Monday, 19 October 2015

Why I Still Can't Get Behind Sports Games

I wrote this about a month ago for Forces Of Geek, I've been a bit under the weather of late so haven't written a post since, my next one is being published this Thursday on the site.

For those who don't know, England is currently hosting the 2015 Rugby World Cup. My husband is a big rugby fan and I have been enjoying watching the games alongside him. As a lot of things do in our household, this led to discussions about video games. We naturally began discussing sports video games and thus, this piece was born!

Regular readers will know that I am not really into sports and by extension, I'm not a fan of sport in video game form either.

I can watch sports (rugby, football, fencing etc.) and I understand how they would appeal to people but sports video games confuse the hell out of me. Other than real time strategy games, it's not often the player will embody or act as more than one individual. Yet in sports games, or more specifically, team based sports games you are playing as the entire side.

You don't get the experience you do in real life; and while games have an element of fantasy and suspension of disbelief, a simulator (which is what these games essentially are) should replicate the experience. And one thing that feels pretty far from reality is a perfectly coordinated, perfectly communicative, perfectly skilled team. That's not to say, there aren't teams who demonstrate these abilities well but for a true simulation one would ideally need to play the game as a singular individual and work well with their team in order to achieve success.

Now already, I can see a flaw here because in striving for realism, gameplay and entertainment has surely been compromised. As an outsider looking in, and one who is gamer (and one who tries out a lot of different games...honest!), I'm of the opinion that much like any genre staple, sports games are all designed very similarly. The only novelty from release to release being updated teams, mascots and players and/or quirky takes on the sport (I'm looking at you Mario and Co.).

Then there are the Championship Manager games and others of that ilk which seem to sidestep the actual game entirely and focus more on the preparatory stage. While this provides a new approach on the sport, it actually requires either a) an extreme devotion to the sport or b) an intense love of mathematics or statistics.

But for someone like me this simply does not appeal. Thus, we get to the crux of this article, what would it take to get me to enjoy a sporting game? As mentioned earlier, my husband enjoys rugby on a Premiership and International level and used to play himself many years ago yet in all the years I've known him I've never seen him play a rugby video game. So if someone who enjoys the sport and enjoys video games is indifferent to a hybrid of the two, what hope is there for someone like me?

I desperately want to like sports games and given that I identify as a gamer, I at least want to enjoy one of the widest reaching games series in the industry, FIFA. Yet, try as I might these games leave me feeling like an outsider because I don't follow football, I understand it and I can watch it but I have no idea which players are more skilled or who they play for. That said, the fact the games do involve detailed stats should in theory be helpful to me but in reality all they do is ostracise me. I feel dumb before I've even begun playing.

I played plenty of sports games in my youth, I remember fondly the weird 'thunk' noise that the ball made everytime a player kicked it in World Cup Italia 90 and the way the voiceover said "GoAAAL' in the same tone as the crowd cheering. Back then, I didn't care what games I played because they were games and I just enjoyed them (perhaps now, as a seasoned player of games, a connoisseur if you will, I would be more discerning?). Either way, I didn't even care that every single player looked like a clone, every player with their identical hairstyle and obligatory celebratory pose. Titles like this were enjoyable and accessible because back then, we had to make do with a rigid directional pad and a measly 2 buttons. Oh, memories.

So what changed? It was years later, some time around the dawn of the PS2 I believe, when sports games began focusing on realism, gone were the same unidentifiable players and identical post-goal celebrations or post-dunk or whatever (sports...meh). These were replaced with replicating actual players faces and adding detailed stats.

For me, the heavy stats and overt realism dispelled any fun I might have had playing the game. It's kind of like kicking or throwing a ball around with your friends in the park casually and then being forced to play semi-professionally. Surely I don't need to know the offside rule if I'm kicking a ball around in a park?! But of course you do because one of your friends has started taking your kick-about a bit too seriously and is demanding you all play to a professional standard. It follows that what was once fun has become tedious and boring, not to mention incredibly infuriating.

I suppose that's why the only sports games after 2000 that I played were Mario based or silly made up  variant sports like Grifball (thanks Rooster Teeth!) in Halo 3 Forge mode or Blitzball in Final Fantasy X (sports seem to include a lot of balls...I know there's a joke here somewhere, hehe...balls)

Any attempt to make sports games realistic and I start to think, well...I could be playing this game in real life. I know that's an overly used criticism of sports titles and makes me look ignorant but it genuinely irks me. Playing a game about an activity I could actually perform or take part in for real is pointless and leaves me feeling underwhelmed.

Which is silly because I know that I would never actually opt to play sports unless I had to, so why shouldn't sports games appeal? They'd provide me with a rare experience, surely? But no, try as I might I just can't get into these kinds of games.

One sport I do enjoy in both the real and virtual worlds however, is wrestling. I am a big fan of the theatricality of it and as such believe my enjoyment of these games is an extension of that. I don't bother creating my own character, I ignore the detailed stats and all the customisation and I will only play against another human. This is because I genuinely believe it makes the game more fun. That and it appeals to my competitive nature. Winning against a computer is not a true victory.

Given my love of customisation in RPG titles, the fact I don't stat my own character in a sports game is more than a little contradictory. I will happily spend hours choosing the right combination of attributes in Fallout games yet, in a sports game? I'm like "Ain't nobody got time for that". I can only assume this is down to my indifference to sport as a whole?

One thing I do like about the genre and possibly contributes to the overall success of sports games is that all of them are at least 2-player local co-op? A multiplayer game mode the industry as a whole seems to have abandoned and forgotten about. The notion of sitting on my own and creating a virtual team as close to the actual team I'm emulating through the adjusting of stats and skills bores me to death. Let me just load up a game, pick up a controller and pass one to my friend. There's nothing complicated about that.

I do appreciate that there are sports fans, real die-hard ones, who relish in the detail of contemporary sports games. Then there are those players who don't play sports or can't play them and so sports games provide an outlet. That's why I really do want to enjoy them. I wonder...could it be possible that the reason I don't like them is because I want to enjoy them so much?

Or maybe it's purely based on my disinterest in sport. When I was young, I was interested in learning about and immersing myself in everything, it was all part of growing up and as I reached my teenage years, I clutched tight onto some things and others, (like sleeping with stuffed toys) not so much. Sadly, sports never made the cut and I think for that reason, I was never going to enjoy modern day sports games.

Give me flamboyant wrestlers and colourful Mario sports variants any day, those I can get behind!

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