Wikipedia’s list of sports has (at the time of this writing) over 400 entries. This falls woefully short of covering all the numberless types of organized physical competition. Turning them all into computer games will take decades, assuming anyone considers that, you know, worthwhile.

Someone probably does. Someone out there must want to bring out a PC or console version of, say, takraw/chinlon (kick volleyball), chess boxing or dwarf tossing. How can we know this? Because of all the offbeat sports someone already turned into computer games.

By “offbeat,” mind you, we’re not talking about sports known worldwide except to parochial North Americans, like cricket (seen in Cricket Manager, among many others) or rugby. Nor do we mean sports that once seemed odd subjects for computer games, until someone figured them out. Hunting, for instance – no one predicted the tremendous success of Deer Hunter in 1997, but now it has platoons of imitators. Hunting games are “offbeat” only in that they come from non-game publishers. For instance, the outfitting chain Cabela’s sells Cabela’s Big Game Hunter Alaskan Adventure, African Safari, Outdoor Adventures, Alaskan Adventures, Cabela’s Dangerous Hunts 2, Ultimate Duck Hunting 3D, Daisy Air Gun Fun and the ominous-sounding Hunter Dan Bowfishing Survival Gauntlet. (Cabela also sells a Laser Shot Technologies Home Theater Shooting Simulator. Buddy, if you’re about to spring $3,000 for that toy, consider going outside and talking to a real girl.)

Likewise, no one raises an eyebrow about all the fishing games; nor extreme motocross, snowboarding, etc.; nor volleyball – though it’s unclear how important volleyball, the sport, is to the sun-bleached Dead or Alive XTreme Beach Volleyball, with its anime bikini-babe jiggle physics. (It’s not an accident the game can be played one-handed. Ewww.)

Perhaps we can define “offbeat” as “not published by Electronic Arts” or “not covered on mainstream sites like Sportsology.” More seriously, these are sports you just can’t picture as computer games, like yachting, kite surfing and water skiing, to mention a few.

In fact, all these have already been adapted. Can dwarf tossing be far behind?

***

There used to be many games about unusual sports, like 1999’s Professional Bull Rider and ultralight flight simulator Hangsim. But as production costs rose and publishers focused solely on the mass market, these games got forced off retail shelves. They went indie, moved onto the web and found a different audience. Today, these sports games emphasize simulation over gameplay. Their customers are not so much gamers as sports fans. Some sims explicitly pitch themselves as good training for the real activities, in the manner of the X-Plane flight simulator and the Virtual Air Traffic Flight Simulator Network.

So, for instance, Joey Skinner of Rodeo Software has made a nice business selling computer games for horse people, such as TRSim (Team Roping Simulator), BarrelSim (barrel-racing), and TDRSim (Tie-Down Roping). Rodeo’s RopingArena.com has nearly 13,000 registered players. Its Year-End World Finals for 2005 offered $2,500 in prizes from sponsor Sparky Superior Roping Machines, maker of Sparky III, “the first and only functional ground-driven team roping machine.” In the December 2005 RopingArena newsletter, Skinner interviewed Bret Trenary, an award-winning roper with 35 years of experience. “You can play on the simulator, and then go rope real steers, and I think you are actually seeing the same look on both runs,” says Trenary. “I think real-life roping is mostly hand-eye coordination; what better way to work on this than on a simulation you can do over and over again. There are people around here who have played and actually figured out how to score steers from this game. It is a really awesome concept.”

In sailing, the equivalent might be Virtual Skipper 4, “the ultimate regatta simulator.” Offering 12 different seascapes, VS4 promises to help you “master direction, wind flurries and calms, and select the right sails according to the weather conditions.” A worldwide network of Virtual Skipper fan sites stages regional multiplayer competitions. Meanwhile, aeronautics engineer Ilan Papini of Hangsim recently released Version 7 of his Virtual Sailor simulation. Sailing in these games is an idyllic experience – perhaps too idyllic. The games do well enough modeling calm water, but even choppy waves, let alone stormy seas, are still way beyond desktop PCs. Still, stay the course, and in a few seasons you may know the joy of capsizing in a hurricane.

KiteSim simulates kite surfing with a leading edge inflatable (LEI) traction kite. “You can use this program to learn how to fly a kite, practice making loops, or try out different water launching techniques without worrying about untangling your strings later.” With the mouse, you both steer the kite and adjust its power using the “chicken loop.” The site provides instructions for making your own real kite camera. Both KiteSim and a fly-fishing game, FlySim, were programmed by J.R. Gloudemans and Walter Hsaio. Their previous work includes 1st &10, that enhancement you see on televised football games that draws a yellow line at the location of the first-down marker.

