Why you got to be hatin'?

THERE'S NO other sentence guaranteed to whip gamers into frenzy like: “Madden is my favourite game”. Okay, so maybe there’s: “Michael Atkinson makes some good points”.

Why, is this the case? Why does the gamer hate the sports game so? They help bring in a lot of money for various games studios and they employ a lot of talented people who may be lost to other fields, such as programming Peggle. Deep down though, not a lot of gamers will admit to this but sports games are actually quite fun.

Who can deny the simple pleasures of kicking a ball into a net, tackling some dude while wearing tight pants and taking it deep? All while in the comfort of an air-conditioned lounge room. Let’s start by taking a look at the negatives of the sports genre.

Gamers argue that fundamentally, sports games do nothing to drive the medium forward as each year is about just updating the roster and giving the graphics the once-over. Of course, they’re right but what is sometimes left out of consideration in this argument is the goal of the sports game. Their goal, purely and simply, is to reflect a reality defined by certain rules.  Therefore, the aim of the developer must be to improve upon the formula until one magical day the AI will perfectly match its real-life counterparts. Then of course, we’d all be doomed and Alan Turing would be turning in his grave.

To change the formula too greatly would be to lose a grip on the reality developers are trying to create. But, why does the sports game have to reflect a reality? Surely, videogames as a medium are positioned to flights of fancy, of imagination and a somewhat ‘unreal’ experience? Why are they trying to reflect reality when videogames are best served by augmenting reality? The reasons for this are two-fold.

The first reason is that sport is fun, exciting and fantastic to both watch and play. Whether you like sport or not, you can’t deny that billions are captivated by the various sports played every single day on our somewhat green earth, and developers are trying to reflect this reality to deliver exactly the same experience, with the added bonus of direct interactivity.

The second reason is that videogames have always on a subconscious level been obsessed with reality. What we have here is a medium which cannot be matched by other mediums in terms of verisimilitude, but instead of taking whimsical journeys into phantasmagorical worlds, more often than not, the titles which garner the most attention are hyper-realistic. Gamers will salivate over a polygon count and complain until the cows come home about unrealistic AI. Even if the game is about space-marines taking out a bad guy the size of a planet, gamers will bitch and moan if the protagonist’s hairstyle  not in-canon.

Like it or not, trying to reflect reality down to the minute detail has been a part of gaming from the very beginning. To criticise a game for trading ‘artistic expression’ in order to pursue realism is like trying to criticise hyper-realist art or neo-realistic film.

Sports games then mix the need for our videogames to be realistic and yet retain a level of fun not particularly seen in reality. It’s fitting then, that another chief criticism of the sports videogame only ever arises because of a disruption to the illusion (or allusion?) of reality.

The bugs. My god the bugs! They’re freakin’ everywhere man!

Sports games are notorious for their glitches, and for a genre which strives for realism, it’s unforgivable. Gamers rightly lambast dev teams as lazy whenever they see their favourite players roll around endlessly or stay rooted to the spot. Any ‘normal’ game wouldn’t be hitting the shelves with this amount of bugginess yet for sports games it’s become an accepted (albeit reluctantly) norm for the genre.

Honestly, it’s hard to defend this type of shoddy work, but you can understand why the games are rushed out the door. Each developer with a sports licence wants to make money. That’s the economic rationale of game-making in the big leagues, whether you agree with it or not. To maximise the return on the investment they made, the developers of sports games have to make sure their product is popular. To do this, they release in conjunction with their real-life sport’s season.

For example, FIFA will usually come out a few weeks into the European football season, when interest in the sport is picking up again. They really can’t afford to push the title back a few weeks or god forbid into another quarter. Developers want to the link between real life sport and virtual sport to be inexorable, that’s why you hear phrases like “Madden’s back for another season”. When it’s time to toss around the pig-skin, it’s time for Madden. This timing mechanism is vital to the sports genre’s viability now and into the future.

In their hearts, game developers don’t want to create a product which runs alongside a regular sports season, they want a product that replaces a sports season. With each polygon of improvement, and mite of AI intelligence, the sports game inches closer to superseding the sports world.

So, sports games are evil and should be stopped? Well, yes and no.

If we have a genre with an aim, with a long-term aim which requires vast improvement and evolvement, then why should we stop it? Can you think of any other genre quite as obsessed with evolution as the sports game?  If their goal is to become more real and compelling than sport (which humans have been captivated with for 2000-odd years), then we should be applauding sports games as the games which will drive the medium forward.

It all depends on how you look at it.

- James McGrath


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