Last weekend, I sat in a pub in my not-native state of Melbourne, with a couple of friends. We were there to watch the Adelaide Crows play the North Melbourne Kangaroos in a game of Australian Rules Football (AFL). A lot of my readers probably won’t know what Australian Rules Football is, and that’s cool, because we kind of keep it to ourselves. You also won’t know that last week, AFL Evolution was released – a video game based on the sport of AFL.
At first glance, our national game is a confusing one, and at second glance, well it’s still Bloody Confusing. It’s not until the fifteenth or sixteenth glance that you can start to appreciate that footy is a highly complex, tactical and free-flowing sport that requires a high level of skill and talent with a tome of unusual rules. It is, for the most part, one of the most inaccessible sports you’ll find. I’ve introduced friends and foreigners alike to ‘footy’ and it is always met with confusion and blank stares.
Each side fields 22 players, with 18 on the ground at any one time. At the start of the game and after every goal, the two tallest players (traditionally, though this is changing) run at each other and try to tap the ball out of mid-air to their team. Smaller players at their feet try to avoid being tackled, while gaining possession of the oval-shaped ball and passing it to their teammate via dropping it on their shoe or punching it from one hand with their free hand in a direction of their choosing. There are even special names for kicking the ball at weird angles like ‘banana’ and ‘checkside’. One time, a pig was let loose on the field during a game.
Holy shit, AFL is weird.
Imagine having to make a video game about it?
Last week, AFL Evolution was released to little fanfare. I think it got a passing ‘hurrah!’ on Gerard Whateley’s AFL360, a neat, accurate review by Max Laughton and a couple of pieces in Australian games websites Stevivor and Press Start. The reviews aren’t great and it’d be easy to jump on Wicked Witch, the developers of AFL Evolution, and point out all its flaws. Like, really easy.
So let me jump on them, briefly, like Gary Moorcroft on a stunned Brad Johnson.
The game is a jumbled mess. It looks terrible, sounds terrible and plays terrible. It shouldn’t exist in this form, as a retail game that you can go buy for 100-odd dollars. It’s, even used solely as some form of marketing ploy for the AFL that just takes up space on a video game retailer’s shelves and thus is something ‘gamers’ may see and consider briefly, half-baked. I mean, I’ve made better cover art whilst bedridden, caught in a week-long fever dream.
In-game things aren’t much better. Players look like their real-world counterparts, thanks to some great face capture technology, but they play like soulless flesh-bag husks built on a production line, thanks to some outdated AI. All the official AFL teams are here, but they all are rated almost identically and players like Dusty Martin, who palms defenders off like he’s a T-Rex with long cyborg arms, and Charlie Cameron, who may be the first ever person with a rocket attached to their backside, are reduced to an expendable Every Man, no stronger or faster than their counterparts.
They’ve grabbed Dennis Cometti, wrestling aficionado and god damn national treasure, and Matthew ‘Richo’ Richardson, 9th place aficionado and god damn something, and put them in a sound booth to nail horrible one-liners (Cometti) and motivational quotes they found on reddit (Richardson). As Steve Carell’s Michael Scott once said “No, no, no, no, no.”
Now that I’ve taken that screamer on Wicked Witch’s back, I think it’s fair to say AFL Evolution is bad.
But there are several factors holding back the creation of a Great AFL Video Game.
The sport is too complex
Other world ball sports like basketball and European football – soccer – have easily definable endpoints. In basketball, you move the ball until you can put it in a basket. In European football, you move the ball until you can put it in a huge net. Lacrosse is the same. Though it’s a puck, ice hockey is the same, too. None of these games have 36 people on the field, well, ever, unless there’s a mass streaking event.
The success of NBA 2K and FIFA is a product of the market, no doubt – there’s a lot more people and planet Earth that like basketball and soccer than AFL – but it’s also a product of those video games being well designed and easily accessible. These games require little knowledge of their real-world equivalent. You can pick up and play FIFA at any time and the only thing you need to learn is how to Pass, Shoot and Tackle.
