Do Sports Games Need a Story?

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Do Sports Games Need a Story?

Rob Rath takes on the common misconception that sports games, by their nature, are bad games because they lack narrative.

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Outstanding read, and one I fear will be under appreciated here on the Escapist.

Rivalries, tension, stress, exhilaration and many other emotions are what brings me back to the college/pro football season every fall. The shared experience of the games with my friends, the thrill of a tough win, the agony of a loss to your rival, I love every moment of it.

Go Blue!

Wouldn't it just ruin them! Like how stories ruined racing games? I view sports games in the same vein that i view Arcade games, it's not about stories, it's about gameplay, competetion and having fun, stories would only stand in the way of the fun and probably ruin the replayability that are essential to these kinds of games.

As someone who is both a football(soccer) fan and a "gamer", I think this is a great article.

I think the best example there is of the "sports game narrative" is in the Football Manager (Worldwide Soccer?) series, especially when you start at random clubs. Hell, I've actually starting following (and even purchasing replica tops) of teams in real life strictly based on what I've accomplished with them in the game.

Of course, it doesn't match the narrative of taking my favourite team to continental glory, but it's great all the same. :D

There's a reason why the series is always in the top 10 most played games at the current moment, and I believe the narrative that the players create plays a huge part in it.

This feels like it's basically boiling down to the difference between Championship Manager and FIFA - sports management sims do better at giving the player the opportunity of creating a narrative than sports games do themselves. One of my Uni mates spoke fondly of taking his beloved Doncaster Rovers from the English Third Division* to the European Champions League** title in CM2, while I always loved the way the original K.J. Toms' Football Manager on the ZX Spectrum started you off in the Fourth Division***, whichever team you picked; then, building yourself up to the title and the FA Cup felt like it meant something.

FIFA, on the other hand, is more visceral; it's more about the immediate pick-up-and-put-down-again thrill, the battles with your mates that can only come from couch multiplayer (online FIFA should never be considered), and occasionally a tacked-on campaign mode where you can create a story for yourself; but ultimately, it's not really necessary.

The problem with sports games is that generally, the rules don't change. Football one year will still be football the next; they're not suddenly going to introduce Added Time Multiball or make it so you can punch the goalie. Once a football game has incorporated most of the important features of football (i.e. the pitch, the ball and some people to kick it around a bit), additional versions will only ever be roster updates, minor graphical improvements and some new way to screw with the kick-it-around mechanic. Nobody had a problem with the first couple of sports games - lest we forget, what most people think of as the first ever game was basically a tennis sim. It's the proliferation with negligible change that causes problems.

FloodOne:
Outstanding read, and one I fear will be under appreciated here on the Escapist.

Rivalries, tension, stress, exhilaration and many other emotions are what brings me back to the college/pro football season every fall. The shared experience of the games with my friends, the thrill of a tough win, the agony of a loss to your rival, I love every moment of it.

Go Blue!

Maybe it's only my perception, but in general I think Mr. Rath's writing is chronically under appreciated by the Escapist community, when he's one of the more -if not the most- eloquent and lucid contributors on the site.

And yes, the article is great.

shiajun:

FloodOne:
Outstanding read, and one I fear will be under appreciated here on the Escapist.

Rivalries, tension, stress, exhilaration and many other emotions are what brings me back to the college/pro football season every fall. The shared experience of the games with my friends, the thrill of a tough win, the agony of a loss to your rival, I love every moment of it.

Go Blue!

Maybe it's only my perception, but in general I think Mr. Rath's writing is chronically under appreciated by the Escapist community, when he's one of the more -if not the most- eloquent and lucid contributors on the site.

And yes, the article is great.

Well I can't disagree with that opinion, I've certainly enjoyed his work. I do notice that his articles don't seem to garner much in the way of comment traffic, and I'm not sure why.

Always like this series great reads.

Kinitawowi:

The problem with sports games is that generally, the rules don't change. Football one year will still be football the next; they're not suddenly going to introduce Added Time Multiball or make it so you can punch the goalie. Once a football game has incorporated most of the important features of football (i.e. the pitch, the ball and some people to kick it around a bit), additional versions will only ever be roster updates, minor graphical improvements and some new way to screw with the kick-it-around mechanic. Nobody had a problem with the first couple of sports games - lest we forget, what most people think of as the first ever game was basically a tennis sim. It's the proliferation with negligible change that causes problems.

That's not exactly true. For one thing, rules do change. Right now in that other football, the commissioner is suggesting getting rid of the extra-kick after Touchdown. In baseball, things like how high a pitcher's mound can be can have a big impact on the overall game.

Also, as the Science of sports progresses, so does our perception of what's needed to win at a sport (both individual games and championships). And this in turn influences how sports are represented in a game. One of my favorite MLB The Show" commercials had a player arguing with a PS3 exec (the one who was in all the commercials) over how he was represented in the game, each throwing around different stats and accomplishments to make their case.

And beyond the game itself is how the off-the-field business of sports is represented, and there can be any number of ways to represent this aspect of the sport in a videogame.

FloodOne:

Well I can't disagree with that opinion, I've certainly enjoyed his work. I do notice that his articles don't seem to garner much in the way of comment traffic, and I'm not sure why.

Too much agreement? It's hard to have a huge forum thread if most of the commenters agree with each other.

Andy Shandy:
As someone who is both a football(soccer) fan and a "gamer", I think this is a great article.

I think the best example there is of the "sports game narrative" is in the Football Manager (Worldwide Soccer?) series, especially when you start at random clubs. Hell, I've actually starting following (and even purchasing replica tops) of teams in real life strictly based on what I've accomplished with them in the game.

Of course, it doesn't match the narrative of taking my favourite team to continental glory, but it's great all the same. :D

There's a reason why the series is always in the top 10 most played games at the current moment, and I believe the narrative that the players create plays a huge part in it.

A similar reason to why I love the Pro Evolution Soccer series. Taking a team of absolute nobodys and through some skill, careful transfer purchasing, training upcoming potential star players and attracting bigger sponsorship deals until your team of amateurs is now the team to beat. Of course then there was the re-designing of the team kit for every new season and laughing at the fortunes of that promotion rival from your first season who is stuck in a relegation fight while you prepare for the champions league.

Mahoshonen:
That's not exactly true. For one thing, rules do change. Right now in that other football, the commissioner is suggesting getting rid of the extra-kick after Touchdown. In baseball, things like how high a pitcher's mound can be can have a big impact on the overall game.

Also, as the Science of sports progresses, so does our perception of what's needed to win at a sport (both individual games and championships). And this in turn influences how sports are represented in a game. One of my favorite MLB The Show" commercials had a player arguing with a PS3 exec (the one who was in all the commercials) over how he was represented in the game, each throwing around different stats and accomplishments to make their case.

And beyond the game itself is how the off-the-field business of sports is represented, and there can be any number of ways to represent this aspect of the sport in a videogame.

Maybe sticking with roundball football isn't the best way to address this then, but I'm coming from a British perspective and FIFA tends to dominate Madden in the discussion.

It's fair enough, I guess, but only handegg considers playing around with the implementation of the rules in such a dramatic way; for the most part, the majority of sports are relatively stable with their rulesets - football's experimentation with golden goals was abandoned very quickly, and the only really meaningful changes (that have actually stuck) in the last twenty-odd years have been the backpass rule, the removal of limitations on foreign players in European competition after Bosman, the Bosman ruling itself, the near-universal employment of three points for a win, varying implementations of replays in different cup competitions, and tweaks to offside. I've never seen a football game that used these rules in a way that needed to be changed after a later release; the earliest games didn't even care about offside (e.g. Sensible Soccer).

As for the off-field parts... I'm still waiting for the WWE game that puts you as a storyline writer and match booker. :-p

MrBaskerville:
Wouldn't it just ruin them! Like how stories ruined racing games? I view sports games in the same vein that i view Arcade games, it's not about stories, it's about gameplay, competetion and having fun, stories would only stand in the way of the fun and probably ruin the replayability that are essential to these kinds of games.

