The Beautiful Ridiculousness of Sports Games

FIFA

It’s funny what ends up staying with you for virtually your whole life. For me, it’s been sports games.

The obsession started with FIFA 98 in 1997 – I was 8 and the menu screen is still etched indelibly on my mind – and it’s just as strong today, with FIFA 19, Madden 19 and NBA 2K19. It’s taken in endless Pro Evo titles, various extreme sports games in the 90s (I even remember an extreme scooter game on the PS1), SSX, NBA Street, Jonah Lomu Rugby, Brian Lara Cricket and countless others that have long since faded into obscurity.

But, while the polygon counts have increased, new mechanics have been added, and the simulacrum of reality becomes ever shinier and more convincing, the central hook is still the same; pitting myself against the computer (or occasionally other players from all over the world) for hundreds of hours in a seemingly endless quest for virtual glory.

It’s not that I play sports games exclusively; I just tend to play them more than anything else. It tends to be mainly endless career modes on FIFA as I attempt to guide Sheffield United to glory (it’s always Sheffield United, one of the few benefits of supporting a lower league football team is it gives you a proper challenge to get emotionally invested in on FIFA). The same happens with NBA 2K, as I attempt to scale the heights with whichever team happened to draft my digital facsimile. This year, I’ve managed to become vaguely addicted to Madden 19’s franchise mode (which, in case you were wondering, is what they call a career mode and not a weird mini-game where you juggle the responsibilities of operating outsourced fast food outlets), losing endless hours trying to steer the Houston Texans to a target that felt respectable when I set it at the start of the season but now feels like the equivalent of scaling Everest in slippers.

Madden NFL 19 3
Madden NFL 19

I have no doubt there’s something deeply irrational about this; at least when most gamers spend that much time on a game, they excavate it completely. They scour every inch of the map for hidden trinkets, they uncover every bit of lore, they become intimately acquainted with an entire game world. That somehow feels nobler than what is, on a broad level, doing exactly the same thing over and over again. Of course, there is something slightly irrational and ludicrous about all sports; the fact that such importance and reverence is attached to 22 men kicking a ball around a field is ridiculous when so much less attention is given to far more important activities. Transfer this into the digital plane and the irrationality is multiplied tenfold – if cheering on a real team is, in the cold light of day, very odd behaviour, then being emotionally invested in their polygonal doppelgängers can seem like the height of insanity.

The reason sport works in real life is narrative: we are storytelling creatures and so every situation is dramatised. Managers are in crisis after losing a few games; new signings are shown to have turned the season around; and everything revolves around that all-important, mythical quality – momentum. Generally, sports games struggle to accurately simulate momentum (although FIFA has a bash with its form system), but they do the rest pretty well, with fabricated news feeds and lines of commentary helping to create the sense that you’re not just playing game after game, but gradually telling an evolving story. In short, every game is not just a game, it’s a scene in an evolving drama. This partially explains my endless hours of playtime, but it’s far from the whole story. There’s also the weird psychology that takes hold once I get a few games in.

Fifa 19

Exactly what form this psychology takes depends on my early fortunes, but the end result is always the same. If I start well, then I’ll convince myself I’m in form and I shouldn’t waste this precious state of affairs, I’ll plough on to try and rack up points while I’m feeling good and everything is going swimmingly. If I begin with a losing streak then, if anything, I become even more committed; one of the few things I have in common with actual elite sportsmen and women is that I hate to lose. I’ve calmed down a bit now and try to keep the expletives and controller throwing to a minimum, but every loss still feels like a body blow, a victory for that technological Dark Lord whirring under the TV. So I play on, convinced that the turnaround is just one game away, the losses often racking up until I manage to eke out a win and there’s hope once more. I have a feeling that if left uncontrolled, this sequence could continue indefinitely, the seasons flying by as I switch from rather baseless optimism to irrational despair depending on my performance. And yes, my performance is how I think of it, however vainglorious that may sound.

Another important part of this is that sports games are one of the few genres where consistency matters; to win in a season or franchise mode on a decent difficulty, you need to be very good most of the time, with every loss or draw harming your standing in the table (unless of course you commit that ultimate sin and quit before the autosave). This is in stark contrast to most games, where it doesn’t really matter if you beat the boss on your first attempt or your 100th, only that you eventually get past your foe. This plays into the clichés and conventions of real sport: of course it sometimes feels like a grind, but it’s a grind that apes the relentless nature of a real life sporting season. Moreover, you’re therefore subject, to some extent at least, to the same psychological pitfalls as real life athletes. You’ll face complacency when it’s all going well (which generally leads to an embarrassing loss against a lowly opponent you expected to steamroll), and mental ruts when things are going badly and you start to overthink the game and second guess your instincts.

NBA 2K19
NBA 2K19

The most crucial part, however, is that the sports genre explicitly embraces repetition. Yes, you can use different teams and stadia, but all that is ever produced is variations on the same basic gameplay. In other games, I generally hit this point and it feels like a disappointment; the sense that the developer’s bag of tricks has been exhausted and that all that now awaits is a few minor tweaks to what has now begun to feel routine, even dull. With sports games though, you know that’s what you signed up for; you don’t expect thrilling new characters or hugely innovative new mechanics that completely change the game. With the framework of the genre subject to the constraints of its real life equivalents, minor differences suddenly attain huge importance. The contrast between a 4-0 win and the opposing team salvaging a 2-2 draw with a last-minute equaliser is huge for the player invested in the fortunes of their digital athletes. For those on the outside looking in, it’s utterly inconsequential.

Of course, to get properly hooked on sports games, it helps if you’re pretty into the real life version and, in my experience, many gamers simply aren’t. They may therefore dabble, having the odd game of FIFA here and there, but the nuances are lost. The way FIFA 19 has perfectly replicated Raheem Sterling’s ballerina-like running style, or the way strong centre halves like Eric Bailly can now shrug lightweight strikers off the ball bears no importance to them. Being a hardcore sports gamer therefore feels like a niche within a niche, apart from not only the mainstream but also the general gaming sub-community.

Because of this, most gamers simply don’t understand sports games and sports gamers. There are entire thought processes and psychologies that are alien to them, from the importance of consistency to the way that subtle differences become magnified. Ultimately, I think a lot of my love for sports games comes down to the fact that they feel like pure gaming; there are no characters or plot disguising the driving systems, and there’s nothing beyond your performance that’s affecting you on an emotional level.

Anyway, I better go now, my Ultimate Team is calling me and those coins aren’t going to earn themselves.