Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Do Sports Games Need a Story?

Robert Rath | 6 Feb 2014 16:00
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"Sports games are bad games."

It's a common refrain you hear on gaming forums. They're too wedded to reality. They don't have any narrative structure. It's impossible to enjoy them unless you're a dedicated sports fan.

But I don't think any of that's really the case. Sports games may not have traditional narratives with cutscenes and narration, but they do make excellent use of emerging narrative and incorporate many of the reasons we love watching sports in the first place - but often these don't come from the screen, but the person holding the controller.

Are Sports Games Bad Games?

Strictly speaking? No. Sports games have a huge fanbase and remain popular. Madden NFL alone has been a best seller for twenty-five years.

Let me repeat that: Madden NFL has been profitable for a quarter century.

So call me a little suspicious when I hear gamers complain about how sports games are rip-offs, or don't change from year to year. Sports games are no more formulaic than Call of Duty or Halo, any careful observation will note that they do add new features between titles.

I've suspected for a long time that the aversion core gamers - myself included - show toward sports games has less to do with the games themselves, and more to do with the supposed "nerdiness" of the gamer community. Let's face it - we've long characterized this community as a nerd minority, somewhere a so-called "jock" thing like sports doesn't belong. But this breaks down quickly when you scrutinize it. Many nerds are sports fans, and vice-versa. For a small sample set, consider the Escapist crew: MovieBob's a New England Patriots fan. Kyle Martinak wore a Vancouver Canucks jersey on a recent No Right Answer episode. Greg Tito once hosted an excellent PAX panel called Dorks vs. Sports that explored the crossover geekdom and sports fandom.

But that's where I start to run into an issue - though many gamers also follow sports, it seems that many have no interest in sports games. So while it's true that sports games might not be broken, I sometimes wonder whether sports games could create a broader appeal by telling a story.

Sports Are All About Narrative

In my opinion, part of the reason sports games don't have a wider appeal is that they're missing something actual sports has - narrative drama. People don't watch sports only for the games. Sure, there are people that spend their time crunching stats and calculating averages, but most people watch sports for the human element. We want the aging veteran trying to win his last Super Bowl. It excites us seeing a rookie out to prove herself. It puts on the edge of our seats when injured gymnast who has to stick the landing on one foot. Sports are real-time drama, but only because we care about what happens off the field. Name the best sports movies of all time: Slap Shot. Bend it Like Beckham. Moneyball. In these movies, the drama doesn't come from the game itself, instead, outside forces and stories infuse the play with meaning. Winning and losing has consequences in these films, there are stakes that impact people.

This is true in actual sports as well. Take the 2004 World Series for instance. It had the largest audience since 1995, and that had nothing to do with the game itself. Twenty-five million people tuned in because the Boston Red Sox had a chance to win their first World Series title since 1918. Fans and non-fans watched alike. Who could resist seeing underdogs come back to glory? That's a story people can get behind -baseball's just baseball, but redemption's universal.

Sports games, however, are missing this context. They fail to draw in potential players that don't have a strong connection to a team or athlete. There's no narrative element to help us respond to the game on anything but a visceral and intellectual level.

Or is there?

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