Sometimes it feels like gaming has two camps: Those who play sports games, and those who don't. It's not unlike the jocks and nerds in high school, really. Could non-sports gamers find something to love in sports games? Should Mass Effect players give Madden a shot? How do sports tell stories, and how are story-based games like sports? And what would a Friday Night Lights video game look like?
Someone get a fire extinguisher! Those are some… Burning Questions.
Jason: Hey Kirklbro! Sure has been a while since we've done a Burning Questions. We tried to do it live in Kinja, but that didn't work so well for a number of reasons. Before that, when was the last time we did this? Pre-E3?
Kirk: Hi Jasonbro! Hmm... I think the last time we did a Burning Questions was in like, 1979. In other words: A long time ago. Maybe our questions over the last few weeks haven't been all that Burning?
Jason: Maybe they haven't!
So today we're going to talk about sports! (This is where half of our readers immediately close the page.)
Kirk: Yes, sports! It's funny, there's always this apologetic vibe when video game people write about sports, isn't there? Like, "Oh, sorry, we're going to talk about sports. But it'll be fun! Don't go!"
Every football game, every basketball game has a narrative. Seasons have narratives, teams even have narratives, narratives that span decades!
Jason: There's definitely a stigma. At the risk of biting into stale stereotypes, maybe it's that whole geek/jock high school mentality that draws clear lines between People Who Play Sports and People Who Play Video Games. Do you think those lines exist today?
Kirk: It's hard to say beyond my own personal experience, but there's definitely a very different social component to watching sports than there is to playing video games. The times when I've watched sports regularly, I've always done it in a group, you know? It's a much more social thing.
Jason: Well first of all, let's distinguish between playing sports and watching them.
And then maybe we can get into that glorious hybrid, sports video games.
Kirk: Owen is going to read this and get so mad.
Jason: I heard he secretly hates sports.
Kirk: If I knew that much about the inner workings of Madden, I might hate sports too.
Jason: Ha. So. Social experiences. One of the big reasons people go to live sports events is to be with their kin, cheer among people who share their passion for a given team. There's this sense of community there. Like, we might all sitting around at a stadium thinking "woohoo, everyone here loves the Jets. I'm among friends." You're all there because you really care about that team, not because you care about one another—as opposed to, say, playing video games with your friends, which you do less because of the games themselves and more because you want to do something with people you enjoy.
Kirk: That's true—though as I found when attending a Barcraft event in San Francisco, sometimes they do that for video games too. But pro StarCraft is the exception, and there's still not quite a tradition around it like there is with, say, Sunday Night Football. I gather that's one of your favorite days of the week, right?
Jason: Indeed it is. For a number of reasons. But hold on: when you went to watch pro StarCraft, did you care about the players? Did it matter to you who won?
Kirk: Me personally? No. I didn't know enough. But a lot of other people did, folks who had been watching the entire tournament and follow pro gaming more closely than I do. It seemed a lot like watching an exciting game of football with a bunch of fans—it's less exciting for me because I don't have as much of a stake, but it's still very fun.
Jason: Really? They were invested in certain players?
Kirk: Sure, the ones who'd been watching seemed to care. Then again, I'm not sure about that - do you get the sense that there's team/player loyalty in StarCraft like there is in, say, the NFL?
Jason: Maybe among the most hardcore of the hardcore. I occasionally watch StarCraft games and I could not care less about the outcome. I just want to see exciting things happen. But yeah, that's an exception, and eSports seem to be evolving more and more every day. Maybe in twenty years we'll all have favorite Quake teams.
What's most fun about watching sports, though, is just getting invested and passionate and putting all of your hope into a single team. It's almost like gambling! (I may or may not have a serious gambling addiction.)
Kirk: Right, I've definitely found that to be the case too. I went to the University of Miami, and though I didn't go there for the sports program, it was super fun to root for our football team. We won a championship my junior year, and it was HOT. (Let's not get into the current state of Miami football. It was glorious at the time.) Same thing with Hoosier basketball. I've always liked having a team that I believe in, that I root for. Sports are about that journey, you know? It's funny - people say that sports are pure games, that they don't have a narrative. Like that's one way they're different from video games? But I don't think that's true at all. Every football game, every basketball game has a narrative. Seasons have narratives, teams even have narratives, narratives that span decades!
