On the surface, it seems like sports games have only grown better over time. Certainly, the current crop of sports titles are the most realistic and sophisticated in gaming history. Glance at someone playing the latest Madden or NBA 2K, and you’d be hard-pressed to distinguish it from an actual broadcast. And the gameplay is about as deep and complex as is required to play the actual sports, minus having athletic ability anywhere other than your thumbs. Which is exactly where my problem lies.
I don’t want to make this too much about my own particular taste and/or skill level. It isn’t exactly fair to criticize sports games for being too much like the sports they are emulating. However, that didn’t used to be the only option. There was once a lot more to pick from than just serious, hardcore sports sims. Sure, in the days of Tecmo Bowl and Nintendo Ice Hockey it was just as much about the limits of technology keeping sports games from being terribly realistic as it was an artistic choice, but the fact remains that those games and their ilk were just good, simple fun. The 16-bit era brought the first of the “sports sims” with the debut of Madden, NBA Live, World Series Baseball, and so on. The games were still a far cry from the depth of today’s titles, but the evolution away from matches where every pass was an easy to land 50-yard bomb and any player could make it rain from the three-point line had definitely begun. However, around this time, something else had begun as well…basketballs began to catch fire after being dunked from the half-court line.
The sports game genre had begun to splinter off into two subgenres: sports sims, and a new style of game usually referred to as arcade-style sports games. These were the games like NBA Jam, NFL Blitz, Mutant League Football et al, that deliberately exaggerated the sports they were based on, emphasizing fast-paced gameplay and streamlined rule sets, boiling each sport down to the most basic elements of what made them “fun.” It gave gamers options: You had your “serious” sports games and your lighter, sillier ones. The two styles not only existed side-by-side, but both thrived for years. This duality branched off into more than just the big four pro sports: Golf, tennis, NASCAR, track and field, even bowling all had games both serious and silly to call their own. And with the mainstream rise of extreme/alternative sports in the 90’s, the sports genre saw yet another sub-category, as games based around skateboarding, snowboarding, snowmobiling, mountain biking, motorcross, surfing, wakeboarding, and many others began to be prevalent. Not unlike the more traditional sports, many of these even had the more realism-based game treatment and the exaggerated arcade-style treatment.
Then something happened: The game industry seemed to outgrow arcade-style sports games. At the same time, an over-saturation of extreme sports titles in the early 2000’s lead to gamer fatigue and all but killed that genre off completely. By the time the seventh console generation (aka the “HD Generation”) hit, mostly all that remained were the sports sims. Not only that, but many long-running sports sim franchises had died off or were put on extended hiatus, leaving even less of those to choose from than ever. With a few very rare exceptions, gamers who want to enjoy a sports game but don’t live and breathe professional sports have almost zero options these days. The very well done 2010 NBA Jam revival proved that arcade-style sports games can be relevant in modern gaming. But it doesn’t even necessarily have to be only that style of game. There is a whole lot of middle ground between completely over-the-top sports games, and sports games that are beyond the grasp of even casual sports fans or hardcore sports fans who aren’t also hardcore gamers. Just about every other genre of game has releases that cover the entire spectrum, from casual to the hardest of the hardcore. What if all RPGs were as hardcore as Dark Souls, all racing games were as hardcore as Gran Turismo, or all shooters were as hardcore as the original “Army version” of Full Spetctum Warrior? And that’s pretty much the state of sports games these days. No game genre should be that exclusionary, and no type of game should require extensive knowledge of whatever its real-life inspiration is in order to be able to play and enjoy all of its video game counterparts.