Despite what some fans may think, making video games is really hard. Creating sports video games might be the toughest job of all. There’s no real-life frame of reference to compare to the likes of Destiny or Batman: Arkham Asylum.
There’s also no culture that says there should be an annual release of these titles. Fans can criticize sports games because they feel as though they know how the game should be made, because they know the sport that’s being recreated.
In other genres, the developers get to create their own world. The gamers are just living in it.
That said, there is a formula for developers of sports video games to follow. There’s a list of demands that comes from the collection of fans who loyally purchase the game year after year.
Oftentimes those demands are unrealistic and originate from the minds of people who don’t have a clue what it would take to have their dreams implemented. Nonetheless, a good development team does its best to deliver as much as they can to the community.
The following list should be looked at as a prerequisite for sports video games made in the era of high-powered consoles, Internet-friendly fans and sports leagues that readily embrace the products that help to glamorize their sport.
Essentially, any sports game worth its salt should have the features in this slideshow.
EA Sports hit the jackpot when they created Ultimate Team for the FIFA series back in 2008 for FIFA 09. Per Daniel Krupa of IGN.com, the mode was originally created by FIFA producer Matt Prior.
Per Krupa, Prior said:
The idea was to come up with a mode that kept things fresh throughout the season, and made it kind of a more unique experience. So I came up with a concept that was based around the whole playground feel. Sharing and trading players in the playground with your friends. The excitement and compulsion of opening a pack. The disappointment of not getting anyone you want. It’s that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory moment of getting an amazing player.
Several game producers and organizations should pay homage to Prior. His concept has not only made EA Sports a ton of money through FIFA—and its entire sports lineup—but also other companies such as 2K Sports and Sony have created their own versions of the Ultimate Team idea.
Now, modes that blend card collecting with fantasy sports are all the rage. Gamers pick up NBA 2K looking to play the series’ UT equivalent, MyTeam. There’s a percentage of MLB The Show fans who look forward to Diamond Dynasty, Sony’s version of the concept. According to Krupa’s article, 64 percent of FIFA gamers play Ultimate Team.
Because enjoyment in the modes can be boosted with in-game products acquired through micro transactions, the modes have become major revenue generators.
Per a GameSpot article from Eddie Makuch in August 2014, EA Sports was hopeful their add-on content sales would reach the $1 billion mark, thanks heavily in part to Ultimate Team.
Big business and big fun.
No two sports gamers play exactly the same. I’m a straight simulation-style gamer, but some want a different experience when they pick up the sticks. That’s why game sliders have to be available in every sports game.
Routinely, you can find forum threads suggesting the best slider settings for just about every sports video game release. By tinkering with the tendencies of the CPU and other gameplay details, you’re able to create a custom experience.
I’ve played with guys who like to jack up the offensive sliders on games like NBA 2K. They want to drain as many threes as possible, and they don’t want the defense to have much of a prayer. I personally hate that style of play. If I adjust the sliders at all, it’s usually to give the defense a better shot at shutting down the offense.
In Madden, I routinely tinker with defensive pass interference sliders to bring this penalty back into the game. Usually, you’d have to hit a guy with the Gatorade bucket to draw a flag. Ideally, the game would ship with the most realistic settings, but that’s not always the case.
No worries, just point me to the options menu.
Fans don’t just love to play online in sports video games, there’s also a huge market for gamers who want to team up with one another to take on another squad of human opponents. The sports with the smaller teams work best.
That’s probably why games like NBA 2K16 and NBA Live 16 have the best current examples of this concept. In both games, gamers can create themselves, boost their ratings in other modes (which we’ll get to later) and take their talents to the virtual hardwood—or asphalt—to compete against others.
The same concepts exist in Madden, FIFA and the NHL series.
In each instance, it can be a little frustrating if you’re paired with a selfish teammate, but when the chemistry is right, there are few experiences more rewarding when gaming. If you’re looking for an eSports inroad for traditional sports games, online team-up modes is where you’ll find it.
