December 10, 2003

Ask SpoFi: Sports Videogame History

[request for helping hand inside...]

posted by smithers to navel gazing at 10:51 AM - 47 comments

Hi everyone. I am doing some research on the history and evolution of sports videogames, beginning with the grandpappy of them all, PONG. I am particulary interested in three things: 1. technological developments to games, both in terms of graphics and interface (eg. the old Nintendo floor pad); 2. the relationship between the professional leagues and the videogames (licensing, etc.); and the relationship between television and the videogames (eg. the addition of instant replay). All of this is to establish a pattern of increasing realism in sports videogames (as opposed to certain other genres, where increasing fantasy is quite acceptable). So I would really appreciate it if SpoFiers could share their memories of playing sports-related videogames, any historical information that might be useful to the above, the game that completely blew you away the first time you played it, etc. I really appreciate any help you can offer ... (in homage to Dr. J and Larry Bird Go One-on-One)

posted by smithers at 11:05 AM on December 10, 2003

BTW, I am not looking for information on any one particular sport ... the more I can learn about games I missed out on, the better. Cheers...

posted by smithers at 11:07 AM on December 10, 2003

I'm not quite sure of the year, but I have an old NES "MLB" game (~1987) that's a riot to play. I generally waste the computer opponent by a margin of 40 runs or so. What I find interesting is that when it came out (I bought it new), it was populated by players whose stats matched up with the real MLB players - except they were off by a factor of 1. So instead of getting, say, Puckett with a .332 BA, there was an outfielder, one number off from Kirby's, with a .331 BA. I believe the game was officially licensed with MLB, so you had all the teams, but for some reason they couldn't reproduce the player stats verbatim. I can try and dig the game up the next time I'm at my parents' house.

posted by rocketman at 11:44 AM on December 10, 2003

European Club Soccer on the original Megadrive (Genesis in the USA I think) was frighteningly addictive. Tiny little figures running around like headless chickens and the challenge of taking some team you never heard of to the European Cup Final, and then the World Super Cup Final, against some South American team. They were "real" teams, but it didn't go down to the level of identifying players. It was one of the reasons I gave up playing video games; I spent so much time on the Megadrive I didn't have time for a life. Still....fond memories.

posted by squealy at 11:45 AM on December 10, 2003

so you had all the teams, but for some reason they couldn't reproduce the player stats verbatim Probably had a deal with the MLB but not the MLBPA. To me (and to the creators of Swingers and legions of others), the ultimate sports game will always be the early years of the EA NHL series (93 - 94 or 95). I don't have the words to describe how great it was. There does seem to be a convergence. I noticed it when I first fired up the PS2 with Madden 2001, but I think it goes back as far as Sega's football on the Dreamcast: they're trying to make the games look like you're watching them, which seems a bit perverse to me (here you are simulating playing in a sporting event and now it looks like you're watching it). While games' presentation moves toward TV, TV adds things that may or may not be video game influenced: Fox's awful puck enhancements in the NHL, the yellow 10 yard line, the Skycam, etc. The first game I remember trying to present the game as a legitimate TV broadcast (in terms of putting up the scores as though it were on TV) was NHL Live 95 for the Genesis.

posted by yerfatma at 11:50 AM on December 10, 2003

EA's Fifa and NHL games are the best things to ever happen to people that happen to be both dorks and sports fans. The new Fifa for X-box is amazing. NHL 2004 is pretty good, too. Having said that, if you never got the chance, you should play Nintendo's Ice Hockey. You control five guys, and get to choo-choo-choose whether you want each of them to be fat (big hitters, but slow), skinny guys (Gretzky), or medium guys. No real players or anything. It's an awful game that's terribly addictive. Another addictive game that sucked was Mattel's handheld football game. Good times, good times. Oh, and NHL '94 for Sega may have been the best game ever made. Chicago was awesome, becaues Jeremy Roenick was absolutely unstoppable.

