The Problem With Sports Games

There’s nothing “wrong” with sports games, but there is something missing from the sports game. Sports games are fantastic, but they consistently fail to capitalize on what I love so much about sports – the atmosphere of a sporting event and the excitement of being a professional athlete.

You see, I’m one of millions of sports gamers who play sports titles and handle them as an RPG-like experience. The first thing I do when a new sports game arrives on my desk is create a player so that I can insert myself into the game. As an athlete in real life (but minus the talent to get paid for my skills), my dream is to step onto center ice at the Centre Bell in Montreal or to pitch on the mound at Fenway Park. Having myself in the game drives me to continue playing as I pursue the addicting quest for perfection, awards, skill points, and league-wide recognition. There’s nothing I love more than watching my young hockey player grow from a 75-rated, average AHL player to an NHL superstar. But, there’s also nothing more frustrating than playing 82 games in a season and at least 16 games in the playoffs to receive a second-rate climax.

Consider this: you’ve played all season long to get to the Super Bowl. The moment arrives, and you, a third-year quarterback, have finally led your team to this, the biggest moment in the football season. You imagine what it will be like. Thousands of screaming fans, a pyrotechnics display, you and your teammates rushing onto the field as the announcer shouts your name and position. Cameras flash everywhere, a huge ceremony is made of the coin toss, the commentators on the television mention the thrill of playing in the Super Bowl and discuss your team’s record and your road to this pinnacle of the sport. Jets fly over the stadium and the game begins. The crowd noise is deafening and you can’t hear a thing. There’s the half-time show, a spectacular musical performance and then there’s the end of the game. You throw a touchdown pass with 10 seconds left and the crowd roars. The other team fails to score on a hail mary and you run onto the field. Your teammates swarm around you, reporters press in and you get up on stage to hold the trophy and celebrate. You imagine this as the loading screen brings you to what is, essentially, the final level of the game, the grand finale, the payoff for playing a long, grueling couple of seasons to get to this one game. This has been your goal, and you press the start button with glee on your face.

Then, reality sinks in. The commentators hardly even mention the importance of the game. There is no pre-game introduction, no shots of fans in ridiculous get-ups. There is a jet flyover that you’ve already seen in the season opener and there are no fireworks, no big coin toss. There’s no pomp. No importance to the situation. You realize, as you win the game and are rewarded with a “game end” screen that shows statistics and the final score, that you worked so hard for nothing. There isn’t one thing that reminds you this game was different than any other.

Why is there no confetti (or celebration at all?) at the end of the Super Bowl in Madden? Do I not deserve some reward for winning?

Sports games, in general, miss the point that the goal isn’t just to play the sport, it’s to exceed in the sport. It’s to be the champion and to be recognized as such. I want to see confetti on the football field, I want to hear exultations from the commentators and declarations about the gravity of that moment. I want to feel like a hero in something extraordinary. Unfortunately, most sports games provide the championship as an afterthought. In fact, the only game I have played where you really feel like you’ve won something is in the NHL series from EA Sports. Every year they actually show players skating around the ice holding the cup, piling on top of each other in a crazy celebration, the Conn Smythe being awarded to the MVP of the playoffs. Why isn’t this an aspect of every sports game?

See, we celebrate. Why can't other games celebrate, too?

And frankly, beyond that, I have a laundry list of other ideas that would really help sports games truly capture the reason why we love watching the sport in the first place.

Fans doing what fans do. Show fans waving at the camera, jumping up after a goal and spilling their beer, wearing bags over their heads if their team is truly awful.

Authentic chants and crowd noises. I know that “Go Habs Go” and “Go Red Sox Go” makes it seem as though we’re at the game, but to be honest, I want to hear “Ole, ole, ole, ole” after every Canadiens goal and when the team needs a lift. I want to hear “Yankees suck” chants during Yankees-Red Sox games. I want to be rewarded as a fan by actually experiencing a true crowd atmosphere.

Player interaction. Is it that hard to show players chatting with each other between plays? Mouthing off to each other after a particularly contested play, barking at the refs? Can we not see a coach giving a player an earful on the bench or rushing out onto the field to argue a call?

Make “Be A Pro” Modes more realistic. Look, I’m a “Be A Pro” addict. I love padding my stats, improving my star status and playing exclusively as myself and not as an entire team as much as the next guy, but to be honest, I want the whole experience. I want to be given questions from the press (this was implemented in FIFA’s Franchise Mode a few years ago and worked well to improve your status as a coach) and I want to be able to demand trades and negotiate contracts. “You want to give me $5.5 million per year? I think I’m going to need $5.9.”

Can I get a realistic player creator? Last, and probably least important on my list (but still near and dear to my heart) is the desire to make a player who truly looks like me. Look, plenty of RPG’s offer the ability to completely mold a character (look at Mass Effect for inspiration) and yet, I have fifteen generic faces to choose from in my sports game. If I’m going to get a close-up of my player celebrating a goal he damn well better look like me and not like an iron-deficient, elf-eared freak. Let me look like myself, and let me celebrate like myself. I want to inject my personality into the game, and that includes choosing a celebration style. Am I a Sidney Crosby (calmly celebrating a goal) or an Alex Ovechkin (slamming myself into the boards and screaming)? I don’t know, but I’d sure like to choose!

I want to be able to uniquely celebrate my goals.

There, that’s it. I’m finished ranting. But seriously, I love my sports games and I only say this out of a desire to see something even better come of the industry. I want to feel like I really am there. Please? Developers? Please?