Congratulations, you just learnt how to play FIFA. You’ll be contacted by the ghost of Arsene Wenger shortly.
NBA 2K is similar. You can Pass, Shoot and Defend using one button. If you’re playing with someone else, once they’ve told you how to control your team, you’re on your way to winning the Championship. However, these games are much deeper than this once you get a fundamental understanding of them and they allow for this gradual increase in skill and knowledge of the underlying systems. The more you play them, the better you become acquainted with their control schemes and timing, learning how to perform tricks, strip opponents more cleanly, perfect your shot or block an opponent’s.
This is part of the appeal of sport video games. You can become a champion in your chosen sport – literally, most of these games now include My Player modes where you take a single-player (of your likeness, if you desire) from the little leagues all the way to the Big Game. But their appeal outside the fans is also their accessibility, the ease at which non-fans can pick the game up and play against others.
I bought FIFA games six years in a row and I’ve never followed a soccer team in my life (unless the Adelaide team is winning and then I jump on that bandwagon faster than you can say ‘phony’), precisely because it’s so easy to play. It’s a staple of video games nights because everybody knows how to play – and if you don’t, you learn, in the space of 90 video-game-condensed minutes. All you have to understand is that you need to put the round ball in the big net at either side of the field. Players only use their feet to get it from one side to the other. Pass, Shoot, Tackle.
The market is too small
I’ve yet to mention Madden and the NFL. This was intentional. The NFL is also a sport that is truly batshit insane and probably has a rule book the size of New Zealand and enough umpire hand signals to. Yep, the NFL does seem like a good counterpoint to the AFL being too complex for video games. However, unlike AFL, it is a game that isn’t as free-flowing and doesn’t depend on its speed to generate excitement. It’s a game of quick bursts and pin-point passes.
Madden does generate decent sales in Australia, but it finished in the top 5 game sales of 2016 in the USA. It thrives because it’s in a huge market, is designed superbly by a huge team with (I assume) lots of money and is a staple franchise in EA’s roster of sports video games. Every year, Madden will do well in the USA, purely by virtue of being Madden. He who has the licence, has the money printing machine (or whatever that cliché is).
This is in stark contrast to the AFL, which sees millions of Australians pass through its gates and watch its games on television. Some of these people (read: idiots) even pay for the privilege to watch every game by purchasing a cable subscription (read: me). However, because AFL is distinctly Australian and distinctly inaccessible, that market is unlikely to ever expand beyond the borders of this island. I mean, we can’t even convince the kiwis across the ditch that it’s a Good Sport You Should Watch.
That said, they are playing the first ever AFL game for premiership points this week in China because a man named David Koch, who is a morning TV show host and guy who is decent at finance, thought it was a good idea. Maybe the Chinese will pick up AFL Evolution in droves once this weekend is over and this article will become pointless, a stain on my professional writing career and see me shamed in front of my peers.
I doubt it.
In sports video games and Charles Darwin-based terms: it’s survival of the fittest. AFL video games are random mutations that the games production cycle cuts out before they become the norm.
The player base is too diverse
In most sports, players can be categorised and defined rather easily. Take cricket, a game that has you do one of three things – bowl, bat or field. If you’re good at throwing the ball at wooden sticks in the ground, you’re a bowler and a competent fielder. If you can wield a wooden flat-stick like you’re a mountain ogre, then you’re a batter and maybe once or twice have said inherently racist things (Right, Greg Ritchie?). Fielders are everybody and nobody likes fielding.
It’s quite easy to delineate who is who in cricket, and in sports like basketball where the tallest guys are generally play the centre position and the short guys play as guards. Some players are more talented, of course, and can do exceptional things like dunk the ball over opposing players heads or hit a cricket ball so far out of the stadium it burns up in the atmosphere, but these traits aren’t unusual. They are the norm. Video games based on these sports generally get these traits right enough – the high ranked players can do some crazy things, the low ranked players tire easily and so on.
