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Stop calling sports games ‘casual’. You couldn’t be more wrong

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.

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15 comments

  • rxb - October 27, 2013 3:26 p.m.

    Great article Andy.
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  • MrPkhead - October 24, 2013 7:27 a.m.

    I've no interest in sports myself but I suspect it's haughty snobbery that would lead someone to dismiss proper sports games as casual. The last sports game I played was Speedball 2 (ice cream!), but I've just bought my girlfriend FIFA 14 as she's a long time fan of the series. Watching her fine-tune every little aspect of her Ultimate Team and seeing how this impacts on the performance leaves no room for the idea of the game as casual. That's not to say it (and I daresay many other sports games) hasn't set itself up as available to play casually, jumping straight into a match or what have you. Furthermore, I'm confident many people do play it casually. But that doesn't make it casual, that makes it flexible. Accessible, yet deep. I'm never going to want to play it because, as the article observed, the subject matter doesn't interest me. But I suspect gaming, as every corner of human society, has its share of snobs who don't consider sports games as hardcore enough broadly because they don't like a given sport, or sport in general. Also, I know for a fact there are people who look on accessibility as a negative. Dark Souls was great for its challenge of making you withstand / overlook punishment, but it's not a contradiction to say that a game can be great for not requiring that. I won't respond to speculation that I may suck at Dark Souls. * The (relatively) recent increase in knowing reference to gaming in other popular media ("Gag Theft Auto 5" in Mock The Week on BBC made me spill my tea) surely indicates a much broader enthusiasm for and awareness of games. As the lines have blurred between "gamers" and "non-gamers" it's of no surprise that games strive to appeal to broader, rather than different, audiences. The use of the term casual game as an insult has a faint air of hipster scumbag about it, but no one could, hand on heart, say that something like FIFA 14 is a "casual game" without also admitting that they equate "casual" with "games I don't like," or admitting that they have no knowledge of its intricacies. * - I do suck at Dark Souls. Speculation averted.
  • ombranox - October 23, 2013 11:16 a.m.

    They're no more casual than Calladoody.
  • taokaka - October 23, 2013 8:44 a.m.

    Well this is an interesting and well crafted argument on the whole but I'm still going to nitpick and argue with you any way. Firstly, the most devoted fans are not sports fans, sonic fans are by far the most devoted because it takes real devotion to stay with a franchise when 80% of the games released under its name aren't actually very good. Secondly, attacking the credibility of just how hardcore pokemon fans really are probably wasn't a wise idea, just earlier today I had a conversation with a friend that lasted over an hour about EV training and the teams we plan to make in pokemon x/y. During this conversation I was convinced to start all over again with the Sylveon I've been raising over the last couple of days and breed a new eevee to start all over again with. Thirdly, you say that due to the makers of sports games liking sports their games are created more passionately than other games are. I doubt developers like naughty dog are passionate about mass murder but they do seem passionate about telling a moving story. Also just about any creator has passion for his work but that doesn't mean his work is any good, just look at famed movie director Ed Wood for all the proof needed. Finally, I don't like that the sports games I've been forced into playing (mostly fifa) are built around authenticity over balance, strategy and fun. For example, if a fighting game had a character was found to have easily exploitable moves or just generally being lackluster in its arcade release the developers usually nerf/buff the characters for the sake of a fun in time for the console release but if say Brazil is a really good team in fifa 13 and south korea is a terrible team but the Brazilian team gets even better over the year then that even further distorts the balancing for fifa 14.
  • GR_AndyHartup - October 23, 2013 9:22 a.m.

    Some good points here, and they're all valid counter-arguments. For the record, I'm not attacking Pokemon fans - I'm holding them up as examples of players who are considered hardcore, because they put a lot of hours into Pokemon games and have loads of knowledge surrounding them. Plus, Pokemon is big at the moment, so it was a contemporary reference. And with your third point - not suggesting other devs are less passionate. I'm saying that sports game devs love their work, and strive for authenticity. They certainly don't make perfect games, and you're right, passion is no guarantee of quality, but they do make games that appeal to hardcore audiences.
  • Shinn - October 23, 2013 10:08 a.m.

