(Full disclosure: I’ve been a gamer all my life, and, looking over this twenty-six-year commitment, I’ve noticed a trend silently charging to the heart of game culture: the death of sports gaming.)
When we look back at our early gaming days, we see a past that most of us have forgotten. I am referring to the Sports genre. As kids of the original Nintendo era will remember, we all loved Ice Hockey (1988) or Blades of Steel (1987). Old sports games give me fond memories. Yet somewhere down the line we gave up. In the early 2000’s we saw a last ditch effort by sports games to be stylistic and creative, and it was like watching an eloquent dancer perform with a crippling case of bonitis.
more recently, NHL Hitz (made by Midway) and NBA Street (made by EA) were the last creative and fun adaptations of the sports genre we’ve come to play. The latter offered funky game-play and some adjusted rules that allowed you to string together a multi-man dunk combo or even dribble off a player’s head into a three-point fade. While the hoops game leaned more towards sensational athletics, NHL Hitz went full random. Hitz gives you honest three-on-three hockey with no rules. That’s it. Also included, one finds amazing replay value, an ice rink on the moon and the option of playing against gladiators on a pirate ship. You can always find a reason to play a game of Hitz.
Both games exhibit tight, easy controls that, once mastered, turns you into a proper weapon — no matter how many old pizza boxes on your table tell you different.
Changing of the guard
Then came the day when sales must have declined and in that, the Hitz kept coming and the Street kept running. It wasn’t until 2003 that the last Hitz game was released and the series was retired, followed shortly by the *****Street (2008). The series did what it could and staved the jaws of market inferiority for a few cold years. But with few releases and only support from die hard fans they had to be carried off. EA moved on as we all know, to James Bond games and the like.
Midway closed its doors for good on February 12th 2009. Since then, sports games have become these annual games we find cluttering the bargain bins. With very few exceptions, gaming has abandoned sports.
What’s Loss with Sports Games Going
Gaming has abandoned a lot more than its made successful in its years: from landfills of cartridges, to the slow decline of local multiplayer and motion-sensor games, every generation has seen a great amount of ideas go to the wolves.
To sit on the couch with friends and grind a game down to the end is what drew me to (sports) games as a kid. It was something we all loved. Contra is not meant to be conquered alone. Halo is only as badass as your partner dares you to be.
We are stuck in a hole of playing less and less with real people. Instead we all lock down our rooms and become transfixed with the goal, to the point where we can’t trust our teammates not to screw us over. Instead of knowing each others skill set, you have to worry about a rager sending swat teams to your home. We have become hermits in an impossibly connected world. Every year games shed more local multi features, distancing your guests from your gameplay. Instead of fighting alone on the battle front we should be standing together shoulder to shoulder. So when we stomp that alien/bug/ genetically evolved monster or division rival we get to jump up, high five and sternly share a “Nnnailed it!”
Local multiplayer might as well be to players what apple pie is to patriots: a great idea that once meant something to everyone but now is little more than inconvenient. With Halo, the grandfather of Co-op action, dropping split screen multiplayer, we see the divide as clear as day.
This vacuum should leave room for one genre to succeed, (you guessed it) the Sports genre. To this day you can buy the final NHL release for PS3 or Xbox 360 grab 7 of your friends and play a game so bursting with multiplayer you didn’t even notice 7 is too many to play on the ice (lest you don’t know hockey rules). These sports games may have lost the balls to turn you into zombies and pirates but they still have access to insane amounts of customization.
Preempting the “what about FIFA?!” argument
As a sports fan, I have to say I don’t enjoy soccer, I don’t do anything with any relation to soccer. I simply don’t care. That being said, I love a hilarious game of turbo soccer, where all rules are off, all players are speeded, and no fatigue is recorded. (Another idea would be to set injuries high but no hitting penalties for survivor football club.) The possibilities are endless even now, when the companies aren’t trying to be creative.
So next time you see a fairly recent sports game and know a few mates who would have a good laugh screwing around; pick it up, install it, mess around and remember what gaming was made for. Fun and adventure no matter what the genre, that’s gaming.