Opinion: Why Do Gamers Look Down On Sport Sims?

Sports game enthusiast Jamie Presland believes football, golf and even snooker simulators offer “escapism at its best” – but feels they are overlooked and under-valued by many in the gaming community. Here, he asks why.

As little as fifteen years ago, if you wanted to be a professional athlete you had to hit the gym, train in the pouring rain, and eat nothing but chicken and salad. Or play golf.

Thanks to the age of video gaming however, only those gullible fools who actually want to get up at 5am for a mid-winter run now have to.  For the rest of us, sporting glory is but a console away.

Sports sims are getting more impressive and sophisticated too. EAs’ latest offspring, FIFA ’12, has a good shout for being the best sports game of all-time.  But for all the sporting games on the market, there are very few which gaming enthusiasts would consider ‘must-haves’.

But why? Sports gaming is escapism at its best.  Anyone can run a red light, or any other of the more extreme contraventions of law available in the GTA series, but how many people can reasonably expect to score the winner at Wembley, or shoot an 11-under-par round at St Andrews?

I am a case in point.  As a sportsman of no discernable talent, I have nevertheless won football’s Champions League, tennis’s Wimbledon and golf’s Open, as well as World Championships in Formula One and Snooker, all through my trusty Xbox and from the comfort of my own sofa.

FIFA is the shining beacon to which all other sports games should aspire and indeed, the genre’s best output often comes off the conveyor belt of EA Sports.

The California-based company is responsible for the Tiger Woods PGA Tour series, including the brilliant 2010 version, and the Fight Night games, generally considered the best boxing experience available short of actually donning the gloves.  FIFA remains its most famous son, pulling in gamers worldwide.

Pro Evolution Soccer, the brainchild of Konami, went toe to toe with FIFA for many years.  Pro Evo 6 was one of the greatest football games in history, combining excellent gameplay with a traditional arcade layout.  Recent editions of PES have lost their way somewhat, and handed the accolade back to the FIFA series, though the games still retain the signature feel which made them so popular.

The majority of sports games are good, and some are genuinely great. The Topspin series remains the best available for tennis enthusiasts, while FI 2010 and 2011 from Codemasters have all the hallmarks of a future masterpiece.

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Despite being occasionally shortlisted however, no sports game has yet won a BAFTA Game of the Year award since they began in 2003.  Similarly, the Spike Video Game Awards consistently overlook sports games for the Game of the Year gong, and they aren’t generally considered to be important or influential by gamers as a whole.

So why do so many in the gaming community see sports games as a sub-standard genre?

Perhaps it’s down to the very nature of sport – the opportunity to get outside and exercise –  which goes against the basic sense of relaxation gaming provides for so many people.  After all, if you really want to play football you should put on your boots and head down to the park, rather than stick FIFA ’12 in your PS3.  If you want to play tennis, get to the local courts with your racket, not the living room with your Wii remote.  And if you want to race an F1 car round Silverstone… well, there are always exceptions.

And maybe this is why racing games do so well.  Gaming is about doing something on the console that you can’t do in real life, and putting pedal to the medal in an expensive supercar is definitely a preserve of the rich and famous, that the rest of us can only simulate.

The best games immerse us in their world.  GTA: San Andreas, the 2004 masterpiece, transported us from our living rooms to the gritty streets of Los Santos and Las Venturas, while 2011’s Skyrim brought the snowy, dragon-infested mountains of Tamriel’s northernmost region to urban apartments and leafy suburbs everywhere.

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To a certain extent, most sports games have yet to do this.  While you can play brilliant football in FIFA ’12, you can’t yet submerge yourself in the life of a footballer, with all the sports cars and drunken nights out that entails.  The ‘Be A Pro’ game function, introduced in 2009, remains the Achilles’ heel of the series, arguably bested by Pro Evo’s ‘Become a Legend’ version.

Controlling a team of players means that the gamer is somewhat disengaged from the action, all-too aware that they are playing a game. Individual sports games don’t have this problem however, and F1 2010 introduced the first-person view behind the scenes at a Grand Prix, really giving the gamer a sense of the glamour Hamilton and co. experience on a weekly basis.

Similarly, the sense of achievement when sealing glory in Tiger Woods PGA Tour and Topspin is all the more fulfilling when you have won the match/tournament/round (delete as applicable) single-handedly, controlling just one awkwardly-created avatar.

I still feel that sports games have an incredible potential in the industry.  Boys, girls, and even grown men still harbour ambitions to be professional athletes, but the sad fact is that the majority of these will never see their dream become a reality.  Sports gaming offers the closest thing to living that dream, and as gaming evolves and becomes even more realistic and immersive, sports games will surely come into their own.

Perhaps one day, FIFA’s latest offering will be considered not only the football game of the year, nor sports sim of the year, but the best overall video game of the year. Maybe then we’ll see a new age of sporting dominance in the world of video gaming.

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