Last man picked: Why sports games need to change with the times

Whether you think it hollow rhetoric or not, the driving buzzword of the games industry for the past, well, ever, has been innovation. We’ve seen it in gameplay, visuals, hardware, distribution methods and in about a bazillion other areas. And just about every time, it’s been good for us, good for the innovators, and good for the industry as a whole. Yet, one genre of gaming arguably stands conservatively against change, instead toting the ol’ mantra “if it ain’t broke, don’t bother trying to make an exciting new product for a modern age”…or something along those lines.

I’m talking, of course, about the sports game.

“But sports games innovate every year,” I hear some of you defensively bellow through your monitor. Let me retort with an accusatorily high-pitched “Do they? Do they really?” Obviously from my cadence you can ascertain that I don’t think they do.

Sports games are not interested in innovation. What they are unwaveringly focused on is recreating the realism of our favourite barbaric pursuits in digital form. Each entry to the elite franchises adds more of that much-touted ‘realism’ and, as such, successfully blitzes further and further through the uncanny valley’s line of scrimmage every year.

That narrow and surgical focus is phenomenal if all you want is a hardcore sim (and believe me, sometimes I do) but it has the unfortunate side effect of benching any avenues to try something new. Hell, there’s a reason we only have one franchise per sport now, and it’s from EA (unless you’re basketball, kudos 2K!). We were sold that anything not championing hyper-realism was inferior and we bought it up. But what if it wasn’t too late? What if we could re-define what makes a “sports game” a “sports game” and, subsequently, what a “sports game” can be? To push the arbitrarily enforced paradigms of this genre, I’m going to rap about narrative and the idea of failure.

Failure is a wicked interesting concept when it comes to games. Most of us don’t particularly like experiencing it and games (for the most part) don’t particularly want us experiencing it either. Failure rails directly against gaming’s prime directives and the essence of why we play; denying us the fun or power-fantasy fulfillment we signed up for. As I fall short of being a full-blown masochist, I am fully behind the majority on this one, except in the case of sports games.

As previously addressed, sports games champion realism in every theatre, yet fall embarrassingly short on one aspect: That the majority of those perusing the paradoxical life of a cokehead / childhood role model never actually achieve it.

When these games offer players a ‘Be the Guy’ mode, it’s a foregone conclusion that they will be drafted and ultimately end up being the greatest sports star to ever sport. Normally it’s as simple as playing the game, doing the training mini-games, amassing XP and maxing out your sliders. And just like that, you’re an instant ‘Hall of Famer’ and the corporate face of Wheaties.

Take EA’s UFC for example. I was one-punching title card opponents two hours into playing, and I was an undefeatable god by hour three.

EA UFC 2

EA UFC 2

I get it though. These games are structured to follow the classic ‘underdog to champion’ archetype that we all love. Pick your sport and it’ll have a media representation like this. Baseball has The Rookie. Football has Rudy. Ice Hockey has its Mighty Ducks. But these representations are either embellished examples of catching lightning in a bottle, or they lack realism altogether. In the big nasty that is the real world, a professional sports career starts with a draft. In 2016, 3,500 players were eligible for the NFL draft, and out of that 253 were picked. That’s 7% of all the eligible draftees. Seven. If that was a VATS percentage in Fallout, I would reconsider my life choices and skulk away!

In my 27 years of rabidly playing yearly sports games, I have never had to concern myself with the thought of my avatar not being drafted. Maybe the question of in what round it will occur has crossed my mind but never if I was going to be drafted. That was until FIFA17, of all titles, decided to disrupt the proverbial apple cart. In their narrative-driven mode, ‘The Journey’, your avatar can actually fail their exit trial; essentially ending your vicarious dreams right there. Granted, failing is pretty hard to do, and if you do manage it you’re instantly given a prompt to restart, but it sets an interesting precedent.

Many sports titles allow you to play a season in the juniors before entering a draft, which inevitably ends in you getting drafted. But imagine if that success wasn’t treated as inevitable. Now the player’s actions on (and off) the ice/field/court suddenly carry more weight. The weight of these choices, mixed with the anxiety of said choices’ outcomes, would create real stakes for the avatar’s success and by proxy the player’s too.

