Sports games are a topic I’ve danced around for a while. They comprise a majority of released local multiplayer games, in all likelihood, but still manage to be the black sheep of the field. It’s a tough topic to take on alone, so I called on Brad Woodling, friend of the site and sports columnist for Retroware TV, to help me talk about the genre’s challenges and bright spots.
So first: Sports games hold a strange place in the local multiplayer scene. Often they’re the quickest and most likely to embrace such things, with almost every large release supporting four or more players. That said, I’m not sure they’ve found a successful formula for doing so, with the possible exception of soccer titles. Why do you think that is?
Brad Woodling: And just to clarify, we’re talking local multiplayer, not Connected Careers or Online Dynasty stuff. Strictly the features given to sports games with two or more guys or girls in front of the same TV.
Right! That’s kind of what I do around here. That said, I think a lot of these issues also apply to online play as well, with the caveat that we’re talking about simultaneous play.
BW: You bet! I love the column. So I guess my first question back, and it’s rhetorical: what has changed since we used to play Madden on the Genesis together that has detached the local multiplayer experience? What is engaging in other local multiplayer that is flat in sports games? Despite their best efforts and being probably the easiest medium to adapt to.
See, I’m glad you mention Madden on the Genesis, because it’s a perfect example of why I want to talk to you about this. Sports games have had a long, storied history of head-to-head success, from the days of Tecmo Super Bowl to now. For some reason, though, there’s always been this support for (and, really, championing of) play for three and four. EA went so far as to make its own Genesis multitap (the 4-Way Play, which is infamous for its own fracturing of the multiplayer landscape on that system… but that can and will be its own column.) But who plays four-player Madden?
BW: This is a good point. It’s clunky to even play two versus the computer. So the crux (maybe) is the regression of experience from two-player to four-player.
Right. These games are, for the most part, versions of team sports. But sports video games? Rarely does that team ethos translate. We can talk about the exceptions in a bit, because we definitely should, but first: why do you think that hasn’t happened? The support is there; why aren’t more picking up five controllers and teaming up for a game of hoops?
BW: So one hypothesis: similar to a real team sports, you have your leaders. Games typically reward us for our one-on-one success. You have to embrace roles in real life; not everyone is the alpha. That’s harder in a room with four friends.
There’s a chemistry issue and with how complex games are today (thinking NBA 2K13 here) that translates to a poor experience. But I guess in games like Team Fortress 2, they have leaders calling out orders and stuff. I think since there’s only one “ball” it is more of an issue with sports games.
It’s unfortunate, really. I think it’s something that could change in the next few years, though, and for this reason: with the development of these “My Player” modes in games, you’re seeing the experience of playing as one piece fleshed out and made interesting. If you’re playing a football game and you’re not the quarterback, it’s boring. I’d love for the lessons being learned to be turned to a multiplayer experience, even if (as is more likely today) it’s an online thing.
BW: I wonder, also: will this grow into something bigger? Are there five-on-five NBA 2K13 tournaments where you would practice with your friends offline (or in local online games)? Pro gaming is typically Madden contests for sports games, and it’s only one-on-one.
That could get super-interesting.
BW: They use the term e-sports all the time, but they are rarely sports games.
Let’s take this back to the early days. The first games to really support more than two players at home? Sports titles like Kings of the Beach and Nintendo World Cup. The latter’s one of my favorites, but you’re the expert: what are some of your favorites to play with friends?
BW: So probably the first was NBA Jam. Otherwise, we were really more in a one-on-one mode. I had a little exposure to Madden ’94 like that… it wasn’t good, again with the QB issue. I remember some NFL 2K games on the Dreamcast with four-player support.
2K handled it fairly well. I guess it’s just interesting to me: people clearly want to play sports games with groups, or else we wouldn’t see the Wii, Kinect and Move leaning so heavily into those sorts of activities. And it’s not just individual sports, or we wouldn’t have had the Jam and Blitz crazes of the ’90s.
BW: I think we like our arcade and casual sports with others. With simulation sports games, though, our mindset is recreating what we see on the field, only with our control. We’re the head coach, the QB and the defensive tackle. I think arcade-vs.-sim is a big difference here. Midway’s games harvest multiplayer madness — a testament to their design.
Thanks for talking with me. Since the Super Bowl’s coming up, I thought we could close out with a recommendation for the best title to bust out pre-kickoff with your friends. What’s your pick?
BW: Best multiplayer pre-kickoff? definitely NFL Blitz: easy to pick up, tons of big hits. You can play on N64 or Dreamcast with four players.