July 16, 2009

Sports video games sucked then and suck now -- why?

I never liked sports video games, aside from the occasional game of Baseball Simulator 1.000 for Nintendo (made by Culture Brain, a great little company). If I wanted do something sports-related, I'd throw the football around with my friend or bike down to an abandoned tennis court to join a game of roller hockey. But maybe I just didn't play the good sports games, or perhaps sports games have gotten better -- that is, increased at a faster rate in quality than games overall.

Nope. To check whether my assessment of sports games from awhile ago is correct, I went to eStarland and looked up used Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis games, sorting them from low to high price. Almost without exception, the first 100 or so of roughly 500 games are sports games. Think of all the other genres that could have been mixed in there too -- yet the bottom fifth (and maybe more) are almost entirely sports games.

Then to check on more recent consoles, I looked up used PlayStation 2 games from low to high price. Again, virtually all of the really low-priced games -- i.e., those that no one wants -- are sports games. The graphics may be better, and you may be able to customize your team more than before, but compared to other genres, sports games are still garbage.

So, what is it about sports games that makes them so unpopular? It can't be "I could do that in real life," since The Sims is incredibly popular (among girls anyway). I don't think it's that we expect sports to be physical, so that a test of our button-pressing doesn't live up to a test of coordinating our whole body. After all, the beat 'em up games are supposed to be physical, and they don't live up to the feel of actually killing 500 guys with your bare hands. Thoughts?


  1. This is like asking why people will pay to watch old movies but wont pay to watch last week's SportsCenter.

    People play a sports game mainly for the challenge of competing against another human being, not the game itself. Trash-talking, one-upmanship, victory and defeat combined with a little skill. Thus, for this purpose, the various editions and brands of a sports game are interchangeable. So you might as well get the most up to date version, the one with current rosters and more faithful gameplay. Moreover, if you are looking to play a random person online, you need the most recent version. The pool of people on XBox live for the 09 version will be nil once 10 comes out.

    On one hand, you're right: the games sucked in the sense that the game design substantially improves over the years, making the old ones obsolete. I have Madden 94 for SNES, which is basically electric football, and some of the newer Maddens. If you want to play football, the newer ones are better. So no one wants the old games. Why do these games develop this way over time? Because the designers are not inventing a game but trying to program it to conform to a real life game. So any improvement helps.

  2. Maybe the mechanics simply are poorly suited to be translated into a fun simulation?

    Most fun games are super-abstracted from real life. The mechanics of a scrolling sideshooter doesn't have a real-world analogue. Sports games tend to want keep a lot of the underlying mechanics, which may work against the potential of the medium.

    There's also some economics in that there's a built in fanbase for sport games, so producing a crappy game cheaply might be a profitable strategy for game companies. Much like Uwe Boll deliberately producing shitty movies of video game hits.

    As an aside I'd also argue that you're wrong about games becoming more boring and less challenging. The difficult games just moved to a player vs player-format. There was nothing in the 80:s as complex and challenging as playing Starcraft against an expert. The people who want challenging games simply aren't demanding that from single player games.

  3. Some older sports games may be unpopular because they (obviously) don't feature current top players.

    Another factor is that it's easy to watch sports on TV.


  4. Agnostic, this one is easy. Each year comes a new, updated game within a popular series of titles - Madden and NCAA 200x being the most popular. Right now you can find NCAA 2004, which I own and think is pretty good, for 3 dollars or so on PS2. It was hot in 2003, and now 2010 is a big deal expensive game.

  5. Growing up, my friends and I never played sports games. It was always RPG, adventure, platform, or fighting games. But from my experience with those on the fringe of my circles, it was the dumb jocks or the very average joe sort (guys with the least personality or imagination) that played or really got into sports games. They don't change much from year to year in gameplay or graphics, but the rosters do. They also seem to have the most advertisement, at least on TV (E.A. Sports, it's in the game).

    However, Mario Tennis is and will always be my favorite multiplayer game. Maybe not as much fun as Kart or weird as Party, but Tennis just holds a warm spot in my heart. I play IRL tennis regularly, and doubles on Mario Tennis is more fun(because only your thumbs get tired and you can get in more games).

  6. Uh, the reason sports games are so cheap is that they put out a new full price game each year, and the previous years' games are then sold at a heavy discount. Madden and Tiger Woods Golf are pretty big sellers.

    I don't play a lot of video games, but from my own experience Madden, NBA Live and Tiger Woods Golf are all superb.


  7. I'm not sure about this assessment. Sports games, and especially football games, have been good and popular for a long time. Of sports games, football games were definitely the most popular.

    Tecmo Bowl for Nintendo was a classic and a great series. And the Madden Series, NFL2K series, and some other football series were very popular and good as well. Baseball games have always been pretty popular, and they've always been pretty simple with easy controls. Basketball games are somewhat more difficult to play, and the gameplay feels unnatural and not as good as a result, but they still were somewhat popular (NBA Live series). Hell, even hockey games were popular at some points despite hockey's unpopularity in real life.

    I'm in my 20s, so I grew up playing video games as did my friends/peers. I outgrew them to a large degree, but will play an easy to get into and fun game like something on Wii, or a sports game, fighting game, etc., when I'm hanging out somewhere that has a system. So I don't really pursue video games and actively invest my time/money in them, but will play them for fun if I'm hanging out at a friend's house with them.

