Sports are one of those things, right? Especially in the gaming community, where a bunch of nerds hang out. Things are more diverse now, compared to several years ago, but sports are one of those things that people can be real divisive about. People are really into it or really into loudly declaring they aren’t. I used to be part of the latter group, although eventually, as I got older, I learned that being loud about things you aren’t into doesn’t make you cool. It happens to everyone. Anyway, this year was my second year attending the EA Sports Showcase, a preview event at which they sit you down in a room and play sports game for hours. Go figure.
The first time I went, I was clueless. I had never sat in front of a Madden game in my life, much less that on top of NBA Live, NHL, and FIFA. Not only was I having to figure these games out on the fly, I had to, you know, figure them out. Reviews follow this sort of assignment, and most of them were on me. This year, with a bit more experience under my belt, I can start to talk to things like changes, speak the lingo a little, and so on. I went from the angle, the first time, of being honest about never playing them. But I was still in a position of needing to play these games. Now I find myself wondering, what if I didn’t?
I feel like people who play video games can often find themselves playing games they aren’t necessarily interested in, especially in social situations. For me, that was a lot of Halo at a time I would have rather been playing Unreal Tournament or Final Fantasy. I put up with it, because I liked hanging out with my friends, but not before I took the time to complain every now and then. But what if my friends were into Madden instead? It’s a multiplayer game, and one that has a similar kind of mass appeal with its audience. Would someone like me, who had even less interest in sports than in Halo, be able to enjoy the game as a video game? What about the other sports games, like NHL or FIFA?
Certainly, it depends on the game. Many of these games, the ones under the EA umbrella, pride themselves as simulations, more so than fun video games. That means there are a lot of hours of sifting through menus, goofing around with stats, and opening card packs if you find yourself in the wrong part of town. I can’t conceive of that being fun for anyone, much less casual players. But I know people are ride or die with Franchise and Ultimate Team modes, so it is what it is. As far as core gameplay goes, I found myself more immediately attracted to NBA Live and NHL compared to Madden and FIFA.
NBA Live and NHL are a lot more arcade-like in nature. The teams, therefore fields of play, are much smaller. Because of that, there’s a lot more emphasis on making a lot of quick, reactive moves. Then, like most sports, you make your way to the target. But unlike football, you have to shoot. So there’s another degree if skill involved. Not only that, but when you’re throwing at a basket or slapping a puck with a stick, there’s a good variety of different button combinations and contexts you can use to make a great variety of approaches. These two games just make the most amount of video game sense, therefore the barrier of entry is lower, and the “fun factor” comes more quickly.
Madden is all over the place, especially now with modes like Longshot, which was inspired by Telltale games. Longshot, especially the sequel in Madden 19, is not only about trying to teach people how to play, but also using the Madden framework to tell a character-based story. That’s really compelling, no matter who you are. But Madden is also a slow, plodding game, because that’s how football is. Sure, there are huge dudes smashing into each other, but there are also a lot of small, calculated decisions and movements before the action even happens. Then it does, and it’s over as quickly as it starts.
Madden has several different ways to play, and multiple difficulty settings. If you want to goof around with your friends, you could easily set the game to easy and Arcade mode, to make the level of forgiveness and violence, higher than with more simulation-like modes. You can band together against the AI as well, so it doesn’t have to be a competition. It’s almost like sitting down and playing a board game together, which has an innate appeal that’s hard to say no to, once you get a feel for it.
Finally, there’s FIFA. I really bounced off of FIFA and am not sure I’d ever go back to it unless I needed to. It has the shooting dynamic of NBA Live or NHL, but it’s across a huge field of play, with players all over the screen. It’s almost like playing checkers or something, with both sides slowly trying to move to the other. It’s not nearly as flashy either, although the team is trying to work on it with various trick shots and other physics improvements that allow more depth of animation, and fun stuff like headbutts and air shots. But it’s just not as exciting to play without a greater context, and I feel like it almost relies on the player being into soccer more than Madden needs you to be a football fan. It’s definitely a work in progress for me on this one.
So what conclusion am I coming to here? I think it’s possible to enjoy casual sports play in video games, even if you aren’t into sports at all. Of course, it does greatly depend on both the sport, and if you have other humans to play with. Ain’t nobody who looks at football as a bunch of squiggly lines and concussion drama gonna play Madden by themselves and have fun, you know? But games like NBA Live and NHL, which are more fast-paced, intimate, and flashy, have a much more natural, “video game-y” appeal to them. Madden sits somewhere in the middle, while FIFA feels the most like a fandom-dependent niche. Either way, none of these games are going to drag me away from the next Dragon Quest, but if a friend comes knocking and wants to throw the digital pigskin around for a bit or slam and welcome some jams, I might be inclined to take a break or two.