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Box Score: My 2011 Sports Game of the Year

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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13 comments

  • InFeRnOg - December 30, 2011 6:34 p.m.

    Although you can't tell too much by a demo, NHL 12 really didn't floor me the same way NHL 11 did when the last one I played before that was NHL 09. NHL 12 just didn't seem to evolve enough to warrant a purchase. Am I wrong? Is it really THAT different from NHL 11 or was I right to wait for NHL 13 which is more likely to evolve the game to a substantially higher level than 11? Also, I have Madden 09 and was hoping to hop back into it at some point. Is 12 the way to go or should I wait for 13?
  • InFeRnOg - December 30, 2011 6:36 p.m.

    Or should I wait to see if another publisher gets NFL rights, which might be the best time to hop aboard again (the last football game I really loved was NFL 2K5). Also, FIFA 12 vs FIFA 10 - enough of a reason to upgrade?
  • robinkurosaki - December 30, 2011 7:39 a.m.

    they really should have an english person do this as there is clearly bias. mind you id say its actually a pointless article as there is just too much bias in it regardless of who reviewed it
  • avantguardian - December 29, 2011 2:45 p.m.

    ncaa football is my favorite game series, hands down. but this year, the game took a pretty huge step back. i've never felt a sports game feel so cheap and unbalanced. they retooled the physics, but somehow made them worse. last year's running game was ea's best imo, and they just blew it up. why is the option such garbage? the ridiculous pass defense of the linebackers (this is in madden too, i throw 12 incompletions, and the other team's middle linebacker has like 7 pass defelections...um...no...) makes the game far more frustrating than it used to be. messing with the bcs was great, but frankly, that shouldn't be a NEW feature. i can only hope next year's will be better.
  • Huhnerficker - December 29, 2011 2:25 p.m.

    No EA Prison Boxing? I think that EA putting out a M rated experience with a great story mode should have put this game on your list. If anyone is interested in 4thstring goto 4thstring.com. Our forums could use some love :)
  • SpadesSlick - December 29, 2011 2:11 p.m.

    Using Simmon's Book of Basketball to make a league... that's a hell of an idea. I think i'm going to try that as well. And I agree completely 2K12 was amazing.
  • lilbuddha - December 29, 2011 2:07 p.m.

    Not a huge sports game fan, but was at a friend's house and they were playing Madden. WHAT. THE. FUCK. The graphics engine looks exactly like the one from 5 years ago. Bland textures, low poly players, the crowds are 2-4 frame sprites...just all around awful. The 2k series was the highpoint of NFL games...sigh
  • Ryan Lewis - December 29, 2011 12:43 p.m.

    I think I'm probably going to have to agree with you on this one, Rich. My Game of the Year is NBA 2K12. I hated 10 and I was luke warm on 11. I don't even really get too stoked about pro basketball these days with no team to root for it Seattle. It's the Greatest Mode, the presentation and the gameplay. It's fantastic. I was blown away the first time I played it. It's infuriating that all sports games don't handle legends this way. There is so much detail and care that went into that mode. I heart the shit out of it. I'm insanely intrigued by "the All-NBA Legends league I’ve constructed based on Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball." Did you just do a season with those custom teams? Also, I remember seeing a huge list of different era teams, but I've only unlocked 6 or so by completing the first 3 challenges. Are the rest of them in the game, or do they need to be unlocked too? Just curious. Also, I think it's hilarious and true that Madden 12 is not even a contender. I spend about 75% of my time playing Madden, but it has very little to do with the actual game and way more to do with the 4th String community and the fact that football is my favorite sport.
  • godisanarc - December 29, 2011 1:26 p.m.

    Where can I join this 4th String community? I absolutely loath playing a lot of these games online. Rage quitting, cheating, and hate language is what kills all of these games. I mean I'm not even good at these games, but I'd at least like to play without being called every racist word in the book or being called a cheater when I'm up by 7 in a football game. Please let me know where to join, google did not help.
  • GamesRadarRichardGrisham - December 29, 2011 6:40 p.m.

    A few ways. Check out 4thString.com/leagues to sign up for the Madden leagues and visit the forums. Chances are you'll get in. Also, follow @4thSL and @4thStringCast on Twitter. You can quickly meet some good guys who play these games the right way. I wouldn't be playing multiplayer anymore if it weren't for them
  • BaraChat - December 29, 2011 10:41 a.m.

    It's a close contest between NBA 2K12 and NHL 12 for me, and NHL 12 is probably taking the cake by a hair (I've yet to try either online though). Great, great games.

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