Genre Analysis #3: Sports sims

The problem that arises with critiquing any entertainment medium is genre must be taken into consideration, and often is not. Do action movies need deep characters? Do horror films need a complex plot? Videogames are the same way. What genres value graphics more than others? What about sound and game length?

In this series of articles, I aim to identify what characteristics are most valuable to certain genres of games – by assigning a score (1-5) of “importance” to a number of important game qualities. The score is purely subjective and completely my opinion, but I think I am level-headed enough to get at least close.

My hope is that with this, we can get a better understanding of genre norms and constraints, hopefully making for better reviews and critiques of games.

Sports games (particularly simulations) are an odd duck. They appeal to a strain of gamer that is hardcore, but casual at the same time. What I mean is that they are hardcore about the one type of game they play.

Fans of the Madden football series are the epitome of this phenomenon. I know many a “gamer” who strictly plays sports sims, and yet, is super hardcore about them – yelling at the TV, questioning calls as if they were a real NFL coach and playing out entire full-length seasons.

Sports games also change very little. Roster upgrades and graphics upgrades are the only differences one can glean from a cursory glance. Sure, there are gameplay tweaks and sometimes even overhauls, but the core game never changes. They are often blamed for the stagnation of the genre (and even videogames in general) and become difficult to evaluate properly. “If you liked Madden *previous year*, then you’ll like this” becomes the bottom line. But if one digs a bit deeper, one can find a unique and valid experience in the sports game genre.

Graphics – 5/5

Graphics are really the crux of the sports game. In other game genres we have no comparison for what the character is supposed to look like. There is no Solid Snake or Super Mario walking around in the real world. In sports games there are thousands of real-life counterparts to the game’s avatars – thus, the graphics and player models must be freakishly accurate.

Sports games also utilize motion capture more than most genres and have dynamic weather and environment effects to add to the level of realism. In a way, sports games are at the cutting edge of graphical technology – constantly looking for news ways to make their characters mimic their on-field doppelgangers.

The genre also uses graphics to make up for deficiencies in other areas, like…

Story – 0/5

I am making a special exception to the “1-5” rule. Story isn’t simply superfluous in sports games, it is nonexistent and unnecessary. I think this is why it appeals to people who wouldn’t normally play games. This isn’t Grand Theft Auto, where players can eschew the story in order to have some quick fun. In sports sims, you can literally turn on the game, instantly play and not feel like you’re missing anything at all.

This no-strings-attached gameplay is very appealing to those with busy schedules, budding social lives and other engagements. Those people often don’t have time (or the desire) for enthralling storylines, 20-minute cut scenes, multiple characters and deep plots.

Sound – 3/5

Sound is an aspect of sports titles that is never overlooked. Announcing is a key element of the sports experience and, by association, the sports game experience. Sports gamers often play a game so much (myself included) that the same dozen or so phrases are heard ad nauseum, so much so that it becomes a problem. I can’t picture a day when sports videogame announcing even comes close to mirroring the real thing. Nonetheless, if it wasn’t there, I would feel cheated.

All that complaining aside, the announcing still matters when it comes to evaluating sports titles. Do the play-by-play calls lag, taking away from the realism? Is it obvious when player numbers or names are put in after a call? “And it’s a touchdown! By … number twenty-five…” Since most music is contemporary stuff used for advertising purposes in sports games, the announcing and sound effects are that much more important.

Length – N/A

Sports game developers hit the jackpot in terms of appropriate game length. Full seasons can be played decades into the future – offering hundreds of hours of gameplay. On the contrary, exhibition games can be played and finished in a half hour for the casual gamer of for the quick fix.

Additionally, the settings are so customizable (quarter length, difficulty, rules and regulations) that an experience can be as realistic or arcadey as the player wants. While other games can be criticized for being too long or short, sports games are immune to such barbs.

Multiplayer – 2/5

Sure, most games are more fun when played with others. Sports games are no exception. Burning your buddy for an 80-yard TD run in Madden can be as satisfying as fragging him/her in Halo or Smash Bros. But the multiplayer is not nearly as important in sports games as it is in those, and for one reason – A.I.

As advanced as the Locust get in Gears of War 2, there is something about beating down the faceless, cold computer-controlled team in sports games that is oh-so gratifying. Whether you turn off all the fouls in NBA 2K8 and make your 7’6”, 350LB monster custom character and win 202-35, or win the Super Bowl in Madden on the hardest difficulty by a last-second field goal with your scrappy wild-card team, sports games show us that playing against a machine can be just as fun as playing against friends.

Putting it all together

In a strange way, I think companies like EA are more creative than other game companies. They have to re-invent (or at least add to) the wheel every single year. Sometimes they fail. Other times they create something groundbreaking and awesome. Either way, they have the pressure to make a game every year that millions of gamers adore and have to be convinced to buy again and again.

The Madden series has almost reached a point where reviewing them is pointless. A simple list of this year’s changes and a few paragraphs about graphics and multiplayer should suffice. Longtime fans will buy it on reputation alone and newcomers probably just want their football fix and will buy the game based on its insane popularity.

Although they’ll never win Game of the Year or be praised for pushing the medium, sports game serve the purpose that real sports do – a simple distraction to our everyday lives. While Nintendo has tried to appeal to the “casual” and “hardcore” gamer at the same time, the Madden series (and those like it) has been doing it successfully for years and years. That has to mean something.

Also read:
Genre Analysis #1: First-person shooter
Genre Analysis #2: Role-playing game