posted by Samsonov14 at 12:07 PM on December 10, 2003

OK. I can give a sketchy history of my experience with soccer games. I remember it like this ... Atari: 2-D, three guys (actually I think they looked more like legs, or just headless Space Invaders) on each side marching up and down the field, plus a goalie in each goal. The three guys always stayed in the same formation. My god, there was some intense action and lotsa sore thumbs in such small and simple spaces. Commodore 64: Starting to go a little "3-D", with some perspective thrown in. Still, graphics were chunky. Much more variety than the Atari game, of course, but we're talking about more graphics capability. PC/Nintendo/Playstation etc: FIFA 199X etc. Now we're talking actual simulations. Lots of controls. High realism, high complexity. Early games, people would just go in and tackle like mad nuts, you'd end up with six people sent off from each team, and they'd have to call the game off because there were too few players left. Lotsa marginal ref calls, too. I think the realism is ratcheting up in all areas, whether it's the intelligence of the players or the refs, the fineness of the controls, the detail of the graphics, the physics. There's also the goofy movies they play at the beginning and end of the halves, goal celebrations and commentary (usu. from celebrity announcers).

posted by worldcup2002 at 12:20 PM on December 10, 2003

NHL for Genesis was the only reason I ever started paying attention to hockey in the first place. So good. I still have it and bust it out each Xmas at my parents' place. The FIFA games are of course great. The only thing I'll bring up that has yet to be mentioned are the Tony Hawk games. Yeah, they're for the new generation, but it's the same concept: I can't do this in real life, so I'll live vicariously and bust out a 900 McTwist. They're hugely popular because they're damned addictive, and their popularity has risen along with the rise in "xtreme! sporTz!", so to omit them would be a mistake.

posted by Ufez Jones at 12:31 PM on December 10, 2003

worldcup2002, do you mean World Cup for the C64? i hooked my old C64 up last year. i'll have to see if this game still works. also for the C64 the Games series: Summer Games, Winter Games, World Games, California Games

posted by goddam at 12:59 PM on December 10, 2003

goddamn, I was at the '96 olympics, and the disinterested dad of a family that sat next to us at a men's gymnastics event (free tickets - shut up) told us that he was rooting for EPYX. I would have loved to hear their stupid theme music if EPYX had taken the gold. Also, I'm not sure it's a sports game, but as long as we're talking C-64 here, caveman games rocked.

posted by Samsonov14 at 01:09 PM on December 10, 2003

Don't forget the sports games of Intellivision! Check them out! North American Soccer League had it's own game! PGA Golf too, but it only had 9 holes! NFL Football only had 5 players aside! United States Ski Team! Major League Baseball was the first to have voice synthesis! "Yer out!" NBA Basketball had only 3 players on each team! I'm so excited to find these old games, I can't stop yelling!

posted by grum@work at 01:22 PM on December 10, 2003

yerfatma: you're right, the scene from Swingers is perhaps one of the classic observations of the young urban male get-together. Did anyone else have the Nintendo floor pad to go with World Class Track and Field? Did anyone else lay down on the floor and slap the pad to make the character go faster? Has anyone played Radica Play TV Baseball? Cheezy, but funny ...

posted by smithers at 03:15 PM on December 10, 2003

My friends and I spent many an afternoon in grade school slapping the floor pad in World Class Track & Field. We would always cool off with a few rounds of duck hunt, or Double Dribble.

posted by lilnemo at 03:22 PM on December 10, 2003

Another addictive game that sucked was Mattel's handheld football game. Good times, good times. Sammy: regarding that game, if you haven't already seen this (it went around the blogosphere 2 months ago), you have to read this story from Electronic Gaming Monthly, where they got a bunch of 9-12 year olds to play classic games from an, umm, earlier age. It's hilarious.

posted by smithers at 03:32 PM on December 10, 2003

smither, great link..THANKS! "Handheld Football by Mattel • 1977 Everyone who grew up in the '70s owned one of these portable two-player pigskin sims, which used red LED lights to represent players. Brian: What's this supposed to be? EGM: Football. It's one of the first great portable games. Brian: I thought it was Run Away From the Dots."

