Rarely considered for overall video-game-of-the-year honors, the uncommon diversity of sports video games support a class of awards unique to the genre. These are Kotaku's Stick Jockey Sports Video Games of the Year.
This year we'll recognize achievements in seven categories. Some categories from last year were not awarded this year, for lack of distinguishable candidates. 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.
These awards are conferred by me, in consultation with Luke Plunkett. Here are the best sports games of 2011.
(Visual Concepts and 2K Sports)
Nothing came close to Visual Concept's broadcast-authentic presentation, in presenting both the current NBA and imagined matchups of years past. The introductions to standard one-off games are a near mimicry of, and welcome surrogate for, actual televised basketball, which has gone dark in the league's ongoing lockout. The pregame, postgame and halftime packages, built by a staff that counts TV sports production veterans among its numbers, have no equal in simulation sports gaming. The commentary of Kevin Harlan, Clark Kellogg and new addition Steve Kerr is informed, deep, and in the season mode, rarely repetitive. In "NBA's Greatest," Visual Concepts went the extra mile to supply period broadcast graphics, and visual and sound filters, to emulate footage shot in the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s, helping make it one of the most enjoyable new game modes developed in this console generation.
(EA Canada and EA Sports)
Multiplayer remains standard fare for many titles year-to-year, but FIFA 12 gets the nod this year for introducing "Football Club," which gets palmed off as a social networking construction but is also an enjoyable way to find a great match, tailored to skill level, among the game's vast population. A nifty promotion/relegation dynamic applied at the end of week-long "seasons" keeps football fans involved in the success of their favorite side. All this, combined with the solid, addictive Ultimate Team and steadily reliable online support makes FIFA sports' deserving top multiplayer game.
A new category, given that nearly every simulation sports game now involves a career mode in which you control a single created player, often yourself. As the pro sport with the most conspicuous lifestyle component to it, an NBA career mode requires lots of off-the-court activity, subplots, decisions and honors. My Player, now in its third year, continues to shine brightest among all career modes. Refocusing the mode's progression to the NBA Draft, instead of rising through the development leagues, was a vital switch toward delivering an immersive hallucination of an NBA superstar's origins. Its live action draft moment, had the league not locked out, would have seen your player drafted among the class selected back in June. The inclusion of "Play Next Key Game" helps shorten the time required for an 82-game season. The series needed strong innovation in this mode this year, and got it.
(EA Sports Canada and Electronic Arts)
Pressed into service as a retail release last year, NBA Jam returned this year as a value-packed $15 release that feels more like what EA Sports wanted to accomplish with it last year. Purists may dislike the addition of switching players, but it and the team on-fire mode opens up the game to more rollicking action. Still focused, as ever, on unlockables, you can now pick and choose your loot thanks to an XP system. Plus, it's got honey badgers, and who's gonna argue with nature's dirtiest fighter?
(EA Sports Canada and Electronic Arts)
It twists the definition of "comeback player" a bit, as Fight Night was long scheduled to return in March and Round Four was a great game too. But in a year in which iterative sports titles were largely static in their year-over-year quality, good or bad, Fight Night can get a rigged title shot here for taking 2010 off. Champion Mode's career narrative, even if stitched together from many boxing-flick tropes, was still a brave and unprecedented approach to a sport that, in the real world, suffers from sagging mainstream interest. We would like to see other sports video games take the same risk with their subjects.
As said before, this year was largely static in terms of sports titles' year-to-year quality. Unfortunately this award is more about who didn't win it than who did. FIFA 12's ongoing excellence makes it, absurdly, somewhat problematic to honor. We were initially impressed by the game's new precision dribbling, collision and defensive mechanics but weren't completely happy with how they were implemented over long-term play. Still, the fact FIFA 12 has ascended to a place of such highly technical criticism, and takes home best-in-class honors despite them, shows the series' amazing dominance. While NBA 2K12 may seem to be an obvious candidate, and is probably the best offline sports game of the year, its conspicuous lack of execution in its online modes simply can't be discounted when considering the game for an honor this broad.
(EA Tiburon and EA Sports)
No sports video game made greater strides, in content, accessibility, or the opportunity to have truly joyful moments, than Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters. Bringing Augusta National Golf Club and The Masters, which made a single, obscure appearance in a video game 13 years ago in Japan, to mainstream gaming for the first time was by itself a landmark achievement taking years of negotiations. It also required an extraordinary effort to render the picturesque course in the kind of detail it deserves. EA Sports Tiburon adapted precision surveying equipment, used at construction sites and crime scenes, to scan each hole and its surroundings down to every sixth millimeter of detail. The shadows across the fairways and putting greens were informed by the scanning of the actual branches and foliage surrounding them. This work began with a 10-day scan in August. The game, which in years past has released in June, was moved up three months to be out by the time The Masters was playing live. Thus, the game does suffer from repetitive commentary and other presentational blandness. But the opportunity to tour Augusta, virtually, is something any fan of sports, not just golf, should see for themselves at least once.
More than that, Tiger Woods 12 elevated its gameplay out of dynamics that had grown rigid and technical, through the introduction of a caddy to recommend shot selection. While elite players may not have seen much value in his advice, for the legions of newcomers and returning duffers—undoubtedly to be lured by Augusta's charms—it kept the game focused on deterministic outcomes while still allowing golfers to play well beyond their own knowledge or skill, with realism. Finally, a new career mode placing the focus on earning a bid to The Masters helped make playing in that tournament as rewarding as it was memorable.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters welcomed me to a sport in a way no other video game has—a priority Augusta National stated when it agreed to license its course into the game. And it delivered many of my best and most emotional sports gaming moments this year—including a genuinely heart-pounding putt for par on the 18th to win The Masters by one stroke. This is the Sports Video Game of the Year.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays.