The Significance of Sports Games

The Significance of Sports Games

There are many types of games, and many types of gamers — a fact of life that a fair share of the more “hardcore” veteran gaming audience may not be one-hundred percent willing to accept. Over the past few years, in what could be referred to as the Wii Expansion Era of the video game industry, this simple truth has become more and more evident via a continuous influx of an increasing number of “casual” gaming hobbyists. But this isn’t the first time the inhabitants of the gaming world have had to cope with mass immigration, so to speak. Sports gamers, too, were at one time the new kids on the block, but have since transitioned into a position of mainstream gaming acceptance. This maturation, then, begs the question, “what is the significance of sports games to the industry as a whole?”

While they have existed since the industry’s infancy (more on that later), it wasn’t until the mid-90s and the 16-bit era that sports games really began to flourish. This growth ushered in a brand new crowd of gamers who might have never picked up a controller before, expanding the gaming population much like the Wii has done in more recent years. One franchise in particular can be credited for more than a fair share of the genre’s early success, and although it has existed since 1989, the Madden series took virtual football to the next level in 1993 by securing official NFL licenses, which in turn drew in a large number of existing NFL fans. Not coincidentally, 1993 was also the year that EA Sports was formed, and it is to this period that the roots of many existing sports franchises — and sports gamers — can be traced.

Since their introduction, sports games have always functioned as catalysts for the growth of the video game industry. In fact, some of the very first games were designed to mimic real-life sports. Tennis for Two in 1958 and the notorious Pong in 1972 sparked the video game boom, making the sports genre one of the oldest in gaming. Even if this genre wasn’t immediately a mega-popular mainstay for enthusiasts, these pioneering titles laid the foundation for everything to follow.

Nearly as relevant to the current state of gaming is how instrumental the sports genre has been in promoting multiplayer/competitive gaming. Sports games have always been about playing together with friends, either cooperatively or competitively, and it’s no secret that as time goes on, a greater percentage of the gaming population and a greater percentage of games are either connecting online or locally. The standard, taken-for-granted, 4-controller-port design of modern consoles stems from the multitap, an 8-bit-era invention that increased the number of ports on home consoles to accommodate more players at one time. These devices were of course supported primarily by sports titles, which allowed many players to participate in games simultaneously. More recently, the Xbox LIVE and PlayStation Network phenomena have become so important to the modern social gaming climate that the absence of online components actually decreases a game’s value in the eyes of many critics.

Madden NFL

Speaking in simple dollars and cents — no small matters in the high-risk, high-reward business that the modern video game industry has become — the sports genre is immensely important. Dorm-room managers and other sports game consumers make up a huge market sector, and pump money into the industry year-in and year-out. While the oft-criticized yearly updates to sports game franchises may only incrementally improve (or not) with each passing year, fans still gobble up these yearly editions by the millions in order to stay up to date with their sport(s) of choice. The major downside to this trend is that the “sequelitis” development strategy has been implemented in genres where the caliber of titles is more heavily affected by novelty and originality… or lack thereof. This practice has not only helped game companies to realize their goals of increased production and revenue, but has also unfortunately served to dilute the quality of games in those categories, as well.

Beyond the hard numbers, sports games also carry social significance in a number of ways. These games are educational tools for players seeking to learn the rules, strategies, and other intricacies of a given sport. Playing a sports video game is essentially a form of practice on a virtual field. Players may not be training themselves physically, but their mental game can be sharpened as they continually run through each game’s proceedings via what are, in part, interactive instructional guides. Similarly, virtual participation within video games may be the only opportunity for some people to enjoy sports at all, on more than just a passive level. Physical impairment, age, time constraints, lack of athleticism, etc. are all obstacles that can be leveled on the virtual playing field, giving these individuals the chance to enjoy something that would otherwise be out of reach.

Finally, to complete the answer to our initial question, we must understand the importance of sports outside of gaming — real-life sports. Since time immemorial, people have organized together and in opposition to compete in physical contests whose outcomes would inevitably distinguish clear winners and losers. War is the most obvious form of human conflict to arise under normal conditions, from the individual duel, to tribal skirmishes, to large-scale campaigns. Many early sports were created by adapting war training exercises, such as spear throwing, in order to hone the skills required for more deadly activities. This behavior was an adaptive survival strategy, and still remains a part of what it means to be human. So, as an extension of this inherent competitive human nature, sports, games, and the subsequent marriage of the two — sports games — are important outlets for our universal “survival of the fittest” instinct. Yes, sports games are theoretically good for us from an socio-evolutionary perspective.

Sports games, like “casual” titles, may not be first-round draft picks for the so-called “hardcore” gaming crowd, but that does not mean that they are simply unimportant augmentations to the industry’s catalog of games. The sports genre has been¬†economically, socially, and developmentally significant to the video game industry throughout its history, and will continue to be well into the future.


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Author: Eddie Inzauto View all posts by
Eddie has been writing about games on the interwebz for over ten years. You can find him Editor-in-Chiefing around these parts, or talking nonsense on Twitter @eddieinzauto.

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