Indeed, without some serious thinking outside the box, the story probably would ruin or at least detract from the game. Judging from the article I think the best story would be one that is hinted at with little snippets here and there, rather than overtly told. Have people in the audience shout certain things at certain moments to give it context, or even have the players lash out at rivals.
Blazblue has a story, and while I feel mixed about story mode, I like how the characters say different things in the middle of the fight, depending on who the opponent is.
My bottom line is, I think it would be good to give a sports game character, while leaving enough room for the player to interpret the story as he will.

sageoftruth:

MrBaskerville:
Wouldn't it just ruin them! Like how stories ruined racing games? I view sports games in the same vein that i view Arcade games, it's not about stories, it's about gameplay, competetion and having fun, stories would only stand in the way of the fun and probably ruin the replayability that are essential to these kinds of games.

Indeed, without some serious thinking outside the box, the story probably would ruin or at least detract from the game. Judging from the article I think the best story would be one that is hinted at with little snippets here and there, rather than overtly told. Have people in the audience shout certain things at certain moments to give it context, or even have the players lash out at rivals.
Blazblue has a story, and while I feel mixed about story mode, I like how the characters say different things in the middle of the fight, depending on who the opponent is.
My bottom line is, I think it would be good to give a sports game character, while leaving enough room for the player to interpret the story as he will.

If we talk story as in portrayal of characters instead of a linear thing, then i'm with you all the way. Characters are always important and the way they handle it in most fighting games works very well without getting in the way of the actual gameplay.

Andy Shandy:
As someone who is both a football(soccer) fan and a "gamer", I think this is a great article.

I think the best example there is of the "sports game narrative" is in the Football Manager (Worldwide Soccer?) series, especially when you start at random clubs. Hell, I've actually starting following (and even purchasing replica tops) of teams in real life strictly based on what I've accomplished with them in the game.

I highly agree with this. The narrative that grows organically out of, say, trying to keep a lowest-tier English club both fiscally and competitively afloat is extremely compelling. It's one of the many reasons I've been coming back to the FM series since I first discovered it in 2009 (as Worldwide Soccer Manager, name since retired).

Also, this XKCD seems relevant.

Also, all financial analysis. And, more directly, D&D.

Wrong the greats sports movies of all time are mighty ducks, sandlot, and Cool Runnings.

Many of these same points can be brought forth in regards to fighting games. So many people complain about fighters not having 10 hour long story modes or when they get updates they see as minimal. The fact is, they don't need story modes and what appear to be minimal updates can make huge changes to a competitive game. The drama and narrative in a fighting game comes from the actual experience, particularly when you're pitting your skills against another player.

StriderShinryu:
Many of these same points can be brought forth in regards to fighting games. So many people complain about fighters not having 10 hour long story modes or when they get updates they see as minimal. The fact is, they don't need story modes and what appear to be minimal updates can make huge changes to a competitive game. The drama and narrative in a fighting game comes from the actual experience, particularly when you're pitting your skills against another player.

Depends on the fighting game. Not everyone who picks up a fighter does so for the sake of competitive play, and those players would be put off by the lack of a story mode. Granted, story modes in fighting games are pretty forgettable, anyway. I think BlazBlue is the only one that seriously tries to have a narrative... but regardless, I don't think fighting games are any worse off for having story modes attached.

Sports games are good sometimes and other times not. I can tell you this, they are not good or have depth when EA is involved. Yes thats a broad statement, but all one needs to do is look at the last Madden (American) football game on the original Xbox and the first Madden on the Xbox 360. EA in true form went and stripped all the intuitive, fun, immersion making features from the game for an easily replicable, cheaply made, dare I say-piece of junk. Every game since that point in time has been exactly the same besides the yearly touted improvements that really amount to very small gains in any way.

I know if we're talking about "does "X" game make money?" then Madden is a great(money making)game.

But a profitable game to a profit-based(not gameplay) company does not a great game make.

FloodOne:
Outstanding read, and one I fear will be under appreciated here on the Escapist.

I have to agree. Critical intel is my favorite column on the escapist. I don't always agree with the interpretation of the history in some articles, the column is always an enjoyable read. I even pick up information about the restoration of Angkor Wat that I knew nothing about. I hope the column is long running one.

