Eight years ago I convinced myself I needed a new video gaming experience. I'd been dragging a canvas deck chair into the living room, sitting three feet from the screen just so I could make out the receivers from defensive backs in Madden, or tell a curveball from a fastball in MVP Baseball. I finally said enough in December 2005 and went to a Circuit City to bring home the latest in interactive entertainment.
A high-definition television.
It was a tube TV, but still HD, 800 pounds of pure sciatica coming up my apartment steps. Then I plugged my old Xbox into it and went back to playing NCAA Football 06. And The Warriors.
The Xbox 360 had just hit the shelves. Jon, the intern unwittingly brought along to supply manual labor, raved over Call of Duty 2 and Madden 06 as I watched Revenge of the Sith on six different screens, trying to convince myself I saw any difference among them. But no video game console was going to provide an immersive breakthrough, with richer audio and through-the-looking-glass visuals, without that 32-inch Philips autoclave of a TV set.
In concept, sports video games should be a showcase genre for next-generation technology. As games, they don't have to be constructed from scratch, and as they mimic persons and experiences seen in real life, the photorealistic visuals should be even more profound.
But we are a little more than two weeks from the launch of the PlayStation 4, with the Xbox One coming a week later and the reactions to four sports titles launching on them—FIFA, Madden NFL, NBA Live and NBA 2K—range from a yawn to forced applause.
NBA 2K14 published its next-generation trailer last week, and it indeed looks beautiful—if I'm playing the game in slow-motion or watching a My Career game from the end of the bench. Madden has been poorly served by a promotional relationship with ESPN's Monday Night Football, an arrangement apparently canned in the past week. Two efforts to simulate the NFL's feature game delivered video almost indistinct from the current generation, and if it highlighted anything, it's that both titles will use the same animations.
Madden has, in developer commentary, tried to highlight things like better pass blocking, which really can't be shown in a 90-second trailer asked to meet OMG expectations. If NBA 2K14 is offering gameplay modes or refinements beyond what we're currently getting—in a title that is admittedly best-in-class—I haven't seen it in its trailers, either.
Is that to say these games, plus FIFA, will be indistinct from their predecessors? I doubt it. All of that computational power is useful for more than just slapping a headset on a coach or making the crowd more distinctive. What we're seeing instead—less than three weeks before the PS4's launch—is a last-generation way of presenting next-generation content, focusing on things like skin translucence, sweat, net physics and other filligrees that end up forming the frame of a painting and not the work of art itself.
It would be a lot different if there was an accompanying upgrade in TV technology, as there was in 2005. High definition TVs didn't just make high definition signals look fantastic. They made standard-definition games pop—even if the jaggies and low polygon count also stood out.
Still, no matter how beloved those old low-definition, last-gen titles were in their day, there's a very limited feel to them—in replays, cutscenes, commentary and animation variety—that makes the games almost impossible to stomach once you got a taste of their successors on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
So as I singe Madden's hamfisted Monday Night Football promo and sneer at NBA 2K14's hype reel, I still have no reason to think there'll will be any reason to go back to either title on the PS3 and 360 after tasting them on Xbox One and PS4. That feel, that robustness of experience is almost impossible to communicate visually.
There's still the opportunity for sports video gaming to make a splash when the new consoles release, even if it's lost the element of surprise, or lacks the wow factor of being something we've truly never seen before.
The rookie of the year in 2005 may have been the Xbox 360, but the real MVP was your new TV.