posted by msacheson at 03:47 PM on December 10, 2003

We just moved into a new house and my parents saw fit to bring all my old consoles up. So if you're ever in NH looking to get crushed in NHL 94, let me know. Of course, goddam, my father sold an incredible amount of old C64/128 equipment on eBay years ago, so my copies of Summer Games, Summer Games II, World Games and California Games are lost to the ages. I do still have Decathalon for the Atari 2600. Repeatedly running the 1500 meter dash would cure chronic masturbation. And I'm such an f'ing geek I still remember how to cheat at the pole vault enough that the system can't calculate the score. I've got to second Ufez's nomination of the Tony Hawk series. I finally put my mind to learning how to play it with Tony Hawk 4 and it was really rewarding (as far as a video game can be). The new Underground is the same. In fact, all of the Activision/ Neversoft Extreme Sports are the same idea, though Tony Hawk has gotten rid of the clock constraint and made things better. EA Big makes some terrific x-sports games too: SSX and NBA Street are the two best series to come out of this generation of consoles (other than GTA-- and maybe SSX tops that).

posted by yerfatma at 03:47 PM on December 10, 2003

goddam: worldcup2002, do you mean World Cup for the C64? I don't think so. I remember it to be so much more colorful. But, hey, back in the day (80s!), that _was_ colorful. So, maybe. Maybe. Actually, I think it was International Soccer. You see, save for my own Philips/Intellivision-like thingy with knob-controllers that allowed you to play Pong, I played all video games on my friends' machines.

posted by worldcup2002 at 04:11 PM on December 10, 2003

Woops, forgot to link International Soccer, "the Grandaddy of all football games!"

posted by worldcup2002 at 04:13 PM on December 10, 2003

Oh, and NHL '94 for Sega may have been the best game ever made. Chicago was awesome, becaues Jeremy Roenick was absolutely unstoppable. My roommates and I just picked up a Genesis and this game. Ain't that the truth about Roenick though...wonder what the game designers saw that we didn't? JR was great in all the early EA games. Of interest is that the first game, NHL Hockey (in 1992) wasn't licensed by the NHLPA. So you'd get the player jersey numbers but not their names. The next year's game, NHLPA 93, had the'd get the players but not the team names. It was a bizarre shift to say the least. Anyway they got it right in 1994 and forever after. And I will own anyone at NHL 94. Especially Grum.

posted by Succa at 04:38 PM on December 10, 2003

Smithers - great link. Never saw it before. Becky: Maybe another movie company that didn't want you to like E.T. made this game. Andrew: Yeah, it was some sort of corporate sabotage. Sheldon: Hurry, make him die! Gordon: Please. [E.T. finally dies—general clapping and hurrahs]

posted by Samsonov14 at 04:43 PM on December 10, 2003

We can't leave out the original Tecmo Bowl for NES - including the unstoppable Bo Jackson - the greatest video game character EVER.

posted by mbd1 at 04:53 PM on December 10, 2003

What about the guy in David Robinson's basketball game for the Genesis who had a 100% 3-point percentage? Action Jackson or something.

posted by Succa at 05:24 PM on December 10, 2003

Succa: I will admit to being less than superior at NHL 94. I would constantly lose 7 game series against my friend, but would ALWAYS want to play one more game. Favourite moments would be scoring with your own goalie (sometimes the computer controlled opponent goalie would start spasming as the shot came closer, often letting it dribble in) or getting that one BEAUTIFUL bodycheck that would make everyone in the room yell out and we ran the replay OVER and OVER and OVER again, marvelling at the absolute brutality of the hit.