I've never really thought of it that way, but yes, in season mode at least, sports games do have honest to goodness emergent narrative, the kind usually reserved for 4X games and roguelikes. This is a perfect example of what the "games as art" types don't and in all likelihood are plugging their ears so they won't get, and that's that videogames are not a good place to go for scripted narratives. However, they're the /only/ place to go for gameplay, which, if you're still stuck on needing a story, can provide something that no other entertainment medium can provide in the form of emergent narratives. Personally I tend to worry more about winning the game than the little stories that unfold along the way, but that can depend on the game. FTL, for example, does a great job of getting you attached to your little red shirts and their "stories," which entirely consist of the things that you and the RNG did to them during the course of the game.

I am ever so glad that you weren't arguing for an actual story mode in sport games for that would be kind of silly. What's that? You'd like an example? I'm glad you asked imaginary person!

Fight Night Champion

It had an actual story mode. You played as Andre Bishop, a boxer who has bad stuff happen to him before he punches people in the ring to regain his lost glory. It was compelling and neat that a sports game had a story. However...

It was virtually pointless. For one, you played as someone who was already created. He was an inside boxer so I hope you enjoy that style of boxing or you're on your own. Secondly, the story was namely putting handicaps on you because...reasons that completely messed with the mechanics of the game. I ended up just quitting the final match because the conditions it put on you were completely off the walls stupid. It wasn't boxing, it was a boxing story that screwed my boxing match up.

Maybe a game could make it work but I like the story I naturally get out of playing the seasons. I choose a bottom feeder every time I start a new year of Madden with the sole purpose of turning those rag-tag losers into Superbowl Champions in a couple of years. MY story is one that won't be matched by some writers throwing crap at the board and seeing what sticks.

I love sport games :)

It would be interesting to have a story in a sports game.
I just hope the focus on crafting the story would not deteriorate the gameplay mechanics.
Sometime developer treat the two as if they are mutually exclusive.

It would be interesting to have a story in a sports game.
I just hope the focus on crafting the story would not deteriorate the gameplay mechanics.
Sometime developer treat the two as if they are mutually exclusive.

Sounds very similar to fighting games. At least sports games get a nice article about how people should focus more on the inherent stories and possible story-telling. It's pretty much exactly the same sort of open player driven narrative that has a subtle way of diffusing tension which isn't always wholly apparent on the surface.

If you had written the article about fighting games though... Let's not.

I see what the article is saying.

FIFA, in particular, is a popular game in the UK (as one might expect). Whilst I don't have any interest in Association Football, as a gamer, I'll happily enjoy a game of FIFA with my mates.

This comes with it's own rules - for example, the FIFA apology rule.

For those unfamiliar with it (or for those who play by different variants of the rule), in our circle; if you lose a game of FIFA by 6 or more, you have to produce a handwritten apology for being so poor, and for disgracing the game of football with your awful play.

It's a silly little rule, but it's fun - it also keeps one sided games interesting (if you're 4-0 up then you're going to push for that apology letter, if you're 6-0 down then you'll do anything to claw one back).

As per the article - it all adds a bit of narrative.

Throw in organised Leagues, grudge matches, and that one game where you finally beat the dude who's awesome at the game, and what starts as just a dumb football game all of a sudden becomes quite a lot of fun.

As I say - I fucking hate football.

Sport is reliant on 'the story'.

Maybe not one that is contrived and 'has' to be played out the same by every player of the game.

Somehow people need to develop their own stories, but the sports by themselves, without characters, personalities & backgrounds, would be hella boring.

I used to be able to drill out hundreds of games of football on Pro Evo, but that really just isn't my thing any more and it's largely because I see no achievement or reason to do it. It is all so predictable and plays out as normal. These games will definitely have to do something different to entice me back... or maybe I'm not the person they wish to market at and prefer the people who buy FIFA on year, every year.

I love both sports and games, I follow and play both avidly, in my case its Rugby Union and I would kill, kill for a Football Manager type game for rugby, I would play that to death, even though I am not a big fan of the sport, I had a lot of fun with the only football manager I've ever played, it is fundamentally a solo experience however whereas stuff like FIFA is all about playing with friends, as I said, not a football fan, absolutely a fan of getting my arse kicked by my mates (I've never really got the hang of FIFA), I have a stack of printed apology letters that just need the names filled in.....