If you fall off your kite board, consider Diver: Deep Water Adventure from the Russian developer BiArt. Along with a video teaching system, authentic equipment and 15 real diving sites, Diver promises a “reveille of treasures” and “smart and heartless opponents.” On the schedule: “taking photos of rare species of underwater fauna, treasure hunting, researching sunken submarines, vessels and crashed transports, immersion to the Loch Ness lake and to the area of Bermudan triangle, neutralization of the dangerous legacy of World War II and death combats with sea predators and black divers.” Available in France, Germany and Russia, Diver is still plumbing the depths for an English-language publisher.

Then there’s Toribash, a physics-based fighting game like no other. It’s hard to call Toribash a sports game, as such – too much dismemberment and decapitation – but you have to admire a cutting-edge simulation that lets you dynamically control your fighter’s individual butt cheeks.

***

Moving up one level of abstraction, we reach the booming industry of fantasy sports. Everyone knows about fantasy football and basketball – there’s also fantasy baseball, cricket, hockey, golf and auto racing – but people are also forming fantastic leagues for more unusual endeavors.

More than your typical shareware yacht sim, fantasy sports dangle the prospect of serious money. The Fantasy Sports Trade Association, founded in 1998, now represents more than 240 companies, leagues and publications “in a mature industry with a market size our research estimates at 15 to 18 million unique participants.” A September 2006 Business Week article by Catherine Holahan says Yahoo Fantasy Sports drew 3.1 million users in July, and ESPN and Sportsline drew nearly 2 million more. “The fantasy sports industry generates $1 billion to $2 billion a year on publication subscriptions, paid league entrance fees, mail-order draft kits, and fantasy software and other products.”

So we now have fantasies on the following sports and, uh, competitions:

Fantasy Water Ski (“Live your dreams!”).

MyRodeoTeam.com is not affiliated with Rodeo Games.

Shootclub: Maybe fantasy pro wrestling doesn’t count as “offbeat,” but check this one just to see the wrestler names.

Fantasy Fashion League was started in 2005 by Erica Salmon, a self-described stay-at-home mom in Pitman, New Jersey. Players draft teams of fashion designers – clothing, shoes, handbags, jewelry – plus three celebrities. In a 28-week season, climaxing with the Oscar ceremony, competitors earn points from mentions and pictures in Women’s Wear Daily, fashion magazines and award shows. Salmon has also started a Fantasy Country Music League.

” Likewise, Tabloid Fantasy League lets you pick celebrities, then score points each week based on how often they appear in People, Us, Star and In Touch. Publisher Famfam LLC offers a wide range of gossipy pursuits.

Survivor: The CBS reality TV series has spawned more fantasy leagues than you can believe, including promotions by CBS itself. FantasySurvivor.net is one indie effort.

Fantasy Congress: Either silly or brilliant, this summer project by four college students at Claremont (California) McKenna College lets you manage a team of 16 U.S. legislators. You earn points when your Senators and Representatives successfully introduce bills and get them voted into law.

We can rise still higher in levels of meta-competition. With tabular rankings of national performance in dozens of categories – everything from Olympic medals and environmental protection to opera and beer – the International Match site turns civilization itself into a sport. (“This month’s themes: Corruption, Volleyball.”) Soon, no doubt, we’ll see a Fantasy United Nations. “I’ll trade you Norway for Taiwan and two Balkans.”

***

Why so much competition? No, never mind. It’s a stupid question, like “Why so much breathing?” People compete, period.

Joshua Davis, author of The Underdog: How I Survived the World’s Most Outlandish Competitions (Random House, 2005), “survived” the U.S. National Armwrestling Championships, a Spanish bullfight, a sumo match, a backward-running race and Finnish competitive sauna. (Wonder when we’ll see those computer games?) Davis theorizes, “Individuality can be hard to come by when there are 280 million other would-be individuals in the country. … We need some way of comparing ourselves to others to prove that we are different. That’s why I’ve always been attracted to competition. Rankings give me a way of knowing how close (or far) I am from being a champion.”

Davis’ explanation may be right, as far as it goes. But these computer games, besides letting you compete while nestled comfortably in your desk chair, also replicate another aspect of sports: community. All these games offer forums; some are quite busy.

The contest may drive us, but the community gives context to our struggle. The social dimension, in computer games as in real life, gives our efforts meaning.
Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay and Looking Glass.

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