Earlier this week, Anthony John Agnello brought us a For Our Consideration op-ed in which he wondered why modern sports games have dedicated themselves to realism more than fun. Major studios’ focus on presenting an on-brand, officially licensed sports product, according to Anthony, only serves to limit the appeal of these games. caspiancomic agreed and weighed in with some personal feelings on the matter:
I’ve never considered myself to be a fan of sports games (a natural side effect of having no interest in real life sports unless my team is winning, in which case, eat it Team USA! Double Gold for Team Canada Hockey!) but I think Anthony has hit on something interesting here. The more I think about it, the more I realize I’ve had plenty of interest in sports games in the past. I’ve just never had any interest in the officially licensed ultra-serious simulation style sports games. The NBA Street series was my jam back in the day, and I’ve gotten enjoyment out of boxing (Ready 2 Rumble) tennis (Virtua Tennis) and skateboarding (EA’s own Skate) in the past. What these games all seem to have in common is a lightness and a touch of the arcade rather than simulation sensibilities, which makes them completely unlike the dedication to self-importance that seems to characterize a lot of the mainstream sports titles. A level of accessibility and seriousness somewhere between Mario Kart and Gran Turismo seems to be my exact wheelhouse, and I’d probably play a lot more sports games if more of them were willing to experiment with their tone like that.
Destroy Him My Robots took notice of the games caspiancomic listed as favorites, and thought up a possible reasoning behind it:
You noticed it too, haven’t you? You’ve mainly listed individual sports. I’m inclined to nod in agreement with that. For me, the artificial intelligence in team sports games is what’s holding most of them back. They suck, just like they do in, say, shooting games where you’re part of a squad. I recently put Pro Evolution Soccer 2014 aside precisely because it was too much like the real deal: endless frustrated yelling at my team’s incompetence and lack of foresight and initiative. A good game needs good rules, a clear set of actions and consequences. Having to rely on an AI to work in your favor is a good way to take that control from the player, or at least the feeling of being in control. No doubt experienced players work better than I do with that same AI, but as an intermediate player, it often doesn’t feel like I’m at fault. I’d say if you’re not invested in the sport a game represents, going with the one with the fewest AI partners is a good rule of thumb. A good tennis game will probably be better than good 3-on-3 basketball, and good ice hockey will probably be better than good football.
And ItsTheShadsy tried to explain why the few sillier sports games that have come out in recent years haven’t fared well:
The thing is, as you mentioned, offshoot games like the reboots of NFL Blitz and NBA Jam do exist. MLB Stickball, RBI Baseball, Tecmo Bowl Throwback, and NHL 14’s Anniversary Mode have all come out in the past couple years, but they just never seem to find an audience. Part of it is definitely an issue of quality, but I also wonder if it has to do with the sports genre losing traction in the eyes of the people that wouldn’t normally seek those games out.
The last 15 years or so have been flooded with the sort of realistic, authentic, brand-certified games that the article is decrying at the expense of the arcade-y and fun stuff. It’s a genre that now tends to be dominated by fans of the actual sports, and it’s a much harder proposition to get people outside that audience interested in picking up sports games again. Everyone probably has some good memories about owning a silly sports game, even if they weren’t into the genre. But I also feel pretty certain that many of the people hoping EA will bring back Mutant League Football would not actually buy that game. As terrific as it was to see NBA Jam come back, I’ve barely heard of anyone who bought or played it in the years since.
It’s wholly possible that the gradual “realisticification” of sports games means that there’s just not really a substantial market for ones like NFL Street anymore. That’s just the inertia and, to a degree, stigma that the sports genre has picked up.
Speaking of stigmas, Newton Gimmick thought the decline in popularity of unrealistic sports games might originate with the people who originally enjoyed them growing up and wanting to avoid something so, ugh, “video gamey”:
I think there’s still a big stigma against “non-realistic” games, at least among older players. Growing up in the ’80s, we embraced games like Blades Of Steel and Baseball Stars because they were the most realistic depictions of the games available at the time. Simplified rules were accepted out of necessity, not because they were more fun. Once licensed sports games became the norm in the 16-bit era, anything else was dismissed as inferior or childish.
Players who are now in their 30s and 40s grew up defending their hobby from the snide remarks of parents and peers. Many of us still hold on to an inferiority complex that games are for kids, and respond by rejecting anything with an ounce of style or whimsy. “Grown-ups don’t play video games” has been replaced with “Grown-ups play Madden and Call Of Duty; grown-ups don’t play Mario Hoops or Pokémon.”
Our Special Topics In Gameology series about emptiness rolled on this week with an essay from Samantha Nelson about finding yourself alone in World Of Warcraft, a game with spaces designed to be inhabited by tons of players. Down in the comments, Curmudgahideen relayed an interesting take on what the world of a Grand Theft Auto game becomes once you’ve wrung it dry:
I’ve read the opinion in a few places that, if you complete the missions and get tired of the side activities, the Grand Theft Auto games are basically loneliness simulators. Driving around aimlessly, trying to call characters who no longer have any reason to pick up, filling up the empty days with speed and violence. If Rockstar actually wanted to do a commentary on the emptiness of the mindless acquisition that drives the plots, they couldn’t do it better.
This reminded The_Misanthrope of an awkward state in which you can find the world of The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind if you murder the wrong person:
I remember that if you killed a plot-essential character in Morrowind, the game would ask if you would like to continue playing “in a doomed world,” revert to an older save file, or start a new game. The “doomed world” is much the same as the one where you don’t fuck things up, except for the fact that you can’t complete the main storyline. It is a strange Cassandra complex situation where only your character seems to be aware of this oncoming doom and has no way to inform the oblivious citizens in Vvardenfell of it. “Yeah, I’ll go and collect herbs for your church, but, ya know, it really doesn’t matter because Dagoth Ur will ascend to godhood and drive us from the land.” Of course, the doom is specifically tied to your progress in the plot, so it never really comes anyway.
greespanDan had another take on this:
In actuality you saved those people by killing that quest-essential NPC. By failing to progress in the game’s storyline, Dagoth Ur will now never descend on the oblivious citizens of Vvaredenfell. It’s not a proper Cassandra complex since this doom will never come to pass. Basically, your character has been made into one of those “the end is nigh” crazy persons, stockpiling weapons and running around the town square in a suit of armor.
And that does it! Thanks for reading and commenting. Programming note: The Digest will be back next week. If you’d like to play along, we’ll be discussing South Park: The Stick Of Truth, Infamous: Second Son, and Escape Goat 2. And if you’d like to eat along, well, I hear the snack has something to do with nut butter.