If you take AFL football, everyone has a different role to play and that role is constantly changing over the course of the game. You can be a defender, but sometimes you have to run the entire length of the field and have a shot at goal from 65m out. The game is so fluid that players roles change in the wink of an eye. You could argue this occurs in other world sports too, but those differences are much more subtle – a soccer player, for instance, still uses their feet (or head) to put the ball in the net, defenders are just generally not quite as a good at that as those positioned in attack.
AFL players produce some of the most insane highlight reels you’ll ever see, feats that are unbelievable and seemingly irreplicable (okay, yeah, we get it Eddie Betts, you can do it as often as you like because you’re Eddie Betts and you can do that sort of thing). They also have insane motors, covering kilometres of ground per game. Some players are better at this than others and giving them bigger stamina gauges is a start – but it’s hardly enough. Those bursts of speed, unbelievable kicks at goal and ridiculous pack marks are uncodeable pieces of human ingenuity that a video game can’t replicate.
It wouldn’t matter so much if they weren’t such a huge part of the sport – but it’s wrong to say they aren’t. Dusty Martin’s fend-off is renowned of all the land and Eddie Betts goals from the pocket are the stuff of legend. Sandilands is a monster in the ruck. Jeremy Howe only knows how to take marks while sitting on the shoulders of another player. You simply can’t recreate Patrick Dangerfield bursting through the centre and shanking a kick to an opposition player (okay, you can, I did it about 14 times in one quarter).
The rule book is too open to interpretation
Every single week, the footy world is up in arms about a new interpretation of the rules. This week it was all about the “insufficient intent” rule, which sounds like something a cocky young lawyer made up to get his client’s case thrown out of court. It is not. AFL is played on an oval-shaped field and white lines demarcate the boundary – a line that the ball cannot cross. If a player is deemed to have deliberately put the ball on the other sound of the white line, then the opposing team is awarded a ‘free kick’, which is exactly as it sounds. The problem is that determining if that ball is ‘deliberately’ out of bounds or simply the result of an errant kick is completely up to the umpires on the field.
More often than not, it seems that these interpretations change. And they change weekly.
Fans don’t understand it, the umpires don’t understand it – imagine playing the game at the highest level and having to understand it.
AFL Evolution can’t replicate this, I don’t think any game can. It’s another impossibility in a long line of impossibilities. Seemingly at random the game throws up free kicks for ‘throwing the ball’ or ‘high tackles’. Some have argued this might be true-to-life, but the real truth is, the umpires on the field can see and determine how a tackle slips high, or starts high or is aimed at a players leg. A video game can not. A video game throws a bunch of 1s and 0s at it an turns out a 10, 00, 01 or 11.
If you slide tackle a player and take out his feet in soccer, it’s obvious that it’s a free kick, you can even code the severity of it based on where you slide tackled from and how you hit the player’s hitbox. The interpretations in cricket are obvious too – was the player behind the crease when the ball hit the stumps, was the ball pitching towards the wicket when you appealed for LBW? – but in AFL the rule books is so open to interpretation that we can never really recapitulate what we see live, at an oval, in a digital recreation.
And don’t get me started on the AFL’s current video review policy.
We probably won’t ever get a Great Video Game about AFL – there’s too many forces preventing it. For now, the AFL itself may be content with AFL Evolution, but as a rabid, hungry fan of the sport, I can’t be. It scratches this weird, oval-shaped itch in the back of my head and, despite all its flaws, I’ve been playing matches even as the joy slowly seeps out of me and into puddles on the floor.
AFL Evolution is trash, but it’s the kind of trash I don’t want to throw out. I just want it to be better.
Last weekend, after I left the pub, I was in a state. My team, the Adelaide Crows got pumped – and in one quarter no less. I consider it a ‘blip’, an easily-washable spaghetti stain on an otherwise immaculate sweater, after their 6–0 start to the season. But I wanted to be able to go home and load up AFL Evolution and rectify that result. To feel like I could play AFL the same way that my favourite team should have.
Unfortunately, I don’t think that day will ever come.
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