Sports games are but low-tier fighters
There exists a stigma around sports games. While plenty are quality titles, much of the “core” gaming sect – or, at the very least, the vocal minority that stomps about the internet while yelling – has an inherently negative association of the genre. It’s not uncommon for sports titles to get lumped in with so called casual games.
Fighting games, on the other hand, are celebrated and revered by “gamers.” Street Fighter II and, later, Marvel vs. Capcom 2 were formative for many individuals. The mere whisper of these titles in a hushed breath evokes complicit nods as the trolley to memory lane rushes to board. But is there an unseen parallel here? Obviously, or I wouldn’t be writing about it.
Criticism of sports games is often shallow. The annualization of games like Madden, NCAA, FIFA, MLB: The Show, NHL, 2k and so forth is an easy target. Iterations of years past fill up shelves as worthless used titles where they will remain, barren, in testament to their expendability as people move onto the newest release. It’s understandable. Even fighting game fans are getting fed up with similar practices from Capcom, as newer versions of their recently released fighters come out, slightly repackaged and branded with a few extra empty superlatives.
The sports game genre also lost its flipside, as arcade style titles like NFL Blitz and NBA Jam slowly disappeared, being eschewed for a more true to life style, psuedosim style of play. Still, the people who lament the yearly release of the next FIFA most loudly aren’t people who would buy FIFA, even if it were markedly improved. It’s simply a lazy way to attack sports and the people who buy sports games. Incensed “gamers” are constantly scouring for sticks and unmolested space with which they can draw lines in the sand; they are not an inclusive lot. Sports games are mainstream, drawing associations with “dudebros” that play Madden and Call of Duty exclusively; and, let’s face it, those guys are probably mostly obnoxious.
I appreciate fighters, though I’ve never taken the time to get good enough at one more than was required to beat equally novice friends. To me, the genre will remain one of nostalgia, for the older titles; one of couch co-op and arcades; and one I currently pay occasional attention to with equal parts amusement and interest.
What I see in a good fighting game is a certain level of artisanship. Fans clamor for balance, but the key is measured imbalance. That controlled chaos pulsing through confined, defined mechanical systems affords flexibility and fosters creativity. It breeds improvisation rather than establish a set, objectively most efficient, clinical path towards victory. A good fighting game allows a player to express themselves through play, like a jazz improvisation. Now, that’s a grandiose ideal that will likely never be reached. Because of the inherent structure and limitations of game mechanics – the confines in which a player playing the game must work – a fighting gamer will never come close to being a Bruce Lee, but it’s a lovely ideal nonetheless. In this hopelessly idealistic way, I appreciate fighting games, and in a similar way to I appreciate real life sports.
Now, despite my love of sports, I do not share a similar love for sports fans. Because of how universal, ubiquitous, and relatively accessible sports are, it’s easy for people with wildly different personalities to enjoy them. Of course, that also means plenty of rotten apples. While sports can be unifying – even more locally than the rampant nationalism come World Cup or Olympic time – they are also inherently combative, for both participants and the ravenous (frequently drunk) fan base behind them. Fighting game culture is equally insular, with its own community that never fails to turn me off of the genre entirely; for starters, it’s a boys club filled with individuals who think sexual harassment is something to be expected and “part of the culture.” In its own way, the fighting game community is, ironically, full of jocks; perhaps more so than others because of the success of tournaments like EVO and the inherent barbarism of surrogate one on one physical conflict.
Aside from casual fanbase parallels, the similarity is in the base mechanics. Fighters and sports game both pit – typically – one human player against another human player in digital representation of physical conflict (in an immersive medium). The human participants then choose an individual or team that has its own unique skill sets or stats and attempt to beat the crap out of one another working within the parameters of the game mechanics.
It’s an admittedly pared down and simple similarity, but it’s key. The direct, player versus player competition is what separates the two genres from a lot of others (while RTSs can often be classed as the more involved, macro and strategic side of this coin). This is why EVO 2004 went nuts when Daigo Umehara parried each individual kick in Chun-Li’s super move in a come from behind win (there’s a common sports term for you) in Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike.
Sports games will always be low-tier fighting games – excuse the tongue in cheek dig at fighting gamers’ character hierarchy – though because they’re harder to make. It’s not easy making a game, including fighting games, let alone a good one, but there’s just so much more to consider in sports games. The modern sports game is a blend of simulation and arcade style gameplay that features innumerable variables coexisting at a single time.
There are dozens of different teams with different play styles filled with any permutation of thousands of different players (in addition to user-created players) that have different moves and different stats in and of themselves; and none of this is constant because players switch teams, whether in an effort to parallel reality (roster updates) or through the game allowing you to edit just about anything in the game, including a dizzying amount of sliders for even the tiniest minutia. Communities exist dedicated to find just the right combination of sliders to represent the actual sports more accurately than the game developers have done, to varying degrees of success. Achieving decent balance in sports games is a Sisyphean task; perfectly measured imbalance is downright unattainable.
The biggest obstacle, however, will always be AI, provided we don’t get some mad science fiction up in this reality any time soon. While fighters are generally one human controlled avatar going against another at any given time, sports games are based on real life sports, which are frequently team-based (certainly the most popular ones in the US, as well as the most popular one globally). AI is not people and AI is doomed to fail you eventually. Because of AI, people inevitably find one of the countless possible exploits, realistic or otherwise, that they can use. The developers have the unenviable task of mixing of playing catch up with miniscule tinkering and trying to do new things.
While EA’s NHL series, 2k Game’s 2k basketball series and Sony’s MLB: The Show series are all at their height and rather good titles, other sports series still struggle along. Even for the aforementioned that are, in recent years, handling themselves quite well, the obvious answers like longer development cycles are there, but unrealistic, because the current system makes the publishing companies money. Something like a two year development cycle with a downloadable, fairly priced roster updates in the interim is an ideal, but it’s not going to happen any time soon. At the very least, we can try to be glad those that have wandered too far from the right path admit their failures as awful games and cease cashing in, as EA’s NBA Live series, now in its third year of hiatus, did.
Despite the flippancy with which sports games are regarded and the reverence and “core” acceptance that fighters are granted, the two genres overlap in discernible ways. The prominence of sports games grew inversely with the fighting genres’ decline (prior to the recent years’ resurgence) as gaming proliferated the mainstream, making sports titles a prime candidate for attack (plenty of which is valid) allowing the genre to be ostracized with yet another arbitrarily drawn line in the sand. Still, there are plenty of great sports games – even for non-fans – and the genre isn’t all too dissimilar from one of the medium’s most beloved since the halcyon days of the arcade.