The old NCAA games had a version of this choice system where your avatar’s days were taken up by training sessions and classes and their evening activities were decided by player choice. Did players choose to study to keep their GPA up, did they socialize to maintain healthy relationships, did they hit the gym, or did they do the unthinkable and rest? As rudimental as it was, these choices were actually engaging and at points even stressful; as the player was tasked with managing all aspects of a burgeoning sports star’s career and not just their on-field actions. This idea of personal choices and individual performance could be extended beyond the initial draft too. Once on an established team, the player would have to manage expectations and even interpersonal relationships with teammates and management. Whilst success in these fields could result in mechanical and narrative advantages, failure could result in debuffs, conflict, having your avatar traded or even worse, having them released into free agency.

Just by implementing actual and effective penalties for failure and incorporating more engaging player agency, sports titles wouldn’t only drastically expand their gameplay depth but they would also truly capture what they covet most: True realism.

Now that we’ve hypothetically just created personal stakes, conflict, and goals through gameplay, I believe it’s the perfect time to talk narrative.

…actually, can we first address the fact that “narrative” in sports games is such a bizarre concept? To date, only two sports titles have attempted a ‘true’ narrative, NBA 2K16, which was a poor exercise in self-indulgence, and FIFA17, which I thoroughly enjoyed. This baffles me though, since some of the greatest and emotional stories to hit the silver screen have revolved around sports. That’s the nifty thing about sports as a narrative vehicle, the sport itself is rarely the central theme, it’s just there to give context to the subjects the screen writer (and hopefully one day game developer) wants to explore. Rocky isn’t about two guys beating the hell out of each other, it’s about a working-class jobber chasing the American dream. Remember the Titans ain’t about throwing around a pig skin; it’s about addressing the systemic racism that was endemic in the American South in the 1960s. Hell, even Miracle, a film specifically about a momentous historical sporting event, is more concerned with exploring the nuances of the coach and the American society’s fear of Soviet supremacy than what’s happening on the ice. The point is, sports games can be an incredibly fruitful genre to tell a magnitude of diverse stories. FIFA17 has already dipped the industry’s toe into this uncharted water, and it was overwhelmingly successful. We just need other franchises to follow suit.

However, if the prospect of full blown narrative endeavours appears to be too daunting a task, EA (and the minute number of other companies that make sports games) can start off small. Using our hypothetical ‘Be The Guy’ mode framework from earlier, let’s build upon it by adding small narrative elements. We could flesh out relationships with our teammates by adding dialogue trees and locker-room interactions. Befriending fellow athletes might add bonuses like having them pass to you more often, add morale boosts or have them stick up for you if plays get hairy. And obviously, the opposite could happen too. Just like real life, teammates would have differing personalities, where sometimes getting along just isn’t possible, which would create tensions.

By doing something like this, the player could start creating their own organic narrative, one that they construct themselves through their choices. Suddenly, the rest of the team aren’t just CPU-controlled robots, they have a contextual identity, taking on a role similar to party members in an RPG. So now when they score, set you up for a big play, get benched, get injured or traded away it actually means something. The team comradery and conflict that’s a reality of playing organized sport is represented and, better yet, captured in digital play.

And would you look at that? Not only would this change innovate and offer a deeper gaming experience, it would also directly achieve sports games’ chief goal of accurately presenting sports realism.

EA Sports NHL 17

EA Sports NHL 17

Alas, don’t get too excited by the hypothetical joyride you’ve shotgunned with me, as the reality of it happening has about the same odds as my beer league team winning a national championship. As a few game developer buddies of mine have pointed out, all of this is hampered by one major obstacle: Money. Implementing these changes would take additional large cash investments into what are already annually-produced games. Even more concerning for the publishers controlling the purse strings, it could risk alienating their already established consumer base.

Additionally, the fact that sports games are largely monopolized nowadays stifles innovation or an alternative way of doing things, just by the sheer fact they lack any competition.

Regardless, I would argue EA Canada successfully innovated, or at the very least planted the seeds of innovation, in the sports game landscape with FIFA17. At the risk of sounding like a G.I. Joe PSA, whether the paradigm of the sports game continues to stagnate or evolves falls on us: The consumer.

I would say vote with your wallet but as previously stated, it’s not like you can opt for an alternative in many cases. So, instead I say utilize the constructive powers of social media. Take to the forums, Facebook pages and Twitters of the developers and publishers, and kindly suggest that these are the type of changes you would like to see in the future.

Sport as a construct has the potential to tell amazingly powerful stories steeped in both victory and defeat, and as such can unite us as peoples and foster some of our best human traits. The few publishers and developers that control the course of these franchises could helm one of the biggest genre innovations since the first-person shooter. As the legend himself once said “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take,” which begs the question: Is EA willing to shoot?

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