    I feel like the comment you made about Pokemon doesn't sit well within your piece, it highlights how little knowledge you (and most regular people) seem to have about the games. It seems like you've dismissed Pokemon without knowing anything about it's depth, mechanics, or fanbase the same way sports games are often dismissed. So I suppose the point I want to make is that making a dismissive comment about Pokemon undermines the point of this article. I was going to post some examples of things Pokemon players would know (similar to the stats and rosters etc sports gamers would know), but I ended up writing 300 words just listing the basic facts that everyone who plays the games could tell you. Pokemon is every bit as sophisticated as any sports game, don't let the cute sprites and the kids show fool you!
  • MikeyWartooth - October 23, 2013 10:47 a.m.

    Your last point is right to a certain degree, but wrong on so many others. If you put someone who is good at FIFA against someone who is poor at fifa and give the good player SK and the bad player Brazil, I'd bet on South Korea. Yes the poor player probably wont lose by as many goals as he would've had the teams been switched, but it still comes down to their strategy and tactics. I've personally beaten 5* teams with teams of much lower skill levels due to the tactics played and playing to the strengths of the team you have, and against the weaknesses of the team you're against (a 3-5-2 formation for Wolverhampton Wanderers could take on most 5* teams in FIFA 13). It wouldn't be as fun if Brazil and SK were "balanced" because they're not. Every team would end up feeling the same instead of having their own individual nuances that makes the games fun. If Messi wasn't as agile as he was, football fans would complain, if Robben didn't have good long shots, fans would complain. Not to mention career mode would be ruined. Balance works in some games, but the challenge of giant killing is where the fun comes from with these uneven matchups, but to dismiss there's strategy is absolutely silly, yes a good team can help, but if you're bad, you're bad, a good team can't make you good, it can just be a bit of a help.
  • taokaka - October 23, 2013 4:14 p.m.

    On my second time of playing fifa I actually beat my experienced friend who was using South Korea with Brazil, although I'll admit that it was just a fluke like a button masher winning in a fighting game. But I do agree with you that Brazil and SK shouldn't be balanced because they aren't in real life but making them balanced would be the logical thing to do in any other genre. Also I didn't mean to say there was no strategy behind playing the game, only there's limited strategy around choosing your team. It seems like you'd either choose one of the best teams or your personal favourite team with no incentive to mix it up.
  • bebl09 - October 23, 2013 9:23 p.m.

    Sorry but your first point is immediately wrong. My team hasn't won a major trophy since 1969 and my country hasn't since 1966. I was born in 1990 so I haven't seen either win anything. Your comment about Sonic fans having to be devoted rings a bit hollow to me when compared to the crap a lot of sports fans have to put up with, especially as a lot of us don't get to choose which team we support.
  • pl4y4h - October 23, 2013 7:17 a.m.

    Most of the sports games i ever played were the "fake (arcade)" ones (Blitz the League II, NFL Street 2 - 3, etc). The last "real" sports game i played was Fifa 12 with my roommates and before that NFL 2002 (or maybe NBA Shootout 2004? It's been a while). Since I find sports regularly boring I could never jump on board with annualized "real" sports games
  • General Zax - October 23, 2013 7:17 a.m.

    While I do agree with the general statement made here, I feel I have to say one thing... Only 75 Pokemon? You freakin' kidding me? I'm not even much of a fan of the Pokemon series, and I can name way more than 75. I can probably name over 200. More, depending on how long you gave me. I imagine a true hardcore Pokemon fan (one to the extent in which you're claiming hardcore sports gamer are) would be able to not only list off every Pokemon but list them in chronological order with their type(s), stat ranges, level of usefulness, etc., not to mention their dedication in their focus on Effort Values. Kay, I'm done. Yes, I know I'm picky. :3
  • GR_AndyHartup - October 23, 2013 9:25 a.m.

    Over 200! Those are some impressive memory skills.
  • Bloodstorm - October 23, 2013 9:59 a.m.

    I feel I could do the same, and I've not played a Pokemon game since ruby; though that does give me well over 200 Pokemon to work with.
  • General Zax - October 23, 2013 12:11 p.m.

    The same thing with me. I haven't played Pokemon actively since Emerald. Dabbled in Diamond and Pearl, but I got bored quickly.

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