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Review Wizard's Explicable Case of Sports Game Enjoyment

Discussion in 'Video Games' started by Wizard, Jun 5, 2024.

  1. Wizard

    Wizard Do you feel it? The moon's power!

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    One of my very first video games was Backyard Baseball for PC. Humongous Entertainment's timeless classic is beloved by hundreds of thousands, if not millions for its ability to introduce children to the rules and processes of baseball. The game is no simple baseball simulator. It contains records, trophies, a full season mode, and portfolios for each of the unique playable characters. Each character has stats displayed as well as some amount of secret modifiers. The gameplay is relatively simple, but comes with its own snaps and clicks. The pitching and batting alike allow the player to determine the location of the pitch and the hit. There are some power-ups to enhance the pitching and batting - a series staple for the Backyard Sports franchise. There are unique fields that change the length of what is required for a home run. Younger children can turn on t-ball mode, making most hits an automatic home run.

    I digress.

    Or do I? I bring up Backyard Baseball not as a simple exercise in nostalgia, but as a preface for an important piece of my exposition: I really like sports games, and I always have. Sports games were an intrinsic part of my development as an enjoyer of the gaming medium. This begs the question: Why do I like sports games? I've asked myself this question many times. I could put this question to bed very quickly by saying something like "I like the gameplay" or "Sports games are fun to play with other people." Neither of these statements are inherently wrong, but together... they still don't capture the full picture. I ask again: Why do I like sports games?

    Let's broaden the picture. A glance at my playtime on my PlayStation account will reveal a number of horrors. At the top of the playtime list is Star Wars Battlefront II (2017). Afterwards is a slew of Madden and NBA 2K games, many registering well above 100 hours. My playtime is always inflated by my tendency to leave games sitting open for hours at a time, but there's no doubt most of those hours are from active playing time. I'd estimate I have well over 1500 hours of playing time in sports games. This begs another question: What the heck am I doing when I'm playing sports games? Before I answer that, let me give you some context, in case you never play sports games.

    For the uninitiated, sports games come with many game modes. There are the basic modes like exhibition matches and training. There are other modes such as the "MyTeam" mode that encourage players to spend real money on virtual currency to collect cards to build the best team possible to-. I don't spend time on any of these aforementioned modes; they aren't relevant to the scope of my essay.

    To answer my earlier question on what I do when I play sports games, I find myself primarily playing one of two modes. I will refer to these two as "career mode" and "franchise mode." Career mode is when the player creates their own character and goes through a sports career with that character. This often involves storylines, dialogue choices towards members of sports media, and one final aspect I will get into eventually. The once I play the most is definitely franchise mode, which is about taking the reigns as a general manager of a sports franchise and trading, signing, or even playing games, often with the goal of winning a championship.

    I'm now going to go on what appears to be a tangent, but I promise it ties directly into what I'm getting at here. Pokémon was a landmark experience during my childhood, from the anime to the games to the merchandise. One of the core appeals of the franchise is the emphasis on player choice. Players get six slots to fully customize their party. The party members, or Pokémon, can be rotated in or out of the party at will. Players can determine which Pokémon they want in their party. Often times, the most optimal action for the player to take is to replace a party member with a different Pokémon, and sometimes the best option is to catch another Pokémon from the same species. The most important part of Pokémon for me is that it helped solidify the idea of role-playing in my head. I played the role of a trainer, and that trainer battled with the Pokémon I wanted him to. This was my introduction to a role-playing game.

    Just like with Backyard Baseball, Pokémon has unique characters with unique stats. All playable characters in both games ultimately acts towards serving the purpose of their respective game: to battle (in Pokémon) or to play baseball (in Backyard Baseball). Backyard Baseball, as I mentioned before, has a season mode. The player selects the baseball players at the start of the season but is given no opportunity to change these players after that point. Pokémon, on the other hand, allows for a deep level of party customization, as I mentioned before. Backyard Baseball has the inherent limitation of not letting the player change their characters on the fly, at least not in season mode. The amount of Pokémon available in a mainline game is always above 100, if not higher. The amount of available characters in Backyard Baseball, at least the original, is 30.

    I'm comparing Pokémon and Backyard Baseball and introducing them with such great detail because both of these early gaming experiences shaped my worldview on what many enjoyable video games have: unique characters with unique designs, abilities, and stats.

    Backyard Baseball
    's aforementioned limitation of not having continual party customization is not found in the modern sports franchises of Madden and NBA 2K (which I will just call 2k from now on). Madden and 2K are both grounded in reality, as they are game franchises based on real-world sports leagues. Real sports leagues, particularly the NBA, are driven by player movement. Players, through processes like free agency and trades, are able to play on different teams throughout their careers. Madden and 2K's franchise modes allow players to trade players, sign players, hire and fire coaches, adjust team branding, adjust prices on merchandise and tickets, and even play the games. That sounds an awful lot like role-playing to me.

    This essay isn't an exercise in genre analysis. I find video game genre discourse to provide loose definitions for genres at best and provide sources for inane and wasteful arguing at worst. I simply wish to introduce an idea to you that will demonstrate why I spend so much time playing sports games.

