriors, wouldn't play at all.
Why the hell did I buy this? I don't know. Why I didn't take it back, I don't know either. Why I ended up selling my original Xbox that summer is even more of a mystery.
I took a lot of crap on Friday's Press Row Podcast for rating my enthusiasm for the PS4 a six out of 10. But if the specifics of my first day upgrading a game console aren't fresh in my mind, then my lack of enjoyment surely is. Sports video gaming will likely manage this next transition a lot better—it doesn't have to re-shoot standard-definition cutscenes in HD, for example, so chances are low the next-gen title is, absurdly, the gimped one. But I'm not at all convinced that what has been described so far, particularly for sports gamers, offers a game experience that truly blows away the one I enjoy—and the ones I've still yet to experience—on the PS3 and yes, six years later, the Xbox 360.
Not a single sports title was shown at Sony's PlayStation 4 event on Wednesday, so it's hard to say right now what the console will really mean for that genre. Spitballing here, I figure things like a spectator mode will be nice for those playing in online leagues, and the DualShock 4's share button should send highlight videos—and glitch comedy—through the roof. One noticeable sports-gamer benefit would seem to be the means of preserving a game even if you punch off the console or leave a live game (against the CPU) midway through. Those who play career modes, particularly in titles like NBA 2K13 have been asking for this for some time. If the console can preserve game state like this, it puts the onus on a developer to add a mid-game save feature, too.
All of this stuff goes in the nice-to-have category, though. Whatever the PS4 is going to cost, I can't say these features are worth $400 or more of my money right now, especially when Sony refuses to give a straight answer on how the console will handle borrowed or pre-owned discs, which are of enormous interest to sports gamers. There will be a visual boost, but as this image suggests, to me it's like shaving hundredths of a second from the 100-meter dash world record. Yes, this is something objectively better, but to the layperson, how profound is the difference, really?
Sure, increased processing power means a game may now render more lifelike crowds or feature an interactive fully-dressed sideline in American football. But for all of the crap thrown at Madden, I have to laugh every time someone indignantly mentions the lack of a chain gang as some profound and scandalous shortcoming. Really? This is why you would (or won't) pick up the game? I really don't give a crap about the crowd, but when it comes to allocating developers and resources, I'd rather the team at EA Tiburon create a pulling guard who doesn't stand still and rotate 270 degrees while his obvious blocking assignment cleans my plow in the backfield, something runners have battled for years.
If you're talking about what really blows your socks off in a video game, it's either in narrative or the gameplay, or how they combine. Sports titles have little to none of the former. And everyone took for granted that the last console evolution would, by itself. deliver the latter. It didn't. This next console generation doesn't look like it's any more equipped to do so, either. It looks more like a social media platform wrapped around some smooth digital delivery options that can predict, because I'm a sports gamer watching my friends' league contests and sharing zany highlights, that I may want to play Madden NFL 17 on day one, as if that needed Sherlock Holmes to figure out.
The sports publishing sector learned a dreadful and unique lesson during the last console changeover that no other genre must face down this year. Series like MLB 2K, Pro Evolution Soccer, NHL 2K and NBA Live never fully recovered from their stumble in jumping from one hardware generation to the next. Madden NFL went on a long journey in the wilderness, chasing back-of-the-box features like Madden IQ, the QB vision cone and "weapons" (bizarrely invoked by the game's Facebook page yesterday) introduced in one year and abandoned the next.
In retrospect, these look like the failures of games trying to sell a console, something sports titles are uniquely unprepared to do. So, as we ponder issues like backwards compatibility, used-games blocking and digital distribution, we're actually talking about a how this hardware will sell the games. And in sports, that case hasn't been made—and it may not be made by this time next year, either.