On a side note I was massively disappointed by the recent release of Rugby Challenge, EA Rugby 05 was actually a great game and I was hoping for an update but sadly not, terrible mechanics and bad licensing (always bugs me when they can't use the real players or strips).

This basically just reconfirms my belief that sports games aren't for me. I'm not competitive or aggressive by nature and I can count the number of times I've been engaged by a sporting event on one hand. Just can't work up any emotional attachment to teams of people I don't know. Though I understand the reasons people do get invested in and identify with teams and the author does a good job of pointing them out.

Maybe if there was a a good way to integrate co-op into a sports video game... but even then I'd probably just be wondering why I wasn't playing a game where I'd be doing something more exciting and fantastical, just like I do in single player sports games.

As someone who's had a series of horrible roommates before though I can definitely feel for the author's friend, I've had a few roomies that a closet-peeing drunk would have been an improvement on to.

PS- I also think Boxing games might need to be looked at slightly differently. It's much easier to identify with and root for an individual than to do so for a giant team. At least I think so.

Also

Kinitawowi:
Also, this XKCD seems relevant.

Hah! That's great.

Shalok:
I love both sports and games, I follow and play both avidly, in my case its Rugby Union and I would kill, kill for a Football Manager type game for rugby,

Did you ever play a title called Pro Rugby Manager? By a group called Cyanide IIRC, who, based on what I could tell, were a small french outfit who also had a Cycling management game out.

The concept was good, and the execution wasn't completely awful. They didn't really have much by way of name/logo rights, but all things considered it wasn't a bad game. (That said, I've not played it in manys the year, so I may have some rose tinted spectacles here).

I'm sure you could get your hands on it pretty cheap these days. Worth a play if you're desperate for a Champ Mananger style game for Rugby.

On a side note I was massively disappointed by the recent release of Rugby Challenge, EA Rugby 05 was actually a great game and I was hoping for an update but sadly not, terrible mechanics and bad licensing (always bugs me when they can't use the real players or strips).

I reckon that they've yet to make a decent Rugby game with 1 exception: Jonah Lomu Rugby.

If you're alright with League then Rugby League Live 2 was palatable, but I absolutely adore Rugby League and I'm not sure I'll ever be truly satisfied with an RL game that doesn't have the same kind of dedication as a FIFA, NHL or MADDEN game (which, for obvious reasons, will never happen).

What Rugby League Live 2 does well, which I think Rugby Union Games don't, is give actual options when running at the defence - it's not just a case of passing down the line and waiting for gaps to appear, you actually can create decent space with missed passes/etc.

Kicking seems to be something that no Rugby game has ever quite mastered either, which is a shame given the massive difference a good kicking game makes (to both codes, for different reasons).

balladbird:

StriderShinryu:
Many of these same points can be brought forth in regards to fighting games. So many people complain about fighters not having 10 hour long story modes or when they get updates they see as minimal. The fact is, they don't need story modes and what appear to be minimal updates can make huge changes to a competitive game. The drama and narrative in a fighting game comes from the actual experience, particularly when you're pitting your skills against another player.

Depends on the fighting game. Not everyone who picks up a fighter does so for the sake of competitive play, and those players would be put off by the lack of a story mode. Granted, story modes in fighting games are pretty forgettable, anyway. I think BlazBlue is the only one that seriously tries to have a narrative... but regardless, I don't think fighting games are any worse off for having story modes attached.

That really depends on the available resources. Fighting games, quite frankly, aren't huge sellers these days. More and more they are being developed by small focused teams who bust their butts to create games that stand the rigorous test fighting games go through. If the choice is between spending X% of your budget on a fleshed out story mode instead of maybe a new character, new mode or new mechanic, then I would much rather see those resources spent on something other than a fleshed out story mode. In fact, what I would find to be a much better expenditure for every fighting game than a story mode is a proper tutorial and training system. Of course, if the studio is a huge one with lots of resources then I don't see anything wrong with a fleshed out story mode, but in any other case the story mode is the first thing that should get cut.