posted by grum@work at 05:25 PM on December 10, 2003

And I will own anyone at NHL 94. Especially Grum. Doubt it. It took me a while to get The Move back, but I got it. Plus you need to know the rosters inside and out when guys are having off nights. NHL 94 would be interesting to look at the guts of: some of the ratings combined in a way that a guy with a sub-70 or even sub-60 (hello, Andrei Kovalenko and Dallas Drake) rating could be an unstoppable force. And then there were guys who were steadier on their skates and easier to shoot with when they were cold. I imagine the testers/ bug trackers realized there was a mess back there and decided "If it ain't broke . . . " Kinda like the rear of my stereo cabinet.

posted by yerfatma at 05:45 PM on December 10, 2003

also for the C64 the Games series: Summer Games, Winter Games, World Games, California Games Oh, Lord, goddam, you have brought the memories flooding back! I spent HOURS working on the damned hackysack portion of California Games (busting the headbanger and the doda) and the BMX bike (watch me land this dude on his head!) I happen to be a huge fan of the old NES golf, which completely kicked ass and allowed you to play a bad-assed Tiger slice. Of course, there is none better than Genesis PGA Tour Golf. My buddies and I used to sit around and play this for money skins, drinking beer and just loving life. My God ... I was 25 then.

posted by wfrazerjr at 05:58 PM on December 10, 2003

Actually, I think it was International Soccer YES! i was wrong. it is International Soccer. i don't know why i thought i had World Cup. i think i'll play a match right now.

posted by goddam at 06:56 PM on December 10, 2003

California Games. Wow. Talk about things I haven't thought about in a while. Would probably be interesting to compare the skateboarding portion of California Games with the new Tony Hawk stuff. Oh, and smithers, you probably have to at least note the existence of EA Sports' when discussing fantasy, video games, and sports video games. ;)

posted by tieguy at 07:35 PM on December 10, 2003

Hockey: One: Two: You can (legally!) play NHL 97 here. I'm not a big fan of Football and Basketball (well, sort of B-Ball)... and even less of a fan of their video games. But the very arcadey NBA Jam and NFL Blitz taught me a bit about some players/teams and NFL plays. I'd get ESPN NHL on the XBox just for the online play, but I don't know anyone that has it... so I hesitate. Always better to beat friends than strangers. For some reason, though, I've never been a fan of sports games. Oddly. I do like some good ole' Rally Racing and GT racing, though.

posted by mkn at 08:26 PM on December 10, 2003

NES Golf was good, but Gameboy Golf is so much better. I STILL play this game semi-regularly.

posted by mkn at 08:29 PM on December 10, 2003

Great links mkn.......I didn't know EA offered these online games. Might have to schedule a SpoFi winter golf classic.

posted by smithers at 09:20 PM on December 10, 2003

They also have FIFA.

posted by mkn at 10:49 PM on December 10, 2003

While the NHL series was fantastic on the Genesis, the management of teams was (of course) very limited. When I had Hockey League Simulator (1 and 2) on my PC, it was the be-all end-all of team management. Set lineups, trade players, sign contracts, work with a payroll, play well to get more fans or you run out of money, hire/fire coaches (and it makes a difference!), promote minor leaguers, full draft capabilities (including trading picks), and all against as many human or (intelligent) computer controlled GMs as you wanted. It kept track of ALL the stats and the simulated game results were dead on (except when players went on strike from lack of pay...see below). Highlights: - discovering that adding money to a trade could help get a deal done, and then realizing that the computer GMs algorithym used ranges like $1-50000, $50001-100000, and being able to complete a deal because all you did was add $1 to the trade package. My friends and I called it the "Lure of the Looney". - trying to outright buy Wayne Gretzky from a team and getting turned down when you offered $25,000,000 (which was almost the entire payroll of most of the teams back then). - watching an opposition team run out of money (!) in the last week of the season and the players on that team absolutely TANKING because of it (I won a game 14-1 as a result). - watching a mediocre player have an astounding season (because of his linemates on your team) and then ask for crazy money when his contract is up

posted by grum@work at 09:35 AM on December 11, 2003

Which reminds me of Wayne Gretzky Hockey I had for the PC back in 1992 or so. I created the 1972 Bruins (as best I could) and dominated the league.