    Allow me to bridge the gaps between these two seemingly different genres of roleplaying games and sports games. Imagine the sports players from sports video games as party members, like from role-playing games. Franchise mode and career mode are role-playing game modes. In short, I love sports games deeply not just for the sports themselves, but the vast and unimaginably lengthless nature of these game modes. I can create the sports franchise of my dreams. I can create a player that is bestowed with godly gifts and never misses a shot. I can take control of my least favorite team and drain them of all their resources and assets. Truthfully, the amount of choice at hand is staggering. Pokémon is a massive franchise at this point, and it boasts over 1000 characters, though no official Pokémon game offers all of that choice at once. NBA 2k offers well over 500 characters, and that's just in the present day. There are five different eras that franchise mode can take place in. Add hundreds upon hundreds of characters to that initial 500. Add in procedurally generated players, who will eventually take over the leagues. Add in user-created draft classes, based on real-life college and high school players. The NBA has 30 teams, and franchise mode allows for the addition of 6 more teams. Are you seeing the staggering amount of options yet?

    By the way, the NBA is way smaller than the NFL. NBA teams have about 15 players on average; NFL teams have 53. Madden is nowhere near as robust as NBA 2K, but user-created draft classes still exist as does the massive amount of players in the league. This isn't to mention Madden's exciting option to let players switch positions. Do you want Patrick Mahomes to play linebacker? Sure, you can do that! Do you want your kicker to play left tackle? I don't know why you'd do that, but go for it! (And yes, 2K allows for position changes too, but NFL positions are more varied than NBA positions and impact the game far, far more. I'm also offended I had to add Mahomes to the dictionary. He's one of America's most popular athletes, for crying out loud.)

    Let's go back to the concept of athletes being party members. The real NBA and NFL are both very interesting sports leagues with multitudes of personalities, storylines, and history. From the outside looking in, it may be tempting to say most players in sports games just play the same. This may have been true once upon a time, and is more true in Madden's case than 2K's, but it ignores the connection to reality that 2K and Madden have. If these games hosted generic names and fake teams, most of the userbase, myself included would either lose interest or add the original teams and players to the games. That's because there is a certain novelty to seeing how your favorite players come to life in video game form. My understanding of real world athletes helps differentiate between the athletes in the video games. This is why I and many others buy games from these franchises year after year. Lebron James is a far more interesting party member than a user-generated guy named Kyle Brown (sorry if this is your name). Lebron James, the party member, is not just interesting to me because he is based on the real athlete by that same name; he is interesting to me because he has unique stats, badges (think of this like special abilities), athletic traits, and a contract. Lebron James may have a 99 rating in close shots, just like a white mage may have a 77 in a magic stat. Athletes in sports games are capable of growing and improving their stats, just like conventional RPG party members. Players in Madden especially have a clearly defined progression towards becoming better. They earn EXP and level up, earning stats in the process and raising the overall rating of a player. 2K's system is not nearly as satisfying, relying on a few stats to drive all character progression, mostly disregarding how players are truly performing.

    Madden and 2K give players a rock-solid foundation - a foundation built on what makes these American sports leagues so popular and successful - and lets the players run loose with it. The amount of customization, especially in 2K, is simply massive. I haven't even mentioned the fantasy draft option, which removes every player from their team and pools them all together, allowing each team to start fresh by allowing them to draft whoever they want to.

    Let's get more into my personal experience. I play franchise mode 90%+ of the time. I like taking bad teams, rebuilding them, and leading them to championships. I also love playing the games myself and getting my players different awards and accolades like All-Star games, Pro Bowl appearances, and especially championship rings. I can choose which players are on my team, which players I field, what color uniforms we wear, and what styles of offense and defense we run. I love running the ball in football and driving the paint in basketball. I can play however I want, and nobody can stop me.

    There are so many minute details that are sure to fall to the wayside in this essay, but I hope I've proved the point that the amount of roleplaying in these games is staggering. Let's take a step back.

    Backyard Baseball introduced me to the idea of building a sports team with unique characters. Pokémon introduced me to the idea of continual customization, trading off party members for others. Following sports leagues allowed me to watch people play the sports I love while providing soap-opera drama and storylines. Playing 2K and Madden allowed me combine all of these elements together into an endless parade of playing basketball and American football. The context in which I play 2K and Madden is intrinsic to my points and into understanding why I've spent so many hours playing these games.

    Before I close things off, let's talk about one of my favorite things to do: rank my favorite video games. This practice actually originates from my interest in ESPN's sports power rankings that I'd read weekly as a child. Backyard Baseball is 18th on my favorite games list. Pokémon occupies six spots on my top 100 and has previously occupied even more. Madden is not on the list. NBA 2K is not on the list. I don't consider Madden or 2K among my favorite games, yet they are among my most played. There's a deeper analysis that could be performed here, but I'll keep my explanation for this simple: The satisfaction from doing something in a sports game never really lasts. These games almost demand that I return and try to succeed in a new situation in a new season. Is this a byproduct of the yearly releases? Perhaps, but it's also a byproduct of licensed sports games just never being all that special and unique.

    With that being said, Madden is a terrible franchise that sucks big booty cheeks. 2K is only a little better. Both suck and I hate them. Don't play these series or support the predatory practices of EA and 2K.
     
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