Sports simulation video games have been in around in their current form since Madden first went 11 v. 11 over two decades ago. This spawned the age of the sports games that were designed to emulate real sports as much as they possibly could with the technology. You really could get the feeling that you were part of a team and were given options to be in positions such as coach, GM or even owner back in Madden's hay day. But this really only applies to team sports games. Games where you just focus on your character and no others really don't feel like they are typical sports games at all. They are something different…
When you play games like Madden, NHL, The Show or whatever else, you always know that your actions are supposed to be in the best interests of the team no matter what. That's really what holds team sports together. There's something of a different dynamic there that doesn't exist in the rest of your life. You're always supposed to do whatever's best for you not to help out your buddy over on the side. Nice guys finish last and whatnot. But in team sports you are heralded for doing whatever you can to help out said buddy and everyone else on your team.
This ideal has even been transferred over to its own modes in these games with Be a Pro modes being the newest addition to the games. Even they provide goals that will progress your player that involve covering for your teammates and making sure that you do your best job to win, not pad your stats. However, you can also go rogue and probably put up better numbers which many players tend to do. But why is this? Why when you're given control of just one player and the game goes from a team sports simulation to an RPG, do players abandon their brotherhood and accountability in favor of just progressing their player?
That brings me to games like Tiger Woods, EA MMA and Fight Night. In these games you just control one guy the whole time and try to progress his career at the expense of everyone else, just like in real life. There are no other goals except making yourself the champion at whatever you're trying. You want to come in first at the U.S. Open. You want to win the heavyweight title. You want a unified title belt. There's no helping out anyone else; you're just out to get it all for yourself. Now you might be saying that that's just the nature of these sports and there's nothing anyone at EA or 2K or THQ can do about it. And while that may be the case, something is just inherently different about these games because of it.
In these individual games, there are either extremely linear storylines a la the Fight Night series or just no story at all outside of the golf (because golfers are just inherently boring). No I'm not asking to be able to go out to the club as Tiger or drive his SUV down the driveway to simulate what happened with Elen but maybe there could be some kind of rivalry or something. It just doesn't seem like you're really that much a part of the story of the sport. I want to see Andy North and Scott Van Pelt arguing about your inane comments about Rachel Uchitel. I want there to be more in Fight Night than just randomly assigned rivalries and dumb looking weigh in fights. My fighter might be Mike Tyson v2.0 but I'd never know. I'd just be a cleaned up, non talking stock boxer. Sure you can give yourself personality with the way you construct your character, but that still doesn't have any kind of resonation with the rest of the characters.
Sure in name and activity these are games about sports. You play a sport on the Xbox 360 or PS3 and it is obviously a game about sports. But the magic that sets sports games apart and makes people keep coming back to them over and over again is the replayability and ability to be who they see on TV in real life. If I want to reconstruct the Leafs with even more truculence than Brian Burke, I can do that. If I want to hire Bill Belichick (or NE Coach) to make the Bills better than a UFL team, I can do that too. I can even put LeBron on the Knicks like it should have been.
But what I can't do is emulate any of this in any of these individualized games. They just have the most basic of storylines if even that and just throw a sport at you, nothing more. They essentially just function as RPGs with 1990s level storytelling. I would say that there's no character development, but that would imply that there are actual "characters" within these games. Once I dressed up a golfer like Payne Stewart with a mohawk and exam hat but there was no change in any aspect of the game. Sure he looked like a dope and I could tell and his name was Cupid V. for chrissakes but it changed absolutely nothing. Nothing. Not a thing.
This guy should've been the talk of the PGA Tour but all he was was a joke to me.
What is a sports game then? To me, it's a game where I can reenact real life scenarios through sports, the greatest real life drama there is. In individual games, that just isn't there right now. They are the most sterilized games out there today and seemingly only sell based on the popularity of the sport or even cover athlete in the case of Tiger Woods. But in order for these to be able to be on par with other games, there has to be more of a focus on storytelling and rivalries, not just big gameplay enhancements. Casual gamers aren't going to notice them and eventually, they'll just be overkill.
But if I could have a rivalry with Phil Mickelson, that would just be beyond awesome. Alas we aren't there yet however and we may never be. But even if all my hopes and dreams come true with these games, there will always be something missing. I'll never be able to make things the way I want them since there are no teams. What could I possibly do with Tiger Woods that's the equivalent of having Derek Jeter play for the Mets? Nothing.
Team sports games will always have an added dimension and that's what makes a sports game for me. Madden is a sports game. Tiger Woods is a game about a sport.