Sports games are sometimes perceived as an outlier to the rest of the hardcore video gaming community. Still, an uncommon diversity of their offerings supports a class of awards unique to the genre. These are Stick Jockey's Sports Video Games of the Year.
This year's list added honorable mentions for some categories. Akin to a Pulitzer Prize's named finalist designation, this is not a second place or a runner up, but a recognition of a worthy achievement that, in sum, did not rise to the level of best in class. Not all categories carry an honorable mention.
While a game's technical aspects and ability to execute were considered, more subjective qualities such as innovation, impact, and the size of the gaming population it served also came into play in judging a game's worthiness.
Without further fanfare, here are the best sports games of 2010.
(EA Tiburon and EA Sports)
One of the year's most underrated games in this dimension, NCAA Football has to answer a visual demand made of few other sports games: 120 teams, many with unique school colors, all with unique stadia, nearly all of them outdoors playing in light that must be evocative of three different seasons at four different times of day. EA Tiburon's NCAA Football team built a fine-tuning management system that could adjust these visual parameters (and many others in gameplay) without the need for a title update patch. Coupled with an ESPN broadcast package for the first time, NCAA Football 11 is the most visually realistic sports game of any this year.
Honorable Mention: NBA 2K11 also faced its own set of unique demands. Basketball players don't wear helmets or caps or bulky pads, and nearly everything they do before, during and after a play is instantly recognizable to a dedicated fan of their teams. The game got a new broadcast package and a comprehensive visual polish. But NBA 2K is honored here for using a gameplay mechanic - hundreds of new animations and the means of transitioning in and out of them more fluidly - to deliver stronger realism.
(EA Tiburon and EA Sports)
This was not a landmark year for multiplayer in sports gaming, though that's not to say it was without innovation. The nod again goes to NCAA Football 11 for its new Online Dynasty features, specifically in their web integration. Recruiting, a personnel management experience unique to this game, is more streamlined when managed from the Online Dynasty website EA Sports built. Bells and whistles like the ability to write and publish stories associated with your team's exploits added a fun measure of passive-aggressive trash talking, and a means to connect players to the stories they were imagining in their own seasons.
Honorable Mentions: EA Sports MMA's Fight Card, in which players may stage a series of bouts among themselves, and the featured Live Broadcast fights with live commentary, ran a very close second to NCAA Football 11. Both tap into the grass-roots appeal of an emerging sport. Because of the studio support and sustainable player interest required by Live Broadcast - which must hold up for the next two years or more - it's too soon to tell if this will be the way of the future for this type of game. But on a single-event basis it was right there with the most fun you could have online this year. FIFA 11 added goalkeepers to become the first game supporting 11-man rosters in cooperative multiplayer; Madden NFL 11 also added a third player to its cooperative multiplayer mode, as well as a perk system inspired by combat shooters' online multiplayer. Both extended the experience for sports' two largest online communities.
(Triple B Games and Crosse Studios)
Crosse Studios took this honor among an admittedly small pool of candidates last year, and does so again this year by becoming the first independent sports video game to be fully licensed by a professional sports league. Long wished-for by many in the insular pro lacrosse fanbase, the game released in April with all of the teams and player likeness from the National Lacrosse League, and demonstrated that niche promotions which can't crack establishment media gatekeepers can still find an audience in video games, and the cachet that comes with it.
Honorable Mention: BarkersCrest Studio's concept in Home Run Challenge is simple and brilliantly executed: Place your Xbox 360 avatar in a Home Run Derby, using only a single button control. Outfield targets, multiplier scoring and variable pitch speeds do all the rest, and the total package is a downright compulsive experience.
(VooFoo Studios and Sony Computer Entertainment)
VooFoo constructed a strong physics engine that supplies the repeatability and consistency expected of a technical game like billiards. Its two shot methods placed just enough of a deterministic influence on successfully executing your plans. A beautiful game with obvious multiplayer appeal, Hustle Kings is one of the strongest values in sports gaming this year, retail or downloadable.