Almost every sports gamer’s frame of reference for titles like Madden and NBA 2K is the real-life broadcasts from major networks. Because of that, it only makes sense that EA Sports, 2K Sports, Sony and any other developer would work to make their games look and sound like TV broadcasts.
When the concept is nailed on both the audio and visual side, the presentation is we see in NBA 2K and FIFA. Both games set the bar for this area of sports gaming.
The commentary teams are the least repetitive, and the games give you all the camera angles and instant replay options you could want.
I know what you’re thinking: NBA 2K16 is one of the most successful games in the genre, and it has seemingly struggled with online stability for years. That thought is true to an extent.
NBA 2K normally has issues with online stability just after its release, but those problems are traditionally cleaned up within a month, and each mode usually functions properly after that.
Fans have the right to complain with vigor when a feature that has been sold to them doesn’t work. Unfortunately, people are never as loud when things work as they should. Many people don’t want to acknowledge this concept, but this is the era of gaming we’re in.
Games rarely release with everything in place. It seems almost unfair to evaluate titles based on online stability until the game has been released for at least a month. Nevertheless, with so many components of sports games depending on online connectivity to operate, there’s no questioning the importance of server consistency.
If a release had serious server issues for six months, it would be very difficult to call the game a success—no matter how good it is otherwise. At some point, the folks in charge have to get a handle on the problem to prevent the game from being a dud.
FIFA 16 is pictured in the main photo because of all the major sports franchises, it seems to have the most consistent online stability year over year. This opinion comes from someone who has had extensive experience playing and reviewing the likes of: FIFA, Pro Evolution Soccer, NBA 2K, NBA Live, Madden, MLB The Show, the defunct MLB 2K, EA Sports UFC and others.
Even FIFA has had its issues in the past, but thankfully, it hasn’t been enough for me to label it a legacy issue for the brand.
It’s not enough to simply have all of the real-life players, wrestlers, teams, uniforms, arenas, etc. Sports games need to provide a creation suite that allows gamers to put themselves in the game.
This isn’t a new concept. Gamers have been creating themselves for decades in sports games. Only now, there’s a push to create photo-realistic renders. NBA 2K15 pioneered the concept when it introduced face-scanning technology.
When you had the perfect lighting for the process, it produced the most accurate facial renders gamers have ever seen. When the lighting wasn’t right, things could get scary.
NBA 2K16 took a step back in this area, but NBA Live 16 took a page from its rivals’ book with their GameFace HD app. While the results aren’t as spot-on as a perfect NBA 2K15 scan, Live’s process is more consistently accurate—and you can do it on your mobile device.
While face-scanning technology is awesome, games don’t necessarily need to have that feature to deliver a great creation suite. The recently released WWE 2K16 is a perfect example. It allows you to take an image still—rather than a live scan to recreate yourself—and even wrestlers the game doesn’t include in its roster.
That’s right. It’s no secret, fans use creation tools to fill in the gaps created by the publisher’s licensing restrictions.
Licensing is a huge issue in sports video games. The restrictions created by legalities cramp the style of gamers who want to have the likes of NBA legend Charles Barkley in their hoops game. Sir Charles’ licensed recreation has been scarce in video games for decades.
Did you really love the 2005 Chicago White Sox team that won the World Series? If so, you would probably like to create them in every season of MLB The Show that you play.
Great creation tools can make all of this possible, and that’s why it’s an essential feature for a stellar sports video game.
There was a time when the thought of having a single-player campaign mode in a sports video game sounded ridiculous, but that has changed.
Sony’s NBA’ 06 was the first to introduce the concept of a dramatized story surrounding a single player. Their mode was called The Life. EA Sports’ Fight Night Champion had a stellar story-driven campaign theme with Champions mode.
However, no franchise has revolutionized the concept like the NBA 2K series. The MyCareer mode has become one of the game’s most popular features. For NBA 2K16, 2K Sports enlisted the expertise of Academy Award-nominated director Spike Lee to direct the cinematic portion of the MyCareer mode.