posted by yerfatma at 11:41 AM on December 11, 2003

I love my footie games: The vast majority of football games, pre-90's were rather sorry attempts at simulating the game (e.g. emlyn hughes international soccer, but all this changed with the release of Kick off in 1989. This was the first game where you had truly fluid play, a decent built in tactics system, and it foreshadowed better games to come. In 1992, we had probably the greatest football game of all time, Sensible soccer (developed from the earlier Microprose soccer, and similar to the earlier Kick off, but far, far more playable. 2 years later this would become Sensible World of Soccer which was hailed as the best amiga game of all time, both when it was released and when the last magazines were published for the amiga. SWOS not only had a vast (and accurate) team database - over 1500 teams from 4 continents, ir was simply the most easy to pick up and play football game around. Additionally, you could now start off managing lowly Huddersfield town in the English 3rd division, and end up (if you do well enough after several seasons), being offered the England manager's job and winning the world cup. On the other hand, we had Championship manager released in 1992. This was a phenomenally detailed and addictive football management sim. Cries of frustrated girlfriends were heard up and down the land with excuses like "But I just have to get Lincoln city into the playoffs!". This is one football sim that has gone from strength to strength - we're now up to Championship manager 4, and each improvement has been better than the last. In my humble opinion, it all started to go downhill when Fifa 98 came out. The game looked fabulous - it looked like a real football match, but with the introduction of the game came the restrictions on use of players names in other games. It also had a complex control system, which improved in the 99 version, but has gone steadily downhill since then - 2003 was very tough to pick up, and 2004 is simply having a laugh. It looks good, people buy it because of this or because they've persevered with earlier versions, but the frustrating control system makes this game fade far too quickly, and Fifa's days are probably numbered. There are numerous clones of the major games mentioned above, but the three mentioned (CM, SWOS, FIFA) are way ahead of the rest of the pack.

posted by BigCalm at 09:20 PM on December 11, 2003

I don't play the football games, but isn't Winning Eleven now considered the far superior series when compared to FIFA? Doesn't get the press and attention -- but from what I've heard, it's far better.

posted by mkn at 10:36 PM on December 11, 2003

It's called Pro evolution soccer over here, but I've not played :o( It does sound better than fifa, but that wouldn't be hard.

posted by BigCalm at 05:39 AM on December 12, 2003

isn't Winning Eleven now considered the far superior series Last year's was favorably compared to FIFA on the PS2, but FIFA apparently got so much better this year that Konami (or whomever) may have a hard time matching it. I rented Winning Eleven this year and it was fine, but the lack of licensed teams made it hard for me to get into it. Hmm . . . I should throw FIFA into my GameFly queue. Unless someone has a better recommendation for console football (soccer). Actually, the most fun I've had on this run of consoles was Sega Soccer Slam for the GameCube. It was 3 on 3 and didn't have much to do with reality, but it was a lot of fun.

posted by yerfatma at 07:00 AM on December 12, 2003

but the frustrating control system makes this game fade far too quickly So what is the "appropriate" level of ease/difficulty of controller use? Can you elaborate for me?

posted by smithers at 09:09 AM on December 12, 2003

Almost any computer game should be easy to pick up and play, and I'm not just talking about sports games here. It should take a maximum of an hour, two at the very most to get to grips with the controls. The key here is 10 minutes to learn, but a lifetime to master. I'd love to see if there's a correlation between how long it takes to pick up a game and its quality/fan-base (after you've picked up the controls, the game should have enough depth to make you play for many more hours). This has been true ever since Pong, and is still true today. The exceptions seem to be true simulations - flight simulators, FIFA, and various "real" driving games - personally, I don't enjoy these games very much - they take too much time to learn the controls, and rarely have enough depth beyond this to sustain my interest, but a few people love this sort of challenge.

