Despite selling incredibly well, sports simulators remain a niche market within the gaming community.
For a variety of reasons, they’re one of the more polarizing genres in the industry. I’ve addressed the most common reasons before and argued that everyone should give sports simulators a chance (which you can read about here).
But what I failed to address in my previous article was the misconception that “sports simulators lack substance.” What gamers often mean by this comment is that sports simulators are shallow. They are games and nothing more–lacking the emotion, progression system, and narrative that many gamers crave.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Yet this view is a prevalent one. It’s rooted in two fundamental oversights gamers make when it comes to the sports simulator genre:
- Gamers neglect the evolution sports simulators have undergone in the past decade: forgetting that franchise modes and career modes can provide a more “traditional” gaming experience within the genre.
- Gamers, specifically those who are not involved with sports culture in real life, fail to acknowledge how emotional each game, tournament, and season can be.
Let’s dive in.
Sports sims with a story
At this point, every major sports simulator franchise (Madden, NBA 2K, FIFA, NHL, and MLB The Show) has tried their hand at narrative whether it’s through franchise modes that allow you to draft players and manage a team or career modes that allow you to play as a single athlete establishing his career.
Admittedly, franchise modes can be intimidating to players who approach sports simulators with rudimentary knowledge of the real life sport. Alternatively, career campaigns such as NBA 2K17’s MyCareer mode and FIFA 17’s Story mode have less of a learning curve.
I highlight these two games specifically because they’re the ones I’m most familiar with. And, as someone who took a long break from the sports simulator genre, I’m blown away by what these two campaigns offer. In FIFA 17, you play as Alex Hunter, a soccer player trying to make his way into the Premier League. In NBA 2k17, you build your own avatar and try to make your way to the NBA. And I have to say–much like your typical simulator games–it’s the small details and player choices that drive my interest. From the Premier League poster that hangs in your childhood bedroom to your dialogue options during post game interviews and one-on-one interactions (FIFA 17).
I have only watched a bit of what 2K’s campaign (thanks to my best friend who started the game while visiting me in Chicago and proceeded to play hours of it. It got to the point where, by the time he left, he was considering buying a PS4 solely to play this game… but I digress).
As a viewer, I loved hearing sportscasters react to and criticize a player’s abilities. It was exciting waiting for my friend’s name to be called during the draft. And everyone in my apartment was shocked when he got the call to join the Olympic team (not that he deserved it, I mean you can only take one college player, and he wasn’t even the number 1 draft pick… but you know).
This brings me to my next point
The heart of sports
God, sports are emotional.
It’s an easy truth to accept but a hard one to empathize with if you don’t care about sports in real life. But even if that’s the case, if you put in enough time to become decent at a sports simulator, you’ll start to understand just how emotional it is. The frustration of not being able to get into the attacking third in FIFA and the glory of when the shot finally goes in. The way you can be up the entire game in NBA 2K but lose your lead in the final quarter. The pure joy of juking a defender and running it into the endzone in Madden. When you get into sports–be it real or virtual–you realize it’s the best and worst thing that has happened to you.
Sports can make you believe in perseverance and grit; sports can make feel good movies real after all
or sports can make you want to walk away from everything forever because there’s clearly no God.
From the outside it doesn’t seem like much, but let sports into your life and it will move you like nothing else. If you don’t believe me, check out the top ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries and tell me they had no effect.
When we talk videogames, we often speak of immersion as the ultimate thing we are looking for. I argue sports sims can move gamers the way sports can move its fans (admittedly, it’ll never be on the same level, but it’s up there). Additionally, the A.I and number of variables at play make each game in a season completely different than the last. If you want to feel invested in a character or a cause, look no further than modern sports sims.
Like any community, gamers are a diverse group of people. Not every game is for everyone. And while our differences should be respected, they should never be set in stone. Too often we decide what we are not and let that dictate our experiences. Don’t let that be you. Go buy or borrow one of these games; you just might surprise yourself.