I have a confession to make, everyone! I’m not really a sports person! That’s probably not surprising at all, but there it is. That said, I’ve found myself playing big, tentpole, AAA sports sims this year in a professional capacity, and it has been an interesting experience. I’m not completely clueless and have played more casual sports games before, but this year has been my first time sitting down with the EA Sports line. After making my way through Madden Football 18 and NBA Live 18, among others, I found myself wondering: what happened to the arcade style? Where are the NBA Jams, the NFL Blitzes, and the Mutant League Footballs?
Generally in games, there are different options within genres. You have all kinds of open-world action games and RPGs, various kinds of shooters, and even sub-genres within those spaces. You don’t have to look far for variety, especially in 2017. Hell, you can walk into a GameStop and find at least three different kinds of farming games. That’s ridiculous.
Yet in sports, with a few exceptions, you’re pretty much down to one option per sport. There’s the NHL game, the NFL game, the UFC game, and the WWE game. Sometimes there’s a Mario game and overlap happens there. The one big exception is basketball, where you have two different NBA games competing, and occasionally the ghost of NBA Jam shows up, then quickly fades into obscurity. But where are all the silly or less hardcore sports games? Why is everything a super-complex simulator?
Despite sports games being big sellers, it seems like a lot rides on the licensing. If a sports game comes out these days and doesn’t have the brand of a league slapped on it, nobody will care. If it’s weird and doesn’t have Mario on the cover, there’s even less of a chance. Meanwhile, the games on the shelves are turgid messes of menus, minutia, and pseudo-realism. These games are all about stats, rosters, and simulating real physics and rules, often at the cost of fun, intuitive gameplay. It’s a wonder these games have new players coming in every year.
What makes this train of thought even more complicated is how these sim games are branching out within themselves, especially this year. NHL 18 has Threes, which is basically a miniature “NHL Jam” built in to the overall more hardcore package. Madden Football 18 has a new “arcade” Playstyle setting and the Longshot story mode. NBA Live 18 structures itself like a modern RPG and has a Streets mode that makes the game way less hardcore. These are all tools, side attractions if you will, that are attempting to bring in more casual players.
Is there just no demand anymore for these sorts of things as more expanded, stand-alone experiences? Is NBA Jam doomed to be a small, digital-only curiosity or ignored otherwise? Perhaps video games have advanced so much that sports fans are naturally more inclined for a more vicarious kind of experience, the kind that makes them feel like they’re participating in Real, Actual Sports. Trying to make sports interesting for video game fans just isn’t necessary or effective anymore because of that. Maybe that’s why the WWE 2K series struggles so much compared to other sports games in reviews in the like, because wrestling is such a bizarre art that it’s tough to truly simulate it.
I’m curious as to what people who already live in this ecosystem think. Are the arcade-style sports games of old just that: Old and obsolete? Is it inherently more appealing, based on what sports are, to have access to something that mimics reality instead of exaggerating it for funsies? Is Mario Hoops 3 on 3 truly not the greatest basketball game of all time (it’s okay to be wrong, it happens to the best of us)? Let me know what you think!