Jason: Yep. If you don't believe us, check out Deadspin! There are all sorts of interesting, heartwarming, and funny stories in the world of sports every single day. And that's just part of the appeal. Sometimes sports can be packed with so much strategy that I feel like I'm watching the physical versions of RPGs.
Football, for example. Football is my favorite thing to watch, mostly because, as our mutual friend Chris Dahlen pointed out in a great article for GameSpy a few years ago, it's essentially a role-playing game. Teams take turn attacking, defending, and trying to score as many points as possible—or reduce their opponent's hit points—before time runs out. What's not to love?
Kirk: And now Madden is adding all these almost MMO-like career options, where you make a player and shepherd him through an entire career... it's very cool. Owen talked about the possibility of making an older player and leading him into retirement and eventually mentoring/coaching - that sounds neat, though the Madden guys told me they wouldn't be able to get it into this game. Still though, that kind of storytelling is really cool, because it's real drama. There's a reason that so many of the most inspirational movies are sports movies, you know? And let's not even get started on Friday Night Lights. Or wait, okay, let's. What would a Friday Night Lights video game look like?
Jason: The best (worst?) thing about the football in Friday Night Lights was that it was always "omg we're down at halftime because of some team emotional issue. Time for Coach to give a motivational speech so Saracen can throw a last-minute touchdown that spirals in the air for like 45 minutes!" I don't know if that'd make for an interesting game. It'd be like nothing but those scripted JRPG battles where you know you can't win and you just have to wait around while everything plays out.
Kirk: Well, I disagree with that assessment—there were plenty of times when they played regular games, or routed their opponent, or lost in the end. And really, FNL was about the town and the people—all of the things adjacent to Football. In other words, it embraced the stories that happen around sports, not the story of sports.
But anyway! On to another subject, it's funny you mention JRPGs - You and I have a running joke about the only games you like to play: Madden, StarCraft and JRPGs. I get the first two, since they're both very sport-y, but the JRPGs thing used to throw me. What, if anything, do you think JRPGs have in common with sports?
Jason: Lots of melodrama and the characters all say weird shit?
Jason: It depends on the sport. Football, for example, is all about the big play; your team isn't winning a football game unless it pulls off a pivotal turnover or gets some key yards at the best possible time. Basketball, on the other hand, is just a constant grind. The only way to win is to keep up the energy and never stop relenting. JRPGs—or at least JRPG combat—often feels like a strange mixture of the two.
Jason: Man, I LOVE fantasy sports. Not fantasy baseball, but football. Have you played either?
Kirk: I played fantasy football exactly once, and I was terrible. I was the guy who never checked in and made it less fun for everyone else. I was the worst.
Jason: Yeah, I'd kick you the hell out of my league.
Kirk: And I'd deserve it.
Jason: So you didn't like it?
Kirk: The thing is, I did like it, and I can TOTALLY see how people get into it, but I didn't make that initial buy-in time investment. I didn't get close to the point where I was checking my standings constantly and following every game. I'd imagine, actually, that fantasy baseball is better for that, since there are so many more games. All my New York friends love fantasy baseball—I just don't have the space for it, maybe.
Jason: Baseball seems like even more of an investment! For fantasy football, all you have to do is make sure your roster is updated once a week for 14-17 weeks. The football season is very short. 16 games per team. Baseball is 162!
Kirk: Yeah, but surely the return on that investment is more involving? I guess it kinda taps into why people prefer baseball to football, or vice versa.
Jason: Well, to answer that we have to get into why people like fantasy football. Contrary to what your average layperson seems to believe, what's appealing about fantasy football isn't the fact that you get to pretend to GM a team. What's appealing is that it gives you a reason to care about every single football game. You're invested. In addition to having a favorite team, you now have lots of individual players to cheer for. (And if, like most of us, you play for money, you're quite literally invested in every game.)
If Konami ever released a Suikoden Facebook game or mobile app, I'd buy twenty copies.
Kirk: Right, that makes sense. It gives you one more avenue to express your fanhood, and one more way to feel invested in the game. Maybe even literally. Here's a potentially controversial (or just plain misguided) thought: in a way, fantasy sports are like all these social media and mobile game tie-ins we see cropping up around AAA games. Things like the Assassin's Creed Facebook game or the Madden mobile stuff. They let us attach ourselves to the games we love in new ways. The difference is, I'd imagine that fantasy football evolved organically in living rooms around the country, where most tie-in games these days are created specifically to hook players when they're not actually playing the game.