(Visual Concepts and 2K Sports)
MLB 2K9 was a disaster, something 2K Sports forthrightly acknowledged as it built MLB 2K10. Many of 2K9's problems stemmed from the fact the title was taken back from Kush Games and given to Visual Concepts just nine months before its release date. Though visually it remained almost previous-generation in some areas, in gameplay MLB 2K10 is more than a clear improvement, it's a genuinely enjoyable game, largely in its gesture-based pitching. The addition of a singleplayer career mode, even if its advancement was a little hurried (especially out of the minor leagues), brought Xbox 360 baseball fans into this obsession at last. MLB 2K10 still trails MLB 10 The Show in overall quality by a wide margin, but its multiplayer was more reliable and better supported. Take-Two Interactive's CEO seems sour on the company's baseball license and we may be seeing a franchise on life support until the deal ends. Still, absent any enthusiasm from its senior management or consumer base, MLB 2K's team turned in an admirably redemptive effort.
Honorable Mention: It's unusual to have a comeback when you haven't played a full season yet. But Backbreaker's "Greathouse No. 3" title update is probably the greatest act of post-release support, across all genres, this year. Roundly panned by reviews after its May release, NaturalMotion Games built a comprehensive patch that addressed nearly every criticism, incorporated its diehard community's direct input, dedicated it in name to its forum's biggest contributor, and delivered it all as Madden NFL 11 released. The Greathouse patch shored up the areas where Backbreaker was an objectively substandard simulation, and allowed its innovative football-as-it-is-played perspective to finally shine through. The fact this was done even though the poor reviews were in and the whole enterprise was largely written off speaks highly of NaturalMotion's professionalism and dedication.
(EA Tiburon and EA Sports)
One of the most underappreciated measures of a sports game's quality is its ability to educate someone in how it is played. EA Sports MMA's simplified and intuitive clinch and ground combat system cleared the fog for anyone who is inclined to be interested in this fast-growing sport but are baffled by its fundamentals and strategy. Its striking system is not as strong as UFC Undisputed's, but that comprises a third or less of a bout. EA Sports MMA's career mode is much more engaging, and its online innovations, as mentioned before, are well suited to the mixed martial arts culture. EA Tiburon did a tremendous job servicing multiple fighting styles with a single, easy-to-understand control structure. All this game lacks is the sport's principal branding and most recognizable stars, which will be exclusive to THQ's UFC Undisputed for the next eight years. EA Sports is commonly portrayed by its critics as resting on its primacy in sports licensing; EA Sports MMA shows the publisher's commitment to strong gameplay absent that.
Honorable Mention for Rookie of the Year: NBA Jam for the Wii. Not a true rookie in that the game brought back its creator, original announcer, and was essentially - although skillfully executed - a reboot of a 17-year-old title. The Wii version is specifically chosen here because it was the game's original retaill release, fulfilling all of the expectations that it set. The difficulty in finding online opponents for the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions so soon after the game's release is disappointing, yet outshined by Wii NBA Jam's set of intuitive motion controls, which add to the game's hilarity in local multiplayer.
(Visual Concepts and 2K Sports)
Visual Concepts' once-in-a-generation effort is not just a decisive winner here, it is a worthy nominee for overall Game of the Year. No video game has ever tapped sports fans' sense of nostalgia, or reaped such enthusiasm from it, like NBA 2K11, making its design a potential game changer in the genre. Yet Michael Jordan only dominates NBA 2K11 on its cover. The supporting cast - thick with Hall of Famers - required to recreate the greatest moments of the NBA's greatest player is where NBA 2K11's true depth lies. In the Jordan Challenge, you're reliving more than his career, you're seeing the halcyon days of professional basketball at its most telegenic, from 1986 to 1998. Not only did NBA 2K11 bootstrap itself to the greatest basketball player in the history of the game without being overshadowed by him, it also overshadowed Jordan in its own right. As cited earlier, NBA 2K11's deeper animation set provides smoother responsiveness and greater feel along a basic set of twin-stick commands. The game's franchise mode AI was also fine-tuned in ways that are still being discovered as the virtual seasons wear on. NBA 2K11 is time-capsule quality in terms of what it uniquely delivers and is, in all phases, the best sports video game of the year.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 2 p.m. U.S. Mountain time.