Box Score: My 2011 Sports Game of the Year

Crowning the king of a fiercely competitive contest

Box Score is a weekly column that offers a look at sports games and the athletic side of the industry from the perspective of veteran reviewer and sports fan Richard Grisham.

Choosing Box Score’s Sports Game of the Year is, in many ways, a thankless task. Today’s sports sims are many things to many people, and the experience I have with them is often far different than yours. The vast majority of time I spend in EA’s pro and college football games is the online franchise, but I know many people never head there. I can’t get enough of NBA 2K12’s Greatest Mode, yet hundreds of thousands of hoops fans concentrate solely on online games. No longer is there a singular, defining path; we each make up our own narrative. And that’s fantastic.

What’s more, by all accounts, 2011 was a very good year for sports games. Several major releases were gems, and none were total clunkers. No one emerged unscathed, though. Even the best titles this season had issues, from clunky online problems to exploitable glitches. The more realistic our sports games get, the easier it is to recognize when things break down.

Problems aside, if you play sports games like I do, chances are you had a blast this year. Thanks to the fantastic network of people in the 4th String community, I never play against anyone who cheats, glitches, or otherwise acts like a jerk. Even when I’m getting crushed (which happens often), I’m able to enjoy the game for what it should be. That’s one of the reasons choosing my 2011 Sports GOTY was so difficult. But it’s a job that had to be done.

To qualify for consideration, following criteria needed to be met:

  1. It had to be a full-price retail game at launch. In this context, it’s unfair to compare a $10 or $15 game to a $60 one.
  2. It had to appear on a console. No, I don’t hate PC games, but that’s where I play the overwhelming amount of sports simulations.
  3. I had to love it.

Simple! With that, the titles that made the cut as Official Nominees are: MLB 11 The Show, Top Spin 4, FIFA 12, Tiger Woods 12, NCAA Football 12, NBA 2K12, and NHL 12. That’s quite a lengthy list, for sure, but goes to show how many really excellent games I had the pleasure of playing this year. There could have been others – Jonah Lomu’s Rugby Challenge and Madden 12 come to mind – but at the end of the day, only the cream of the crop was nominated.

First-round Knockouts

Top Spin 4 – It’s been a long time since I really loved a tennis game, but Top Spin grabbed me. Between the brilliant and deep career mode, simple-to-learn yet tough-to-master controls, and variety of venues, there’s a lot to love – even if you’re not a huge tennis fan. Which, admittedly, I’m not. Why didn’t it win? A larger variety of current and former players would have been great, and I never fully grasped the swing timing.

Tiger Woods 12 – Adding the Masters to an aging annual franchise was a masterstroke for EA Sports. I was shocked how much I enjoyed touring the virtual grounds of Augusta, attempting to match historical shots, and shadowing Tiger’s past greatness. A moderately updated Career mode was another plus. Why didn’t it win? Take away the Masters, and you’d be hard-pressed to justify a $60 upgrade. I also disliked that some in-career courses needed to be purchased with real money.

FIFA 12 – EA’s world-conquering juggernaut had its best outing yet. It’s amazing how EA has overtaken the Pro Evolution series as the dominant console footballer; these kinds of turnarounds rarely happen. Why didn’t it win? It’s unfair to nitpick little items like a befuddling menu system or lack of good training modes, but that’s all I’ve got. FIFA 12 is great.

MLB 11 The Show – No sports game looks better, and there are hundreds of subtleties The Show nails just right. I could spend weeks playing through a season and have vastly different experiences each game… if I could just learn to hit. Why didn’t it win? A brutal learning curve – even on the easiest settings – makes The Show tough to play with my friends, and the lackluster online continues to haunt the franchise.

Semifinalists

NCAA Football 12 – For a time this summer, I was obsessed with redrawing the college football landscape. Even though I’m much less of a BCS detractor than most, there’s no denying that a restructuring is in order. I created multiple versions of conferences, spent dozens of hours playing and simulating games, and sat fascinated at the results. None of this would have happened had the action on the field not been spectacular.

Why didn’t it win? A few game-breaking bugs cast a pall over my 4th String Online Dynasty, then eventually killed it off. Offline, it still rocks.

NHL 12 – No current sports game matches the intensity of a good NHL 12 match online. I’ve played dozens of games against good friends and the combination of amazing visuals and sound, unpredictability, and the ability to drop the gloves and punch someone in the face is awesome. With so much great content, NHL 12 nearly won.

Why didn’t it win? I thought I would love the Legends feature, but its implementation fell flat with me.

2011 Sports Game of the Year

NBA 2K12 – I’ve never enjoyed a single-player sports experience as much as The Greatest mode, and it’s not even close. I’ve played through it twice, on two systems, and might do it again. What’s more, the All-NBA Legends league I’ve constructed based on Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball will dominate my life until at least springtime. Just like NCAA football, none of this fantasy fulfillment would be worth my time if the on-court gameplay wasn’t so good. Playing smart – taking open jumpers off of screens, exploitation of matchups in the post and the perimeter, being smart with timeouts and the clock, and executing set plays – gives you a chance to win. Running up and down the court like a fool may be easy, but you’ll lose badly. NBA 2K12 oozes personality like no other sports game. You can tell how much work went into researching player mannerisms in different eras.

“Firstly, all of us at Visual Concepts and 2K Sports would like to say a huge thank-you to the fans,” said Erick Boenisch, NBA 2K12’s producer, when told of the award. “Their love of the game inspires us to try harder and be better every year. We’re all basketball nuts here, and knowing that the fans out there are crazy about our game makes it all worthwhile. Also, none of this would be possible without the immense support we receive from our families.”

Why could it have lost? No game is perfect. A heartbreakingly clunky online experience at launch caused an uproar in the community, and some have accused 2K Sports of being slow to react and update.

In conclusion
Despite a raft of concerns – lack of competition for many games and the upcoming upheaval that next-gen systems will cause, to name a couple – there’s no reason to believe 2012 won’t be even better. The launch of the Vita, new blood being pumped into key development teams, and ever-connected communities put the guys that make our sports games in position to deliver excellence.

Happy Holidays!

Richard Grisham has been obesessed with sports and video games since childhood, when he'd routinely create and track MicroLeague Baseball seasons on paper. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and four-year old son, who he'll soon be training to be an NFL placekicker. As a freelance journalist and writer, his work has appeared in GamesRadar, NGamer, and 1UP.

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