Jason: That's an interesting point! And yeah, you're right about the organic vs machinated aspect, but I do like the idea of finding new ways to get invested in games or worlds. Almost makes me want to reconsider my "really don't give a shit about all this companion stuff" policy. Let me tell you: if Konami ever released a Suikoden Facebook game or mobile app, I'd buy twenty copies.
Kirk: Yeah, I've always felt like Madden is a game where the mobile and tie-in stuff makes sense, since it's so similar with actual football. Which brings me to my next thing—I don't actually play too many sports games, but this year, I'm going to get back into Madden. I haven't really played video game football in like ten years, so what should I be looking out for?
Jason: That is awesome. I am excited to kick your ass. (And we must invite Kotaku readers to join us in a league.) The cool thing about Madden is that you can jump in pretty easily and use some of the automatic play-calling modes to help ease you into the game. At first you might not even know when to run or pass. But gradually you'll start to learn more and more about nuances and complexities to the point where you're shouting things like "nickel package" and "wildcat" with no hesitation. It'll be a lot of fun.
Kirk: Nice. You know, I actually played football in middle school.
Jason: What position?
Kirk: I was a guard. I was... well... it was, in the end, not my sport. I wound up being a swimmer, which isn't a very "gamey" sport. I guess our locker room was gamey, but you know what I mean.
Jason: Aha. So how was your blocking?
Kirk: I was way too tall and skinny to be a guard, and nowhere near bloodthirsty enough. So, not good. I did like the pace of football, compared to other team sports I played and didn't really love, more fluid sports like rugby and soccer. I like the strategic element of Football. What about you, did you play any sports in high school?
Jason: Tennis? Does that count? We didn't even have a football team at my school.
Kirk: Tennis totally counts!
Jason: Tennis is great. Except their point system makes no sense.
Kirk: "What do you call a tennis match between Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder?"
Jason: Let's not get into that. But yeah, to get back to Madden: you played the newest one the other day at EA's press event in San Francisco, didn't you? What'd you think?
Kirk: I actually didn't have a chance to play—I talked to Yuri Bialoskursky aout the game a bit, but there's just so much to the game, I'm going to have to take it on my own turns, not at a press event. The Wii U version looks cool, though—I love the idea of using a touch-screen to modify plays.
Kinda related to that: one thing that always gets me down is how there's a new Madden each year. People make the same complaint about Call of Duty, really. Do you buy Madden each year?
Jason: I like to buy it every two years. Same with NBA 2k. I feel like the changes are just drastic enough every other year to warrant that $60 investment. And there really are a lot of changes, which is why the million-something people who buy Madden on its annual launch days don't have a problem buying it every single year. It's the type of thing you only complain about if you don't actually play the game.
(Disclosure: EA is sending me this year's version.)
Kirk: That seems smart, actually—every two years. It's not like Call of Duty where there's a new story, and a ton of new gameplay stuff. That's an interesting thought, that people would complain about Madden even if they don't even play it. Then again, people do that all the time with all sorts of games! We started this conversation out talking about the divides between sports fans and gamers—let's wrap it up by mentioning the divide between sports games fans and other-game fans. There are so many people out there who own consoles who literally only play Fifa every year. That's it! Just Fifa. It's a different breed of gamer than your Valve-obsessed, Skyrim-modding chiptune listener. But should that be the case? To try to answer the Burning Question in our headline: Should video game fans care more about sports?
Jason: I think so! To get back to what I brought up at the beginning, I think that for us geeks there might still be stigmas attached to sports, stigmas that prevent some of us from really enjoying something we could get a whole lot of enjoyment out of. Whether it's strategy, narrative, or just straight-up passion, I think there's a lot to love once you start getting into a game like football or basketball. It's a different type of enjoyment than video games, but it can appeal to similar parts of our lizard brains.
Kirk: Maybe Madden would have more appeal if it starred fabulously coiffed teenagers with huge swords?
Jason: Don't even get me started. I'm getting Square Enix on the phone right now.
Kirk: I for one can't wait to play Madden XIV II: Absence of Dream Descent.
Jason: Madden  duo-dissidia-roethlisberger
Kirk: I'd play it.