Monday, November 7, 2011

Quick Takes - Simulation lacking stimulation

Wait, I paid money for this?

I don't really like sports video games. That isn't to say I haven't played them in the past--the amount of hours I logged on Football Manager 2009 is almost shameful--but I just can't bring myself to play sports games anymore. There's no joy in a modern sports game. It's a drab simulation that takes you through generations of guided motions. All of the great sports games of the past (Ken Griffey Jr. Baseball, NBA Jam TE, Blades of Steel, NFL Blitz, Super Mario Tennis, etc.) weren't really about sports, they were about moving something familiar into an unfamiliar world and ramping up gameplay with feats of power and athleticism that extended into the surreal. Most of that's gone now, replaced by the modern clones of the actual sport (down to customizable crowd-signs, built-in injuries, and financial modeling that would draw a seasoned accountant into alcoholism). While those types of games can be great teaching devices and can alleviate the natural stress and frustration of following sports teams, there's no drama, no intrigue, no psychological or sociological discussion or revelation about the world and our humanity. Press A to pass to that guy. It doesn't matter that he's double-covered, it'll still be a touchdown. The digital crowd goes wild.

The whittling down of a sport to a few buttons, buttons that you control with artificial intelligence geared for a player's success, makes the game more babysitting than envelope pushing. If you want to trade for a player in practically any sports game, it's not a matter of if you'll be able to trade for him, it's simply when and how. That package didn't work? Try another one! You can trade hundreds of times for the same player, and the pixelated General Manager of the opposing team doesn't seem to mind. You must be in his Fave Five.

And no matter how many ways sports game designers try to tweak their games to make them "fair," sports games aren't concerned with fair, they're about winning championships, building dynasties, doing all the things that your real team could never actually do. That's what makes them addictive, that's the "hook." You can be the hero, a city's savior, you can turn the Seattle Mariners or the Chicago Cubs into perennial winners. And maybe that's the real allure to people who like and play sports games, just like the allure in other games is to "live out a fantasy that you couldn't experience in the real world." The star quarterback is a replacement for the dragon-slaying knight. The mastermind General Manager is the strategic genius with uncanny aim who single-handedly stopped the Nazis in World War II. They're all the same, except sports games don't have a story (unless you make one up for yourself ...). Give me dragons, give me intrigue, give me a point of view and a world to explore. Or give me slick, fun gameplay that pushes the boundaries of the actual sport and binds me to a quarter-sucking joystick at the arcade.

  • There was a game called "Super Tennis" for SNES that I used to play when I was a kid. I always chose this left-handed power hitter from Australia named John, and I was completely unbeatable at that game. Seriously, I only lost two sets ever*. I won so many tournaments that, eventually, the game went crazy and I had to travel to hell to fight the devil (seriously), who I beat in five sets using a complicated system of lobs and drop shots after *losing the first two sets playing my regular style. Step your game up, Madden.
  • Tim Tebow had a spectacularly Tim Tebow kind of game (which makes sense, I suppose). He rushed for over 100 yards, threw two touchdown passes, won the game, but only threw for ~150 yards and completed a dismal 47% of his passes. Bill James must wake up in the middle of the night vomiting black sludge and screaming "TEBOW!" into the nothingness.
  • When the Chicago Bears went to London to play earlier this year, Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher took the unique opportunity of being overseas to really branch out and immerse himself in the local culture by refusing to try any British food and eating nothing but pizza. A Chicagoan who will only eat pizza? You don't say!
  • Michael Jordan has been leading the charge for a group of hardline owners unwilling to bend to any player demands in the lockout negotiations. Things have become so contentious between Jordan's group and the players that one prominent agent called Jordan hypocritical and promised to never send another of his players to the Bobcats. Wait, so agents were willingly sending them there in the first place?!?
  • For all the love I have for hockey, I'm still a bit worried about PED use ruining the sport (not as worried as I am about the NBA though). Retired player Georges Laraque, a notorious enforcer for years in the NHL, said in a new book that steroid use has been rampant for years in the league, and that players used to sometimes take Ephedrine and other substances before games so they'd be desensitized before, during, and after fights. That sounds hardcore; in the old days, they just used Molson.
  • Fiery starter Carlos Zambrano was sent to pitch in the winter league by the Chicago Cubs after a disappointing season that nearly saw him released by the club. Zambrano made his first start for Carbies in the Venezuelan Winter League on Sunday and gave up two runs in 2 and 2/3 innings. After the game, Zambrano went into hibernation and won't be available to pitch again until Spring.
  • Forbes reported Monday that Michael Vick is the NFL's least liked player, according to a poll of NFL fans by Nielsen and E-Poll Market Research. He did surprisingly well with cat owners, though.

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