posted by BigCalm at 10:49 AM on December 12, 2003

Almost any computer game should be easy to pick up and play Y'know, sports games would benefit from trying to ape platform/ action games' method of using the first few levels as a tutorial. Madden 2003 introduced the training camp, but that's more of a way to refine skills. I've stopped playing Madden because the controls are overwhleming and I have no hope of ever being good because I can't find a reliable playset on offense or defense and have no idea how to improvise beyond the simple things like stiff arm and hot routes.

posted by yerfatma at 11:50 AM on December 12, 2003

Hey, does Netflix rent out games? That would be a cool thing, no? I think I just gave away a great profit-making idea. I should sue myself.

posted by worldcup2002 at 01:18 PM on December 12, 2003

Back on topic: I'm with BigCalm and yerfatma. As much as I love the extra controls (who doesn't love the ability to lob, check, do a nutmeg, overhead kick, etc.), the steep learning curve (and continuing increase in the angle) due to complexity of controls just makes it intimidating to get started. I know it's targeted at boys and men who have a lot of time on their hands, but why not make the barrier to entry lower? Atari Soccer was mind-numbingly easy to get into (the joystick and single button basically made it so) but there were still several levels of expertise and enjoyment one could attain. I don't think simple is boring, and I don't think more doodads makes it more fun. Simplicity now!

posted by worldcup2002 at 01:30 PM on December 12, 2003

Playability is a major consideration whenever I purchase a game. The interface needs to be intuitive, accessible, but not overly simplistic. There needs to be 'basic' controls, over which more advanced technique can be applied: the slide tackle, the hand-brake turn, etc. If just collecting a puck, or dribbling a ball is difficult, the game is dead. All of this is irrelevant if one's hands are not accustomed to the controller, or any mutli-function control device. Operating a joystick (best word ever) at a high level is one of the most cerebral activities imaginable. We're talking combat aviator cerebral. and fatmama (that's what I say in my head when I read your screenname), I completely agree with your assessment of Madden. I love sports games in general (best game ever was SuperTennis on SuperNES: that reviewer is on crack), and I can't stand that game. Maybe its my ignorance of football's complexities, but complexities do not a good game make. wc2k2, BC, and fatmama, the learning curve is eased with the level settings. Just don't get macho with them right off the bat. Its just like player development: provide the right circumstances for success, and the rest will come naturally. and in closing, FIFA's latest edition is hands down the best 'simulation' sports game I've ever played. Ok, off to buy TH:Underground and GTA: yeah $50 from company party!

posted by garfield at 02:06 PM on December 12, 2003

Just don't get macho with them right off the bat. But the easy settings have funny names like "Sissy". I won't respect myself in the morning. Then again, I rarely do.

posted by yerfatma at 03:11 PM on December 12, 2003

Difficulty levels are not the point - especially in sports games with a large number of basic teams. Part of the reason is that what works at one difficulty setting doesn't work at another, the jump in FIFA from Semi-Pro to Pro is like learning an entirely new game. The other part of the reason is that you should be able to set your own difficulty levels - To start off with, you should try to win by being (say) Manchester United, and trying to beat (say) Lincoln City. It should take 1 or 2 goes to win this match, then the rest should be an upward curve, starting off trying to win lower league games and progressing upwards from there. By the way smithers, have you tried asking the other place?

posted by BigCalm at 06:50 PM on December 12, 2003

I've never hung out there before, so it never really came to mind. And I figure it wouldn't be of interest to them. And I figured that the most knowledgeable sports gamers would be right here. a word, no.

posted by smithers at 08:21 PM on December 12, 2003

Anyone have ideas on how the media consumption changes now that we have TiVo, fantasy leagues, sports videogames, etc.? I mean, you only have a finite number of leisure hours, right? I would say that I probably watch a little more sports TV than I used to, fantasy games have gone up and videogames have gone down. I realize that the average age of the videogamer is continually getting older, but I think I am just before that cusp of videogaming being a socially acceptable "adult" pastime. Of course, actual sports participation has suffered as well.

posted by smithers at 08:29 PM on December 12, 2003

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