    Guys my age/in my generation all grew up playing video games, from the biggest fantasy/sci-fi dorks to the biggest sports jocks/athletes and regular guys. So we all played and enjoyed video games. I think the hardcore gamers were more of the fantasy/sci-fi types, and they were really into adventure/fantasy/action/RPG games that take hours to complete, and have intricate storylines, etc. Us regular guys would play the occassional fantasy/action/RPG type game, but we were more into fighting, sports, and shooting games, games that were relatively simple with basic concepts that we all understood. Games that we could just pick up and play as a kind of 1 time contest or battle, and then drop the game and go outside to play football, and then come back later and play again.

    Sports games were/are updated every year (Madden '95, '96, etc.), updated with new players, players on the correct team after they've been traded, etc., and I remember when the latest sports game with the updated year would be released, the previous version would quickly become unpopular and less valuable. So it wouldn't be surprising if guys would just sell them off after the new one came out, flooding the market.

    Another reason is that guys that play sports games outgrow video games relative to their fantasy/sci-fi loving counterparts. So once they're older they just get rid of and dump all their old games at used stores. Contrast this with the fantasy/sci-fi guys that keep old games in mint condition, revisit and "re-beat" old classic games, etc.

  8. No, I know about new ones coming out each year, but that doesn't necessarily make last year's version bad or obsolete.

    And some of them aren't like that -- especially for the Genesis or Super Nintendo. They just feature some celebrity instead of putting the year in the title.

    Lots of other genres churn out newer versions of roughly the same game each year, improving on older versions, etc. Tetris and similar games is a good example -- and yet Tetris-like games are always popular.

    Or take Street Fighter -- there were, like, 5000 versions of it that came out each year from 1993 to today. Yet none of them languishes at the bottom.

  9. I don't know if the qty of low price sports games is a good indicator of popularity. Maybe it is for these days, and everybody is getting rid of their sports games cuz they find sports games boring now, but I don't know about the 90s.

    Is there any better data on this out there? We all seem to be going by our personal experience and impressions. If you weren't really into sports growing up or if your immediate peer group wasn't, I think it's easy to get the impression that nobody really played sports video games. My impression growing up in the 90s was that sports games were one of if not the most popular genres of video games.

  10. Don't forget that sports nerds were also dumping a bunch of their time into what grew out of text based simulators.

    Tabletops like Strat-o-Matic gave way to Diamond Mind and its clones for the PC. Someone finally moved all this stuff to web-based databases and www.whatifsports.com now has a nice business running. I'm playing in one of their baseball dynasty leagues and loving it--no more e-mailing around DAT files after line-up changes!

    Championship Manager, a soccer management simulator that started text based and now gives players the ability to watch games as they manage them has a massive following across the pond.

    The best sports games are franchises and they're about letting players step into the different roles (rookie, star player, general manager) within their favorite sports and clubs. Assuming one franchise doesn't have an exclusive rights agreement (as MLB foolishly handed out) the games compete on graphics and their physics engines mostly. The most recent FIFA game (EA Sports soccer title) just displaced Pro Evolution (or Winning Eleven as its known stateside) as the best soccer game with a big overhaul of their physics engine. FIFA handles the weight differences of players better than any soccer game before it (you're not going to move a 230 pound player with a 160 pound player when trying to win a ball in the air as you might have in earlier versions).

    Players of sports games are looking for realism. A bit different that most videogames.

    I loved Diamond Mind back when I was in highschool. I love playing FIFA against my friends (EA has done a very good job incorporating many of the club specific chants and songs found at soccer grounds around Europe, the atmosphere the game creates with a nice surround setup is awesome) and I love Whatifsports.

    A large number of the baseball geeks involved in the sabermetric performance analysis revolution cut their teeth on stuff like Strat-o-Matic and Diamond Mind. It was the Strat-o-Matic junkies in the 1960s that were loading the front of their line-ups with OBP studs, a number of decades before MLB teams got a clue.

  11. Anonymous @ 5:35 pm,

    Aside from your mentioning of the soccer game "Winning Eleven", I have no idea what you're talking about. I just don't understand the stuff you discuss and have never heard of it.

    I guess there's a whole other world of sports nerddom that I was unaware of.

  12. NHL 94 for Sega Genesis, my good man. It's not too late.

  13. Why wouldn't sales data of new games be a better indicator of quality, or perceived quality?

    The EA Sports franchises -- Madden, NCAA, NBA Live, MVP/The show, etc. -- have been at or near the top of the market for multiplayer consoles for over a decade. Since Wii doesn't carry traditional sports titles, EA's overall market-share has shrunk in recent years, but their sales totals have continued to grow. If you look at Pre-Wii charts ('06 and earlier) EA sports games dominate. Their makers are obviously doing something right. Certainly, to say that sports games are "so unpopular" is just plain not true if you look at the numbers.

    As far as innovation goes, graphics and gameplay have accelerated at the same pace as other game genres. Sports games have also successfully incorporated new, more true to life features like franchise mode, customized play design, and increased difficulty -- none of these changes trivial in the eyes of players. Moreover, in the late 90's, alternative sports games like NBA Street and NFL Blitz were hugely popular, proving again the extent to which the genre had evolved.

    Finally, I'd suspect that the low cost of older sports games might be partially a supply effect. Most of my friends who play(ed) sports games still have all of their old SNES/Sega/64 sports titles, and still frequently play them, thus obviating the need to seek out and purchase those self-same titles.


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