While I wasn’t a fan of some aspects of the translation, Lee’s involvement shows just how important this feature is to the foundation of the NBA 2K franchise. We’re now seeing the MyCareer concept taking flight in the WWE 2K series.
Other series such as: Madden, MLB The Show, NBA Live and others have hesitated to follow 2K’s lead in this area. They would be wise to get on board. Sports gamers are now looking for this type of mode to round out their feature set.
There are plenty of forum posts on Operation Sports and elsewhere with fans clamoring for more drama in their sports games. Hopefully the devs and the decision makers will listen to the fans.
Online play is awesome. Single-player campaign modes are cool, but the lifeblood feature of a sports video game is still—and always will be—the franchise mode. Almost everyone who loves sports video games are real-life sports fans to some degree.
Most times, the biggest sports influence is what we see on television or live stream. What are we watching on these broadcasts? We’re watching preseason, regular season and postseason games. Throughout the year, we’re pulled into the storylines the seasons create.
Franchise modes give us the best opportunity to create our own sports gaming universe (shoutout to the great YouTuber Nadasfan who has a channel by that name).
There are a few games that offer cool franchise modes. MLB The Show’s franchise feature is solid. Madden’s is probably a half-step behind that, but still good, and most of the others are sprinkled here and there on the list.
Without question, the best franchise mode for any sports game is NBA 2K16′s MyLeague and/or MyGM. If I broke down every thing you could do in these two modes, this slide would be as long as the Nile River. If you’re unaware, I highly advise you read the blog post on the modes at Operation Sports. It’s written by Erick Boenisch, the mastermind behind the feature.
Customization is the key word in MyLeague and MyGM. You can use custom rosters, rules and even relocate teams. The offseason functionality is the best we’ve ever seen in a sports game. To put it plainly, of all the modes I’ve ever played in a sports video game, not one has ever supplied more hours of entertainment.
It has set the bar in this area of sports video game development. Every title that follows should seek to emulate what Boenisch and the rest of the team at 2K Sports have accomplished.
Looks still matter.
The options and functionality are important if you’re looking for a complete game—hence this little list I’ve put together. Without the initial curb appeal, a sports game has lost the first battle.
Arenas and stadiums are mostly excellent across the board, but there’s still some variance when it comes to player models. That pesky frame of reference factor is what necessitates visual excellence.
We know what Conor McGregor looks like. We know where LeBron James’ hairline begins and ends…I think.
Because of that knowledge, gamers will scrutinize every aspect of the player models in sports games. EA Sports UFC has the most consistently accurate character models of any sports game released to date.
NBA 2K and WWE 2K are close, but each of them are solid enough to more than pass the eye test. The same could be said for FIFA and PES—which both have a lot more ground to cover because of the amount of clubs in their games.
Any sports game that finds itself below standard in this area must make improving visuals one of its top priorities.
Above all else, the game has to be fun to play. If it’s a simulation, gameplay should be as realistic as possible while still allowing it to function as a video game. That’s often a difficult balance to maintain.
Sometimes gamers think they want absolute realism, but no one would have fun playing Madden if they had to know as much as a real-life quarterback to have success.
Anyone who tells you otherwise is fooling themselves.
If the game is an arcade-style title, the focus should be on simplicity and fun rather than realism. Quite honestly, 2015 has been a good year for gameplay in the sports video game genre. Most of the major franchises have delivered solid gameplay experiences.
It would be great to see a game attempt to give us a super-sim and arcade experience. This might be especially cool in a boxing or mixed martial arts game.
An ultra-sim mode where knockouts can happen on one punch, and conserving stamina is essential, would be interesting for hardcore fans of the sport. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a wild brawl with little regard for anything except the energy meter would also be fun to play.
A similar variety of modes in all sports games could have some appeal, and it has been attempted in the past. There’s no exact formula for attaining success in this category. The Developers’ only charge is to make the game entertaining.
Follow Brian Mazique on Twitter.
The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.
The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.