StriderShinryu:

That really depends on the available resources. Fighting games, quite frankly, aren't huge sellers these days. More and more they are being developed by small focused teams who bust their butts to create games that stand the rigorous test fighting games go through. If the choice is between spending X% of your budget on a fleshed out story mode instead of maybe a new character, new mode or new mechanic, then I would much rather see those resources spent on something other than a fleshed out story mode. In fact, what I would find to be a much better expenditure for every fighting game than a story mode is a proper tutorial and training system. Of course, if the studio is a huge one with lots of resources then I don't see anything wrong with a fleshed out story mode, but in any other case the story mode is the first thing that should get cut.

True, it's a case-by-case scenario, and depends a lot on 2-d vs 3-d (since the 3-d fighting games are more expensive to make, and generally have larger companies backing them)

I do agree that proper tutorials would be a blessing, though. I think part of the reason why fighting games keep seeing diminishing returns is the fact that the competence wall is set so bloody high that only the hardcore can ever be any good at them. Sure, they give you a training mode, and a full character list, but then they do idiosyncratic things like arbitrarily change how they refer to buttons (calling them "a" "b" "c" and "d", rather than the button they correspond to on the controller) which make sense in the pragmatic sense -if you're going to multi-platform, better to keep a consistent terminology going- but ultimately serve to further isolate the uninitiated. not to mention the absurdly complex d-pad entry hieroglyphics. I played Tekken for almost a decade before I understood what the "star" symbol in some move sets meant.

Though in that regard, Blazblue is super awesome. They calmly and patiently explained everything I needed to know, and I walked away understanding 2-d fighters a whole hell of a lot better afterward.

In some old Madden game ('99?) I had spent 4 seasons of persistent league mode constructing my Tennessee Oilers team until they were strong enough to make a meaningful run at the playoffs. But I couldn't come close to those damn Patriots, and I knew it. (Drew Bledsoe... clearly the Pats would never have a stronger QB, amirite?) I was hoping other teams would take care of them, but no such luck. I loaded the AFC Championship Game determined to die with honour. Then, providence! The game was played in thick snow. In the slip-and-slide chaos that ensued, neither defense could tackle anybody and it came down to who had the ball last. I scored with 20 seconds left, then tackled their receiver in bounds to ice the game on my way to glory.

That still ranks among my most memorable gaming victories. I don't really play sports games anymore, I haven't for a long time, but "absence of story" is hardly the problem. I'd rather play something like LoL, which I see as being a sport designed specifically to the strengths and capabilities of online gaming, than a recreation of a real sport which is never going to be as fun as just getting out there with a ball.

Once again, Mr. Rath, your writing skills and breadth of knowledge are truly impressive. Good read.

shiajun:

FloodOne:
Outstanding read, and one I fear will be under appreciated here on the Escapist.

Maybe it's only my perception, but in general I think Mr. Rath's writing is chronically under appreciated by the Escapist community, when he's one of the more -if not the most- eloquent and lucid contributors on the site.

And yes, the article is great.

cerebus23:
Always like this series great reads.

cerebus23:
Always like this series great reads.

albino boo:

FloodOne:
Outstanding read, and one I fear will be under appreciated here on the Escapist.

I have to agree. Critical intel is my favorite column on the escapist. I don't always agree with the interpretation of the history in some articles, the column is always an enjoyable read. I even pick up information about the restoration of Angkor Wat that I knew nothing about. I hope the column is long running one.

Thanks so much for the kind words - I always appreciate hearing from readers. For what it's worth, I don't [i]feel/i] under appreciated here at Escapist. I get great support from Escapist staff and comments like these (and ones that aren't compliments, but are clearly engaging with and enjoying the article) come in every week.

While it's true CI doesn't have a super-active comment thread, the discussion is always very intelligent, engaged and civil. It's extremely rare to find someone in the CI comments that clearly hasn't read the article or is commenting just because - they always have something to say. And despite tackling controversial subject matter on a regular basis, in the 14 months I've written CI I've never received a piece of hate mail and can't recall a reader ever insulting me. Even when readers disagree with each other they tend to do so respectfully. I can only remember one person being banned, and he wasn't a regular reader - he'd only dropped in because of a particularly divisive article. So while it's true the column gets fewer comments, I feel like it has the best quality commenting environment on the site.

Just my opinion though, I may be biased.

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