Stop calling sports games casual. You couldnt be more wrong

Don't hate the game, hate the player

You don’t like sports games. Chances are, you only clicked on this feature to leave a scathing remark in the comments section. Go ahead, big fella: let it all out. Also, how dare I be so assumptive about what you do and don’t like, right? Better tell me that in your comment too. Well, statistically speaking, GamesRadar’s readers don’t click on articles about sports games. They (you) think sports games are casual; yearly slices of flim-flam designed to make money, entertain idiots, and fill the pockets of already over-paid professional sportsmen. Yeah, men--not many sports games featuring women out there (barring tennis and Olympic games, but that’s a separate editorial).

You’re right about the money-making thing. Like every game ever (yes, even those darling indies made by the most delicate of ‘creative minds’) sports games exist to make money. The more the better. Yearly? Yes, most sports games release every year. That’s a fact. And yes, they do entertain idiots too. I won’t sit here and deny that sports games find a substantial audience among the types of players who need the help of at least three ‘bros’ just to find the Xbox 360’s power button. However, to dismiss sports games as ‘casual’ is wrong. So, so wrong.

Ok, let’s look at the people who actually buy sports games. Diverse bunch. There are the ‘bros’ we alluded to above. They’re the stereotypes you have in your mind when you tell me that sports games are casual crap on our Facebook posts. Don’t deny it--we do read the comments, you know. These bros exist. They spend money on sports games because they love sports and they want to emulate their heroes. Some of them play 20 games a year, others just one (usually that sports game). Then there are the ‘regular’ gamers; people who love a bit of BioShock, or Skyrim, or Persona 4. They buy sports games too. I know them. I work with them. I am them. Thing is, they’re all happy with the game they get.

While some just want to press X to make a ball or other round object float into a net, others want to control every aspect of their on-screen player’s movement. They want to live their life, signing for different teams and micromanaging their own stats to suit personal play-styles. They demand insane simulation, while more passive players just want to mash buttons when they’re drunk. And, with a few exceptions, modern sports games deliver time after time.

They’re so sophisticated, you could spend years mastering them--just as you would a fighting game. It takes exquisite timing and a thorough understanding of the game to master even one character in Street Fighter 4. It’s exactly the same with single teams in FIFA or NBA 2K. Learning when to use certain players, and how to run plays and set-pieces is the same as employing certain combos and throws in SF4 or Virtua Fighter 5. Meanwhile, though, sports games are so simple, that even the most painfully naïve newbie can have fun playing along--just like a button-masher in a fighter.

See, sports games have grown to such a remarkable level of simulation now that even controls lists and option screens have actually become labyrinthine and intimidating. Let’s take NBA 2K14 as an example (because that’s the game I play the most, and--fact fans--I logged 150 hours on NBA 2K13 in the past year). You can adjust and tinker with every aspect of NBA 2K14. If you’re unhappy with the way the designers simulated steals, or foul tendencies, there’s a whole page full of sliders that allow you to assign values from 1-100 to perfectly tailor every aspect of the game.

Ok, your turn--tell me how many games that you happily lump into the ‘hardcore’ bracket allow you to adjust their rules with such microscopic precision? To mess freely with the simulation and AI without totally ruining the experience? You’re lucky if some ‘hardcore’ games even let you change your control scheme. Complexity, however, is only one facet of games that many consider to be hardcore. Often it’s the subject matter.

Personally, I can’t think of a more passionate and devoted crowd than sports fans. People who stick with a single team or player year after year, often with no greater attachment to them than ‘sort of living close by’ or ‘liking their beard’. Sports fans put other gaming enthusiasts to shame. So, you can name 50 Pokemon? Ok, I’ll be generous--you can name 75. Sports gamers can not only name the starting line-ups for every team in their chosen league (and many beyond), but they remember dates, stats, scores--they delve so deeply into their passion that it becomes part of their identity.

So God help any developer who drops the ball with a single stat or player name in a sports game. It’s amazing--given developers are under pressure to produce a new game every year--that more mistakes aren’t made. But, you see, the people who make sports games are not only passionate about making games, but they love sports too. They play their own game outside work, at lunchtimes, on the road. Games that elicit this kind of dedication are surely worthy of the ‘hardcore’ tag.

Let’s recap--because I think you nodded off there when I started talking about stats and teams. Sports games are among the most complex, yet easily accessible experiences on console. They’re amazingly accurate, yet fully customisable, simulations of unpredictable human events. And they are remade and refreshed every year (to greater or lesser extents). In my mind, there’s nothing ‘casual’ about sports games except the misguided manner by which they’re routinely dismissed every year.

Look, I doubt I’ve changed your mind about sports games. After all--there’s no point me telling you how wonderful NBA 2K14 is if you have no interest in the basic subject matter. I don’t understand Pokemon games, but I’d never accuse them of being ‘children’s toys’ because I’m sure there’s the heart of a complex RPG under all that cartoonish skin. All I’m asking is that you show sports games a little respect for the incredibly complex and accomplished gaming achievements that they so often are.

You know that kid at parties who talks too much? Drink in hand, way too enthusiastic, ponderously well-educated in topics no one in their right mind should know about? Loud? Well, that kid is occasionally us. GR Editorials is a semi-regular feature where we share our informed insights on the news at hand. Sharp, funny, and finger-on-the-pulse, it’s the information you need to know even when you don’t know you need it.


Andy has been writing about games since 1999, when he nagged the Editors of his University newspaper so much they let him start a brand-new video games section. After that he worked in print mags for over 10 years before switching to the murky world of online editing, when he became Executive Editor on GamesRadar. Now he uses his ill-gotten power and influence to write endless, beard-stroking think-pieces on Destiny and Game of Thrones. Spoil the latest episode of the show, and he will cut you.
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